It’s time to get serious about American shad.
These feisty fish are a great choice for shaking the summer doldrums, being readily available along more than 150 miles of the lower Columbia and Snake rivers. Almost anyone can catch a shad if they know where to go and have the right gear.
American shad is a sea-going member of the herring family. The fish enter the Columbia River in large numbers beginning in May with peak numbers occurring at McNary Dam from late June to early July.
Shad are easily identified by their silvery sides and a row of dark spots, a greenish-blue back and sharp scales, or scutes, along the belly.
Arriving in the Columbia
American shad were introduced from the East Coast to the Sacramento River in 1871, where they quickly spread up the Pacific Coast to the Columbia River, southern Alaska and eventually to Siberia.
Celilo Falls was originally a barrier to shad migration. However, following construction of The Dalles Dam in 1957, shad were afforded easy access to upriver spawning and rearing locations.
During the 1960s and 1970s, an average of a half-million shad entered the Columbia River. Their numbers ratcheted up to more than five million in 2004. This year’s run should approach the 10-year average of about 2.5 million fish.
Female, or roe, shad are larger than males. Maximum size in the Columbia River is reportedly 24 inches and 8 pounds, although most are 18 to 20 inches and about 3 pounds.
Migrating shad typically follow defined bottom contours or current seams. They are sensitive to light and generally stay within a few feet of the bottom.
Tips for catching shad
Catching shad can be as easy as anchoring your boat downstream of McNary Dam in 10 to 20 feet of water and dropping a lure over the side.
My favorite shad rig is a two-tone silver and gold No. 2 Dick Nite spoon tied to 4 feet of 10-pound test leader behind a Magnum Wiggle-Wart. The Mag Wart dives to effectively place the small spoon 10 to 15 feet below the surface and provides a fluttering action attractive to migrating shad.
Another easy set-up consists of a three-way swivel connected directly to the main line. Use a 2-foot-long dropper with a 1- or 2-ounce weight and attach your shad jig or spoon with 4 feet of leader. This rig can be fished from a rod holder or cast toward the shoreline and slowly worked along the bottom until a sharp tap is felt, signifying the strike of a shad. A downrigger also can be used to get your lure close to the bottom.
Shad have a relatively soft mouth that tears easily, so don’t reef on the rod when you have a strike. Make a quick hook set, maintain a tight line and hold on for non-stop action.
Because shad are a schooling species, leave your lure in place if you miss a strike. If action slows, you might pull up the anchor and move to a new location, or troll slowly back and forth until you encounter a school.
A traditional drift rig can be fished from the shoreline, where the bottom is smooth, although swift current may limit the depth of your presentation. Most any small spoon, spinner or jig that wobbles or flutters in the current seems to do the trick.
Red, white, silver and chartreuse are all good colors, but exactly which color you should use can change on a given day.
For a change of pace, bring out a 7-weight fly rod with sink tip line to swing a weighted jig or fly. This method works best where fast currents push shad close to shore, such as the south riprap shoreline downstream of McNary and Ice Harbor dams.
Opportunity for anglers
Though the species name of American shad, sapidissma, translates to “most delicious” and shad have no catch limit, most local anglers practice catch-and-release.
Regardless, shad fishing is an enjoyable sport where techniques should be shared and locations revealed. Their abundant numbers provide an opportunity for anglers of all ages to catch a fish, and that’s really what it’s all about.
-- Dennis Dauble is a retired fishery scientist, author and an adjunct professor at Washington State University Tri-Cities. He can be contacted at www.DennisDauble.com.