Each year, one of the most prolific yet little known runs of anadramous fish occurs during the winter months in east-central Florida as American shad migrate from the sea to spawn near the headwaters of the St. Johns River. After a 4 to 5 year absence, the fish are instinctively returning to their natal waters to produce a new generation. Florida has the southernmost migration, but there are other runs of American Shad in many rivers along the Atlantic Seaboard. Tags indicate the fish travel from as far away as Canada’s Bay of Fundy.
The American, or white, shad is the largest of the herrings. In Florida, they average 2-3 pounds, and 5-pounders are caught with regularity. In rivers to the north, the average size is somewhat larger, mostly because some of the northern fish are repeat spawners. Those in the St. Johns die after reproducing – probably the result of making such an exhaustively long trip, but also because the warm southern river drains the fish of the energy necessary for a return to the Atlantic.
Shad begin to enter the river mouth at Jacksonville sometime in December when seasonal temperatures begin to cool the water. Male shad, or “bucks”, are the first to arrive, followed shortly thereafter by the larger female “roe” shad. Once the fish enter the river, they wind their way a distance of more than 200 miles to the uppermost reaches south, or upstream, of Lake Monroe where 80 percent of the river’s fall occurs and currents are the strongest. There, females release their eggs freely in the moving water while males swim alongside and disperse milt. The strong flow of water facilitates the fertilization process by mixing eggs and milt together and it prevents the eggs from settling in the bottom silt where they are likely to perish. The height of spawning activity occurs in January, February, and March when water temperatures hover in the mid-60’s, but a very small number of shad may still be alive well into April.
The shad’s preference for a location with a strong current should be the foremost consideration in selecting a productive fishing spot. Places with the swiftest flow include the main channel, the edges of steep banks, deep holes, the outside bank of sharp turns, and drop-offs. On occasion, the fish will even move into tributaries if the current is substantial enough. Among the locations with the best opportunities to flyfish for shad are those in the vicinity of Mullet Lake, Lemon Bluff, Highway 50, Lake Harney, Hatbill Park, and Puzzle Lake.
Shad are filter-feeders who nourish themselves by opening their mouth with gills flared to strain food, mostly plankton, from the water as they swim. However, studies by biologists indicate that shad, like many other anadramous fish, stop feeding once they enter the freshwater environs of their home river. Some skeptical anglers doubt that scientific research because they have witnessed shad pursuing minnows (a rather common occurrence) in spawning locations and mistake that behavior for feeding when, instead, the shad probably regard the smaller fish as egg-eating predators and are chasing them from the breeding area.
Despite the fact that they don’t feed in freshwater, shad can be enticed to strike small flies if they are presented effectively. Flashy patterns tied on size 6 hooks and weighted with a set of bead-chain or extra-small dumbbell eyes are standard for the St. Johns River. The presentation needs to be made at either a 90 degree angle to the current or, preferably, just slightly downstream. To allow the fly sufficient time to sink, dead-drift it with an occasional mend until it is quartering down-current. Then simply strip the fly slow enough to feel it occasionally bump the bottom. That being said, there are occasions when shad inexplicably prefer a faster retrieve with the fly closer to the surface – so it pays to experiment a little to find the most successful technique at any particular time.
I normally opt to use 6-weight tackle for American shad, but going a weight lower or higher is just as effective. The river’s water level largely determines which fly line density is appropriate. When the water level is high and currents are strong, a full-sinking line may be the best choice. On the other hand, a floating line is ideal when the water is low and in situations where the fish are near the surface. A sink-tip line is a good all-around choice as it will handle the widest variety of conditions. A tapered leader approximately 8’ long is a good match with any line density and a tippet size of 0X or larger will assure a good turnover with the weighted flies.
Like other anadramous fish that must withstand the rigors of a lengthy migration to reproduce, American shad are extremely strong and determined fighters that don’t come easily to the net. When hooked, they become flashing, silvery missiles that repeatedly launch themselves from the water. These characteristics, as well as the fish’s willingness to strike flies, have made them an increasingly favorite target among flyfishers in Florida where redfish, snook, tarpon, bonefish, spotted seatrout, and largemouth bass also vie for status as the most popular gamefish.
For more from Sage Ambassador Jon Cave, please visit www.jonbcaveflyfishing.com