Anglers are known for looking forward to their next great seasonal escapade. During the pleasant spring they look forward to summer. During the brutally hot summer they look forward to fall. In the fall they look forward to the holidays and for a recurring event that renews all types of emotions and expectations of a traditional seasonal fishery. When winter officially arrives in North Florida, so do American shad.
American shad spawn in Florida’s St. Johns River, traveling thousands of miles to reach their final destination. They are feisty fighters and the largest member of the herring family. Scientists identify them as anadromous, meaning that they live and grow in the ocean and then swim upstream to spawn in freshwater.
American shad spawn in Florida’s St. Johns River, traveling thousands of miles to reach their final destination. They are feisty fighters and the largest member of the herring family.
One of few rivers in the United States that flows north, the St. Johns River is the largest in Florida. Before returning to freshwater in the St. Johns River, shad have lived in the ocean for a few years and will weigh in the neighborhood of three pounds. In northern states, shad survive spawning and reach weights of six pounds. Unfortunately, Florida shad die after spawning, but not before they provide local anglers a unique fishing opportunity.
The shad migration delivers countless fish to an area known as Shad Alley, where their presence provides anxious fishermen a short-lived change of pace from their typical angling adventures. Captain Tom Van Horn, an avid shad angler, defines Shad Alley as the area of the St. Johns River from the east end of Lake Monroe to the south side of Puzzle Lake. The area begins to populate with spawning shad around mid-December and they remain in good numbers through mid-March.
There are tales on the river that these fish do not feed during the spawn, but most anglers find that hard to believe as they experience the aggressive strikes and impressive aerial displays of good-sized river shad. Based on results from a local shad tournament, fish range from small to 20 inches in length.
The unique fishing opportunity presented by the American shad migration attracts anglers from many fishing venues using various platforms including powerboats, kayaks, canoes, airboats and waders—all come to Shad Alley to enjoy the annual tradition.
Flip and Diane Pallot are avid and longtime chasers of American shad. Their preferred approach is from shore, using an airboat to access prime habitats. “We are bank fisherfolk,” says Flip, “airboating to spots where we can cast from the bank.”
Those casts are made mostly with fly rods and years of experience. One telling observation comes at the cleaning table, another from time on the water. According to Flip, “When shad come into the river they eat shrimp and minnows. Diane and I keep a good number of them and inspect the stomach contents of every fish we keep.”
Years of experience have also revealed the influence of water level on spawning fish. “In high water years the shad don’t go very far up river, but in the wonderful low water years they go all the way to the dam at Lake Washington,” added Pallot.
Flip and Diane’s technique has evolved to using floating lines and matching the hatch. “We long ago quit using sinking lines, like most do, and instead use floating lines and minnow imitations.”
This approach, he points out, also catches bluegill, specs and bass while shad fishing. In addition to a fun day on the water, they enjoy the fruits of their labor at the dinner table. “We run the grilled fillets, bones and all, through the food processor and make fish spread.”
Given the size of the fish, sporting anglers prefer very light gear for shad fishing. It is very much a personal preference, but ultra-light spinning tackle or lightweight fly rods are all that’s needed to land the biggest spawning fish. The light rods increase the challenge and the pleasure of fighting frisky shad. The whippy action and hair-thin line used on ultra-light equipment allow anglers to effectively cast the tiny artificials that shad seem to prefer. Lures like the 1/16 and 1/32 oz. Blakemore Road Runner are readily available and popular in Shad Alley. Bright orange and pink are chosen to attract the shad and encourage a strike. Anglers using ultra-light tackle should take time to set the drag properly before each outing and use the rod to play the fish until landed. Keep the tip high and use the parabolic action of the rod to wear down the shad.
Captain Mike Badarack is a saltwater fishing guide and had an eye opening experience fishing for shad. “As a saltwater fishing guide I thought fishing began and ended with tarpon on fly, pulling a big snook out of the mangroves, or sight fishing sharks on shallow grass flats.”
After Badarack’s first trip to the St. Johns and an introduction to shad fishing he went home and immediately ordered two 5 weight fly outfits. “Those shad really put it on me with a 7 weight, so I can only imagine how intense the fight would be on a 5 weight. I am ready to find out.”
“My best advice,” says Captain Chris Myers, “is to keep moving until you find fish. If you keep looking you will generally find a bunch in one location.” One way to find them is to blind cast a Road Runner on a spinning rod while moving from spot to spot. Once a couple fish are caught, put down the spinner and use the fly rod for additional action.
Captain Van Horn suggests beginners might try trolling. “Trolling is probably the easiest way to get started, and anyone can do it.” His personal preference is to use tandem Road Runners with willow blades on a trolling rig. If you have a trolling motor, vary the speed from .8 to 1.2 mph until you discover a productive speed. If you use an outboard, troll at the slowest speed you can. This is a good way to locate a concentration of fish, then stop and catch them by casting.
Shad fishing is winter fishing and the northern stretches of Florida can get cold, so anglers should dress appropriately. A strategy of layered clothing is best, where outer layers can be removed as the air temperature rises.
For those that choose to give this American tradition a try, be ready to experience more than the fishing. Captain Badarack describes it like this. “As we headed down the river I was amazed by the raw beauty and wild look of the river. Wow, I thought to myself. Look what I’ve been missing! The place was absolutely magnificent. There were birds, cow pastures, alligators, miles of lush grasses and cabbage palms. I really couldn’t believe that I’ve lived here my entire life and never experienced the St. Johns River. I was floored by how hard the shad fought and the aerial displays were icing on the cake.”
Rules and Regulations
Since you will be fishing for shad along freshwater environments you’ll need the appropriate freshwater license. However, since shad are classified as saltwater species you’ll also need the appropriate saltwater fishing license. If you plan on harvesting fish you should know there’s a 10 aggregate per day limit of American, Alabama and hickory shad.