Anglers tend to mark the beginning of another fishing season in different ways.
Some say the fall fishing on our barrier island beaches doesn’t really kick into high gear until after the first “mullet blow” on the coast. Others say the first full moon in June prompts bluegills to begin congregating on their spawning beds and it’s time then to procure a box of crickets and head to the nearest creek or farm pond.
For me, the sure sign that spring fishing is getting underway is when I hear my neighbor’s lawn mower crank up. That’s a signal that I should hook my boat behind my truck, load it with fishing gear and drive by his house with a big grin on my face.
In these parts another tip that it’s time to get the rods and reels limbered up is when the Bradford Pear trees begin blooming. That means that shad are starting their annual migration up the rivers that wind across the state’s coastal plain.
Anadromous fish, they spend most of their life in salt water but make their way up creeks and rivers each spring, looking to spawn in the same waterways where they originated.
There are two species of shad – hickory and American (white). The hickory shad is the smaller of the two, averaging around a pound and half, and only occasionally going more than two pounds. The American shad grows substantially larger, averaging about 3 pounds and sometimes double that. The state record American shad, which weighed 7 pounds 15 ounces, was pulled from the Tar River in 1974. The heftiest hickory shad was caught in Pitchkettle Creek, a tributary of the Neuse in February 2004. It weighed 4 pounds 1 ounce.
While the American shad is more common, by a large margin, in the Cape Fear and Roanoke rivers, the hickory shad is more prevalent in the Neuse watershed.
Biologists say the dynamics of the different spawning areas is what causes the geographical differences. American shad need faster water to keep their eggs moving and facilitate fertilization. For that reason, they tend to return to streams with greater flow. Hickory shad, on the other hand, prefer rivers and creeks with slower moving water and more flooded swampland.
Whichever species they seek, fishermen who heed the signs and head out in search of shad in the spring are participating in a ritual that pre-dates the coming of their ancestors to these shores. In the words of colonist George Henry, penned in 1794:
“When the shad-fish come up the rivers, the Indians run a dam of stones across the stream, where its depth will admit it, not in a straight line, but in two parts, verging towards each other in an angle … By this contrivance they sometimes catch above a thousand shad and other fish in half a day.” The remnants of such “fish dams” can be seen in the upper reaches of the Neuse and some other streams for those who know where to look.
A century later, the shad still made their way upstream each year and were still caught by the thousands. Only, instead of Native Americans, the fishermen were fourth and fifth-generation settlers tending bow nets and seines. Low, sleek “shad boats,” their gunwales nearly awash with their silvery cargo, labored downriver to Washington, N.C. and some other coastal towns where the fish were salted, packed in barrels and shipped north.
Today, the commercial fishery for shad in North Carolina is relatively insignificant – a victim of overfishing, pollution and damming. Sport fishing for shad is still very much alive, however, and is more popular than ever. The difference is that a hook-and- line fisherman doesn’t have to bring hundreds of pounds to shore in order to be successful. A limit or just a small “mess” of the sporty, tasty fish is usually more than enough to satisfy both his predatory instincts and his appetite.
The introduction of spinning tackle to this country after World War II helped popularize sport fishing for shad because, for the first time, the small lures so effective for the fish could be handled easily by the average angler. Bait casting equipment had been too bulky to be practical for most fishermen and fly rods were seen by many as something for the elite. Tar Heels discovered the new tackle technology and hook-and- line fishing for shad almost simultaneously.
Regardless of where they’re caught, spinning technique for shad is pretty uniform. Small, brightly-colored jigs and shiny spoons are fished individually or in tandem on light tackle. Lures are cast across the current, allowed to swing downstream and worked back slowly with little or no extra action. Shad of both species tend to hang in deep channels adjacent to swifter current and, if there is a “secret” method, it’s to work lures so they stay near the bottom. There’s an old saying among shad fishermen that goes, “If you aren’t losing lures, you aren’t going to catch any fish.”
Once a shad it on, the real fun begins. Pound-for- pound there is probably no other freshwater fish that fights as hard. That, coupled with a propensity for jumping, has prompted some people to call it a “tiny tarpon.” A landing net is a good thing to have at hand when shad fishing.
Like golfers in Bermuda shorts and robins on the front lawn, shad in the rivers are a sign that spring is right around the corner. Savvy anglers know it’s a good way to kick off another fishing season.
Ed Wall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-671- 3207. His web site is www.edwalloutdoors.com