Shootin' for Shad

High water and hard-pulling fish are the hallmarks of the Delaware River run

Outdoor Life Online Editor

A 100-year old maple tree dangled from a run-down railroad trestle. "The water was really high last week," Dave, my fishing partner, astutely noticed. Thirty feet below, a chocolate river churned. My first attempt at shad fishing on the legendary Delaware River already looked to be a bust and we hadn't even left Dave's car. The water level had dropped, but I couldn't imagine any fish would be able to see a lure through the brown velvet folding around blow-downs and submerged rocks.

"The good thing is, we're not trying to get the shad to see the lure," Dave said. "We want it to bump them in the head and aggravate them." Game on.

Many writers have considered shad worthy of poetic verse. Not I. They don't eat well and they're not much to look at. What does make an early spring trip to a Northeastern river worthwhile is the chance to tussle with a shad on ultralight tackle.

Fishing for shad is a scaled-down version of chasing salmon on the run in Alaska. Using a short, flimsy rod, cast a small shad dart and let it drift with the current, hoping to get it within striking distance of an agitated fish. For a moment a strike feels as if the lure is stuck to a tree on the obstacle course of bottom structure, but then the fish explodes, yanking the line like it was trying to start a lawn mower.

With the river so muddy, I couldn't see the first couple of fish that broke off. On my third try I finally got one to shore, still full of energy. The 3-pounder wasn't a trophy by any stretch, but I admired its effort. I quickly returned it to the river to find a spawning bed and start a new family of prizefighters.