Photos and Report: Casting for Shad in the Nation’s Capital

Hickory shad put up a great fight against a 5-weight fly rod.
All photos by Rob Snowhite

The 2014 shad run got off to a late start due to a cold winter with continuous cold runoff. It snowed here in the middle of April! Once the water at the fall line of the river reached the upper 50 degrees the shad, river herring, striped bass, and white perch began to appear. As the water reached the 60s, the snakeheads showed themselves in the upper tidal area of the Potomac, near the fall line, just below the historic Chain Bridge. A cold rainstorm raised the water and dropped the temperature which slowed down the action. Those days give us time to replenish our stock of shad flies. The river bottom here is unforgiving.

I guided two clients on the morning of Easter Sunday. We fished 5-weight rods rigged with sinking tip lines, short leaders, and tandem rigs. The husband-and-wife duo were into shad all morning long, almost from the first cast. The color of choice was chartreuse. The shad took Greg’s shad fly, my 1/32-ounce shad jigs, and tri-color shad puffs. All patterns thrown had my damselfly nymph as the dropper, which was the constant hot fly. Don’t ask me why a shad would attack a damsel nymph out of aggression. They just do, and I’m more than thrilled that they do.

The snakeheads weren’t feeding on the surface yet, but they were around.

At one point, Emily had a double hook up of two hickory shad, which was a total blast on a 5-weight. The combination of a fast strip and rod twitch would bring the shad up from the depths. A slower retrieve would allow the flies to sink to the bottom, where the white perch roam with insatiable appetites. I watched from above on a fallen tree, as I gave instruction. I could see the silvery flash of large shad coming up from the depths to swat at the flies going past–a total adrenaline rush with constant shouts of “Set the hook!” on my end. It would have been a legendary day if we had landed every fish that chased a fly and took a bite. It is hard to keep count of every fish landed or lost. That is just how it goes during the shad run.

Greg was representing the Tidal Potomac Fly Rodders  with his hat. The lid definitely brought him some good river karma, as his rod was constantly bent for several hours. We had hoped for some stripers or American shad, but it was just about all hickories.These are ocean-going fish that swim against tides and currents, which makes them very strong. Their forked tales give them some extra speed. These fish will break 8-pound-test tippet and bend hooks. We weighed a small hickory shad at almost two pounds. There are very few occasions to hook this many big fish this often in a morning. The shad run, combined with the other fish that enter the river for the spring run, is a gift from nature that most in the DC Metro area don’t know about.

Greg holds a typical Potomac River hickory shad, one of many caught on the day.

Thousands of commuters pass over this bridge every spring with no idea of the migration of fish and birds below. We glance up at these drivers while they honk their horns, and we are reminded how peaceful it is down on the water.

Be sure to listen to TPFR president Dan Davala and Tom Rosenbauer discuss shad fishing on the Potomac in this Orvis podcast. For my Fly-Fishing Consultant Podcast on shad, click here.

Rob Snowhite claims to be the only full-time fly-fishing guide in the DC Metro area. Check out his website, Fly-Fishing Consultant.

Emily demonstrates the reverse-shad hold.

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