Photos: The First Shad of the Season on the Potomac

Written by: Rob Snowhite,


Mike’s first hickory shad, identifiable by the underbite.

photo by Rob Snowhite

Yesterday was the first shad of the season. Even though Washington DC had a warmer-than-average winter, the Potomac River was not warm enough until the past few days for the shad to arrive and start to spawn. I had been out several times over the past few weeks and gotten skunked. It wasn’t until the water reached the low 50s on Friday that the fish metabolism was warm enough to get them on the move and ready to spawn. The anglers from boats have been getting shad for the past week. However, I fish from shore, and the shad did not turn on until yesterday.

My client, Mike, met me in the lot, and he told me that Trent at the Bethesda Orvis store had set him up with the outfit: a 9-foot 8-weight outfit, a sinking-tip line, some tippet, and a box of shad flies.We hiked down into the Potomac Gorge, a spot that makes you feel you’re a long way from a major metropolitan area. The wildlife around Chain Bridge is surprisingly bountiful, featuring cormorants, vultures, kingfishers, mallards, and ospreys overhead. We rigged up his rod and Mike was into fish within a few minutes. The river herring (blueback herring and alewives) were schooling at our feet. The Potomac is currently low and clear with a green hue. Absolutely beautiful.


Short, bright flies and some strong leader will get the job done.

photo by Rob Snowhite

The first fish to strike was a beautiful hickory shad. The fish took my variation of the Orvis Living Damsel (my go to fly just about anywhere). These fish are not feeding; they are striking flies out of aggression. They are spawning and think our flies are small fish going after their eggs or interrupting their spawn.

It wasn’t long until Mike was into his second fish. The second fish took a shad jig of pink estaz and gold flash. This fish was a gizzard shad. Luckily it tossed the fly at his feet, as I despise having to touch these fish or get anywhere near them, on account of they stink.

Mike lost a few more fish before getting another hickory shad. The schools of river herring at our feet were absolutely beautiful. Dozens at a time would swirl by and go over the light colored rocks.


These are just the first of a mass of anadromous shad that should be biting soon.

photo by Rob Snowhite

I had hoped he would get into some American shad to complete the shad grand slam. None were biting. We called it a day around 4 p.m. after two hours of fishing. We’ll be back in a couple of days. With warm weather approaching, the fish will be in the mood and ready to strike anything that gets in their way, and by anything, I mean our flies.

I expect the American shad, white perch, and schoolie stripers to start biting in a few days. And of course the northern snakeheads will congregate in the upper tidal section. They will lazily glide in the eddies at your feet. Its truly an awesome site.

For those anglers north of the Potomac, your run should be starting any day. As for flies, go with the damsel. If not, make it anything that is 1-inch long, bright, and has a short tail. Fish deep and fish the seams.

Rob Snowhite is a fly-fishing consultant and guide based in Washington, D.C.


This potential Darwin Award winner stripped to his skivvies and waded out to a midstream rock, something that is both illegal and dangerous. A body was pulled from the river just last week.

photo by Rob Snowhite

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *