Shad Fishing in the Chesapeake


Picture this. It’s April and it feels like the warm weather is here to stay. Fish are starting to return from the warmer winter waters down south, though fish like striped bass are off limits until May in some states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. What is the best way to wet a line, bend a rod, and get some steady action? The answer is shad! Species including hickory shad and American shad travel up the many tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay to spawn, offering incredible catch-and-release action to anglers looking for some excitement. Shad are anadromous fish, meaning they spend the majority of their lives in the ocean, but migrate to freshwater to spawn when the water temperature reaches 55-68°F and water levels rise from spring rain and snow melt.

My first time shad fishing was an incredible experience. We motored up the Potomac River to Fletcher’s Cove, passing numerous boats along the way, and saw a bank full of anglers. It made me nervous having to fish with so many people already pressuring the fish. It did not matter in the slightest. We found a spot with an eddy to drop anchor, but still had access to the downstream flow of the river. After setting up my rig consisting of a shad dart with a small spoon below it, I cast into the current at a 45-degree angle, gave it some slack to let the dart sink, then let the rig swing in the current until it was straight ahead of me on the other side of the flow. No bite this time, so I slowly reeled in and started over. After a half-dozen casts I started to lose faith in the colors I was fishing, when I felt a tap. It was too slight to set the hook on the fish, but it was a sign of life. With my next cast, I let a little more slack go into the bow of the line, sinking the dart lower in the water, and as it swung in the current… BAM! A shad absolutely crushed my lure. The fish shook back and forth wildly and my flexible rod bounced up and down as I brought it up to the boat. The skunk was off and I figured out the pattern on that day.

Shad fishing does not take much fancy equipment, but often requires a bit of trial and error to figure out what the fish will hit. A long flexible rod that is at least 7-feet long with medium-light to medium action will handle just about everything. The bite can be subtle, so having a sensitive tip is very helpful. You will not need heavy line to catch shad; I recommend 10-pound test braid so you can cast farther, with a barrel swivel, which connects to 4 feet of 12-pound test fluorocarbon leader and helps prevent line twist.

Hickory Shad, Dough Austen photo

The lure setup you use is highly dependent on the conditions of the water you are fishing. The most ubiquitous lure to use for shad is the shad dart. This simple jig never goes out of style and every bait and tackle shop in the Chesapeake sells them in all manner of colors and sizes – you will need an assortment of both. If the water you are fishing is shallow, go with something light, like a 1/16-, 1/32-, or even 1/64-ounce. If it is deeper, like the deep channels of the Potomac River from Great Falls and downstream, you can use darts as heavy as 1/4-ounce or more. Color is another factor to determine while fishing; some days the shad prefer a yellow or green, other days it could be pink or orange. My favorite way to find out is to fish two different colors and switch when you find out which color gets more strikes. This works especially well if you have multiple anglers in your group.

Shad dart, Peter Turcik photo

It is possible to avoid needing to do so much experimentation with a simple in-line spinner, small casting spoon, or even a blade bait. Fishing these lures that throw a lot of flash or vibration will annoy the shad and tempt them to attack the little pest. This only happens during spawning, as the normal diet for shad species is plankton. Generally speaking, you want to use the smallest version of these lures that you can still cast a long distance, about 1/4-ounce. Cast as far as you can and retrieve the lure slowly and steadily. This is a great technique if you do not have a boat and are casting from shore. Also, the bite will not be subtle; the shad will absolutely crush your lure when it hits.

Shad caught on a fly, photo by Peter Turcik photo

My go-to setup uses a shad dart in the middle of the leader tied with a loop knot and a small spoon at the end of the leader. While most use two darts – and that is also effective – this offers multiple looks for the fish, and after swinging through the current, I can still get strikes as I reel in the spoon slowly. When you fish this setup or a pair of shad darts, cast across the current, usually at a 45-degree angle, let is sink, and then allow the line to tighten as it swings with the current. Shad like to hang out on the seams of the current, where they can sit in slower water and use less energy. This retrieve will swim the jig and lure up through the water column and if there are shad there, they will eventually bite. If they do not, you might need to change spots, but more than likely it is easier to be patient and wait for a pulse of fish to come through.

Double header, Doug Austen photo

Are shad running near you? If you live near any tidal river, the chances are very good. Some of the better-known waters for shad are the James River, the Rappahannock River, the Choptank River, the Nanticoke River, the Patapsco River, and the Patuxent River. Fletcher’s Cove is one of my favorite spots. It offers great picnic areas and rowboat rentals through reservation. Many anglers rent a boat and bring their own motor and anchor. Look for local fishing reports, especially online, because as soon as the shad are running, someone will report it and you will want to get out as soon as you can and grab a spot—they will fill up fast.

Shad species are protected and are catch-and-release only, but they are a tremendous amount of fun. Go experience this unique regional fishery while the shad runs last!

Read more about shad, their history in the Chesapeake Bay and their protected status.

Bill Burton Fishing Pier State Park

Bill Burton Fishing Pier State Park is open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. The piers are lighted and quite popular because of the variety of fish that can be caught including perch, striped bass, croakers, sea trout, and catfish.

Fort Smallwood Park

Fort Smallwood Park became the newest regional park in the Anne Arundel County Park System, located on the Patapsco River, the park offers experiences for fisherman, boaters, swimmers, birdwatchers, and admirers of local scenery.

James River State Park

The park offers more than 1,500 acres of rolling farm meadows and three miles of river frontage. The park offers opportunities to see wildlife and explore habitat native to the foothills of the Blue Ridge.

Patuxent River Park Jug Bay Natural Area

Jug Bay Natural Area offers many activities including walking through wetlands, guided boat tours, hiking and horseback riding over eight miles of trails, boating, fishing, camping, hunting, and visiting a museum.

Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge

Established in 1996 to conserve fish and wildlife habitat along this vital tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, the refuge focuses primarily on protecting and managing tidal and inland wetlands, and adjacent uplands, to benefit wildlife.

Peter Turcik

Peter is the managing editor for the American Fisheries Society's magazine, Fisheries, and a contributor to FishTalk Magazine. He has a writing, editing, and photography background that includes work for the Chesapeake Conservancy, Trib Total Media, the National Geographic Society, and the National Park Service. Peter is an avid and passionate kayak and light tackle angler.

March 4, 2022

Main image: Hickory shad, Ryan Hagerty, USFWS photo
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