Time for some mutant herring

By: J.D. Richey Journal Outdoors Columnist
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Thanks to all this late-season rain we’ve had lately, we’re looking at having — for the first time in several years — a really good shad run on the American River. In case you’re a newbie to this sport, American shad are basically big, mutant members of the herring family that live in the ocean for most of their lives and then come up the Valley’s rivers to spawn in the spring. They typically run 2-4 pounds, with some larger 5 and 6 pounders mixed in occasionally for good measure. On light tackle, these visitors from the briny depths of the Pacific put up a considerable scrap. They’re kind of like the fishy version of Jack Russell terriers — not huge in stature but tenacious little buggers that battle to the bitter end. While not considered much of a food fish on the West Coast, American shad are a delicacy on the Eastern Seaboard — in fact their scientific name, Alosa sapidissima, means “most savory” in Latin. Exactly why they really haven’t caught on as table fare out here is anybody’s guess, but when you ask somebody about eating shad you’ll get the same response: “they’re too bony.” Being that they’re related to herring, I’m sure there is some merit to the bony theory but I guess I’m just going to have to break down and give one a try someday. I have heard from some folks that they are good smoked but I also contend that you could, with the right brine, smoke up an old tennis shoe and probably make it taste OK. But I digress. We’re here to discuss the sporting qualities of the American shad and, more importantly, how to catch ‘em. So let me start with this: All you’ll need to get involved with the fun spring pastime is a 7-foot spinning rod and a quality reel spooled up with 4- or 6-pound test line. Throw in a handful of 1/32-ounce lead heads, some pink and chartreuse 1.5-inch curly tailed grubs and some splitshot and you’re in business. To rig up, tie a pink, bright red or white jig head to the end of your line, slip a grub tail onto the collar and add a splitshot 20 inches up the line. That’s it! Shad are not fans of rapidly moving water, so you’ll need to target them below rapids, falls or dams. Additionally, they like slow flats that are 6 to 12 feet deep. Looks for areas that feature current that’s flowing at the speed of a leisurely walk. On the American River, some of the better spots include the flats below Gristmill, the Log Hole, the top of the Arden Rapids, Rossmoor Bar, the Upper Sunrise Flat, Sailor Bar and the Nimbus Basin. Shad will bite all day long, but there definitely seems to be a spike in the mornings and again in the late evenings, so if you want to really hit prime time, try to fish during one of the low light periods of the day. As far as catching shad goes, you’re going to want to cast straight out and allow the current to swing your jig in a downstream arc. If you end up tapping the bottom, go lighter with your weight. Ideally, you want to be within a couple feet of the bottom but not right on it. Shad hang pretty low in the water column, but will rise up a few feet to grab a passing morsel. As your lure swings downstream, follow your line with the rod tip and give it an occasional pop to add a little extra attraction. At the end of the swing, the lure will be in a position immediately downstream of you. As long as the jig’s not sitting directly on the bottom, allow it to hang in the current for a few seconds before you crank up and cast again. Bites often come just at the end of the swing and then when the lure’s dangling straight below you. Speaking of bites, shad sometimes smack a grub with reckless abandon (there’s no mistaking the grab) but they can also be a bit finicky and barely slurp it. Be on the look out for anything different as the lure drifts and give a sharp hookset if you feel something — even a slight pause or light “tick.” That’s the in-a-nutshell, crash course on shad fishing. If you need any more pointers, I’ve got quite a few shad fishing articles that go into greater depth on my online magazine,