I pulled off North Bridge Street (Route 116) and found a spot to park amongst a long line of cars and trucks. My gear was pretty much already set, and I had even donned my waders back at home to speed up the process of making my first cast. I hurriedly grabbed my rod and a small pack of jigs and sinkers, and briskly walked down the rock path that ran below Route 116. As expected, I was not alone on this fine May morning and it took some time to secure my spot. I still had an orange and chartreuse jig attached to my line from the previous day’s outing, and I quickly tossed it out in the current. I let it sink for a moment, flipped my bail and within moments of the line coming taught my rod bent almost in half as a small buck did its best to rid itself of my jig. On and on this process repeated itself for several hours as I racked up an impressive score of American shad. Spring had sprung and I was a happy angler!
If you have never fished for American shad here in New England, then you are sorely missing out. Often referred to as the “poor man’s tarpon,” they are respected as one of the hardest-fighting gamefish by many, and for good reason. While a good-sized fish scales out at just 4 to 5 pounds (The World Record weighed an impressive 11 pounds, 4 ounces and was landed in Holyoke, MA on 5/19/1986.) they will test your tackle like no other regardless of size. The roe of the females supposedly makes excellent table fare when lightly fried in butter—I have yet to try it—and I have also been told they are quite good when smoked. It is quite common to see angler after angler taking home a few for the dinner table when the run is in full swing, so there must be something to these allegations.
The primary rivers here in New England that host a run of American shad each spring are the Connecticut and Merrimack. While fish may branch off into tributaries of these two rivers, and historically there were runs in other smaller tidal rivers across the region, these are your best bets when hunting shad today. Do not make the mistake of confusing the American shad with the hickory shad; while similar in some ways they are two distinctly different species and I often see anglers mistaking one for the other.
The run usually gets started sometime in April each year, and depending on water temperatures and river flow may last into late June or even July on occasion, but your best shot at scoring some shad is in the month of May with the latter part of the month my favorite. And for me, there is no better place to target them than below the Holyoke Dam in Western Massachusetts. While there are spots along the river on both the Holyoke and South Hadley sides of the river for the first 3/4-mile of river down from the dam, Slim Shad Point gets a lot of the attention and for good reason. There is a fish lift on the Holyoke side of the dam that is run by Holyoke Gas & Electric and the main channel feeding this lift runs right along the Holyoke side of the river. Fish may also access the lift if they miss the main channel as there is a secondary lift positioned below the skirt of the dam, which attracts the remaining fish. When (not if) you make your way to this area to fish, I highly recommend setting aside some time to visit the Robert E. Barrett Fishway. For the 2017 season, the lift is open to the public May 3 through June 11, Wednesday through Sunday (Also, open Memorial Day, May 29), from 9 am to 5 pm. I have spent many, many hours walking the fishway, observing fish in the counting tank and just enjoying the ingenuity of the lift and power generating system on display.
Okay, back to Slim Shad Point. As noted before, this spot is located right along the main funneling point of which American shad traveling upstream to spawn must pass. Essentially any open spot along this shoreline produces fish, but every angler has his or her preferred casting perch. I have a few of my own, but I’ll have to keep those exact rocks to myself today. If you see me along the banks of the river this spring, don’t hesitate to ask and I’ll point you in the right direction.