Spring Runs: The Shad Scene - The Fisherman

Spring Runs: The Shad Scene

Steve Reigles, maker of Steve’s UV Leaves, with a beautiful American shad caught on the Connecticut River.

One thing is certain in shad runs along the East Coast, shad bring people together.

I’ll always remember the text, it was a group text to around 10 people, none of the numbers were known contacts in my phone.  The message contained a photo and one sentence that read: “first of the year”.  The photo was of a hand, holding an American shad.  It was late April and without even knowing who was texting me, I knew the run was on. And even though not one of those numbers was known to me, I knew I’d see each one of them soon on the river.

Connecticut – no minimum size – 5 fish bag limit

Massachusetts – no minimum size – 3 fish bag limit

The first time I tried shad fishing, I went in without any firsthand information; no idea about where to go or how, exactly, to catch one. After a trip to a shop to buy some tackle and gain some intel, I landed at a well-known Connecticut shad spot and observed the scene.  There were people posted up on their tailgates chatting, others lined the bank.  Some were spread out but in other areas they stood just a few feet apart, casting in rhythm.  I set up a respectful distance away from the crowd and started casting; I immediately snagged and broke off my rig.  I retied and cast again, snagged again within seconds.  During the next retie I observed the anglers around me.  They’d quarter a cast downstream and slowly retrieve as their lures swung with the current.  While trying to replicate this presentation, I hung up and broke off nearly a half-dozen more times.

Out of tackle and a bit dejected, I clambered up the bank and back to my vehicle.  I was loading my gear when a guy parked nearby asked how I’d done.  I started to answer but was completely thrown off when I noticed his hat, which sported a life-sized trout with the head above the brim and the tail protruding from the rear.  After refocusing I told him about my luck. When I told him that I had been using shad darts, he informed me that my lures were too heavy. He called me over to his tailgate and popped opened a couple boxes and dropped a few drail weights and willow leafs into my hand. And upon my return to the river I was drifting and swinging with the rest of the lineup. I didn’t hook up on that second trip, but I continued to pick up tips from other anglers until I started catching fish.

Seasoned casters known how to work in rotation so that everyone can fish, tangle-free. Photo courtesy of Steve’s UV Leaves.

Camaraderie On The River

As a general demographic, anglers are mostly a secretive bunch.  While there may be some secrets left in the shad scene, there aren’t many and that’s part of the fun of it.  The most popular spots are well known. Depending on where you fish, there are a handful of lures, flies and rigs that the majority of anglers are fishing. Areas with swifter currents will favor darts and more of a bouncing presentation.  The spots that I frequent favor willow leafs drifted through slower currents and deeper water. The fact that nearly everyone in a spot will be using the same lure leads to ingenuity and creativity in an effort to stand out to the fish.

We can debate about the importance of color all day long, but there is no denying the fact that ‘hot leafs’ are ‘a thing’. One day bright pink is crushing them and then it’s chartreuse the next! And that doesn’t even touch upon hammered versus smooth or gold versus chrome plating! Hot colors make their way down the line like a game of fishing “telephone”.  The beauty of the scene is that if you don’t have the “leaf of the day” chances are you can score one from one of the guys who make their own.  A couple of bucks and you’ll be back in business.

There’s no shortage of friendly competition on the banks, nearby anglers are quick to let each other know how well they are doing.  Calling out hookups is a common practice and all in good fun as is some mild-natured ribbing about hot hands and cold ones. Other anglers quietly pick away at fish but in the midst of the crowd, it’s hard to hide success.  All in all, it’s good news if anyone is catching.  As waves of fish come through, it means your chances of connecting with a shad increase too.

The author with a solid shad taken on a willow leaf.

A Diverse Community

Angling pressure can make a big difference in some kinds of fishing, but the very nature of the way the shad run the rivers tends to minimize the effects of angling presence, as new waves of fish make their way upstream or downstream. For this reason, no matter how many anglers are present, there always seems to be enough room on the bank for one more. While this isn’t to say that common courtesy and respect don’t need to be exercised, the overall sense is that all are welcome.  This sense of community fosters a willingness to lend a hand or a leaf or a long-handled net. This also means that anglers new to the scene are schooled on how to fish in the rotation without hanging up. When tangles do occur, they are usually sorted out without incident.

Some anglers are there to enjoy the scene and practice catch and release while others come with a stated goal of filling a cooler with their limit.  Oftentimes, other anglers will pitch in and help them get that limit.  Another upside to fishing in a crowd is the diversity of backgrounds of the people – especially for those who want to eat the fish.  I’ve learned myriad ways to prepare shad and roe (or the fish’s egg sacs) on the river bank.  While smoking the fish is the most popular, I’ve heard of pan-fried recipes, broiling and poaching.  I’ve also learned of some Asian methods of preparation as well as a variety of West Indies styles of cooking including jerk shad.  Without spending time in such a diverse group, I could never have known how far a shad recipe could go.

Local makers often sell their colorful wares from the trunks of their cars making it easy to obtain the hot color of the day when you don’t have it.

Characters In The Scene

Stephen Reigles, owner of “Steve’s UV Leaves” is a resident of western Massachusetts and has been shad fishing for nearly two decades.  Reigles is an avid angler and is familiar with the shad scene around Holyoke and along the East Coast. The very first thing he told me about the shad runs he frequents though sounded all too familiar.  He immediately mentioned the camaraderie.  Most of the popular spots draw lots of interest and Reigels pointed to the many friends he’s made over the years while fishing for shad.  In fact, his obsession with shad has brought him to new places to fish for them including Delaware, Pennsylvania and all the way to South Carolina, one thing remains the same, shad bring people together.

Back in Holyoke, Reigles explained that much like in the popular areas in Connecticut, crowds are common and educating new anglers serves to benefit everyone sharing limited space.  In many spots shad are reachable from both sides of the bank.  This means the rotation must work not just up and down the line but also with those fishing across the river.  Reigles has fished many spots in Connecticut, he noted that, in comparison to Massachusetts shad spots, things can sometimes get a little tenser for our neighbors up north due to tighter quarters.  Ultimately though, getting everyone on the same page means fewer tangles and more fish caught.  “There’s nothing better than seeing a newbie show up with the wrong stuff and to be able to help them out and catch their first shad,” Reigles told me. “Shad are a working man’s fish,” he continued, “a blue-collar fish”.  He went on to outline how shad can be caught without a boat or fancy tackle.  As long as you have some simple gear and a sense of how to use it anyone can get in on the fun. If you’d like to check out Steve’s UV Leaves please visit www.stevesuvleaves.com.

Shad have been bringing people together for as long as people have inhabited areas adjacent to their seasonal migration routes.  And while the fishing is the main draw, the people who are part of this annual event can be as much of the fun as the fish themselves.  In fact, I think some anglers may prefer the scene to the fishing itself.  Many anglers will pull up, take a rod out and never make a cast before heading home. I have made connections and friendships through shad fishing that just wouldn’t be possible in many other types of angling that I do.  There are some folks who I see, year after year on the banks of the shad spots that I won’t see anywhere else.

There are a few character types amongst the anglers who return to the scene each spring.  The anglers in the unnamed group text I’m somehow a part of seem to make up the camp who want to be the first to catch a shad each season.  The “first to do it” crowd enjoy a friendly competition that drives some anglers to cast into water they damn well know is void of shad, simply in the hopes of scoring the bragging rights of the first fish of the season. There are also the historians who have been fishing the shad runs for decades and they’re quick to pass along anecdotes from the past to anyone who will listen. Most of the old timers will tell you the runs were better in the past and the fish were bigger, yet they show up each spring to share the bank and their knowledge just the same. Amongst some of the characters and social gadflies of the shad scene are the quiet types.  These anglers might not have a whole lot to say but if you keep an eye on them you’d notice they are often catching more than anyone else.

As shad are migratory visitors to our local waters, the fleeting window to target them makes the time they are present that much more special.  Combine that brief period with the warming temperatures and the coming of spring and you have a real occasion to celebrate each year.  As the run winds down fewer fish are caught and fewer anglers decorate the bank.  Casual acquaintances and good friends alike share what might be their last casts together.  That is, until the shad return next year.

Some anglers come with the goal of filling a limit for the table.



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