The Miracle of Shad - The Fisherman

The Miracle of Shad

The Miracle Of Shad 1
Shad made their seasonal run up the Delaware for centuries, with the next few months being prime time for light tackle action.

Credited with sustaining Washington’s troops along the Schuylkill River at Valley Forge, the American shad has some amazing history.

For centuries, the American shad has been a constant spring visitor to the Delaware River for its annual spawning cycle. We are fortunate to enjoy the annual American shad ritual in progress every spring, and the past four years have produced a surge in the population; in my opinion, the upward trend will continue.

The spring of 2016 was also a time when larger than usual numbers were in the river to spawn, meaning another banner spawn, and plenty of juvenile shad departing in September to mature in the ocean, returning after three years of maturing at sea.

When the large schools of shad arrive, it signals the beginning of the best sportfishing in the east, which coincides with the opening of local trout fishing, not to mention a run of striped bass, bluefish and weakfish along the coast. While not usually sought for food since their body contains endless seams of tiny bones, these silvery Delaware River fighters offer great sport on light tackle. Some anglers do keep them for their roe, but the majority are caught and released.

Since the 1980s I have been presenting educational seminars about American shad, how to locate, fish for and catch this spring visitor. At every seminar I’m often asked, “where do these big silvery shad come from, are they stocked?” Looking at the life cycle of the American shad, there are good reasons why this species chooses the Delaware River every year; and spending enough time each year in pursuit of this fish, I learn a bit more every time I go!

Tag Returns

Many early springs ago, I was fishing for shad at a location in New Jersey where I could fish from shore and was fishing alone. It was late April, the weather was ideal, the water conditions were just right and I was catching a lot of 5-pounders. As I maneuvered another big shad to my net, I noticed a long plastic streamer attached near the dorsal fin. As the shad thrashed about the net, at my feet, the streamer came loose. I retrieved the streamer and put it in my shirt pocket and carefully released the exhausted female shad. A short time later, I hooked another shad with a streamer, but the shad was lightly hooked and got away.

I pulled the streamer from my pocket, and holding in my hand saw that it clearly stated, “BIOLOGICAL STATION ST ANDREWS NB CANADA.” A week later while fishing just upriver, I noted a school of shad in clear, shallow water and was surprised to see a large number bore the same yellow steamer tags. Now I was on a mission to find out where this shad came from and began the search. I was able to locate the origin of the tag and made contact with the Canadians, who were conducting experiments to determine where the shad went once they departed the Canadian waters of the Bay of Fundy. They tagged fish every fall, using a different color each year.

The shad I caught made several spawning runs. On its first run it was caught in the Cape Fear River, NC. The angler released the shad with tag, but did notify the Canadian station. Amazingly, this shad spawned and then returned to Bay of Fundy, where it was again caught in the nets, refitted with a new tag and released. On its next journey to spawn, it entered the Delaware River and was caught by me. The Canadians told me the shad always return to their river of birth, but could not say if this was actually the case with this particular shad.

Once American shad leave the protective waters of Bay of Fundy, they travel in large schools, closely following the coastline until they reach their target river; in our case it’s the Delaware River. They can begin entering the river as early as mid-March, and from the time they depart Canadian waters to their arrival in lower Delaware River, they do not feed, instead just living off their body fat. They will find their destination spawning waters, and after they spawn, their mission is accomplished, the exhausted shad perish.

Shad Cycle

Only the male and females that spawn will perish; the surplus males remain, hoping more females arrive; nature is often cruel however, as there are never enough females to mate with the males. The male shad are physically stronger, and eventually begin to feed on insects and plant life that develops as the waters warm. Eventually their visit draws to a close, and by late August through September, the shad travel downriver into Delaware Bay and begin their long journey back to the Bay of Fundy. If they survive, they return the following spring.


James Buonanno, Jr. of Harry’s Outdoors in Robbinsville ties his own personal flies for Delaware River herring and shad, but says the shop is geared up for the spring run this month. Photo by James Buonanno, Jr. 
 The Miracle Of Shad FLY TIE 1

 The Miracle Of Shad FLY TIE 2

 The Miracle Of Shad FLY TIE 3

The year after I retrieved the streamer tag, I received a call from Yeshiva University in New York City asking if I would lend my services working with one of their biologists conducting shad studies on the Delaware River. I agreed, and soon met the Yeshiva person, a young lady named Kathy, who took the train to Port Jervis, NY. We gathered her luggage and headed to the location close by where I could catch shad from the shore.

As I began catching shad, Kathy took a series of blood samples, then skin and scale samples. She also removed several internal organs to complete the testing. She spoke of genetic implants that develop once a shad is spawned. As the shad matures so does the implant, and the implant would serve as a compass to return the shad to its river of birth. Kathy further stated her belief that shad actually return to the same pool where they were hatched, an opinion shared by many other researchers and fishermen.

The Miracle Of Shad Shad Dart
By boat or by bank, the shad dart remains one of the most effective lures for fooling shad on light tackle outfits along the Delaware River.

Once the water temperature in the Delaware passes 55 degrees, it signals the shad to spawn as the eggs are in the process of maturing. Several days after the eggs are laid, shad begin to appear. This is a critical time for tiny shad since they are a tasty food for trout and smallmouth bass. By late summer, the juvenile shad will be about 3-plus inches and eager to leave the Delaware for their northern trip to the Bay of Fundy. Once they arrive in Canada, they mature into shad averaging 4 to 7 pounds, returning to the Delaware after three years to repeat the spawning cycle.

It’s truly an amazing feat of Mother Nature when you wonder if any of the juvenile shad will ever return. Just think, a 3-inch shad entering the Atlantic Ocean faced with the task of a long swim to reach the safety of Bay of Fundy. How do they know the way, or have the stamina to reach the Bay of Fundy? How do they evade the hungry stripers, blues and weakfish hot on their tails, or the dangers of being caught in commercial nets when returning to the Delaware?

It truly is a miracle that has been happening for centuries; it has been said that dried shad was credited with saving General Washington’s troops from starvation while camped along the Schuylkill River at Valley Forge during the battle for American independence.

And may the shad continue to thrive for centuries to come.


Shad enter the river and begin moving upstream in the March to April timeframe, and by May will be well dispersed from Lambertville, NJ all the way upstream to the Milford, PA region. Remember that your Pennsylvania or New Jersey freshwater fishing license entitles you to fish either shoreline.

To gear up, check out local inland tackle and outdoor shops for a supply of shad darts and shad spoons along with the latest information the shad run. You can also call the Shad Hotline, 24 hours a day, for fishing remarks and water conditions at 610-954-0577 or 0578. – John Punola

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