Glad for Shad
Story by Tom Pagliaroli
Sort of quoting Horace Greely here: “Go west, young man and young woman, on Route 195 to Route 29, to the Delaware River to catch American shad!”
Middle age and senior anglers are exhorted too, as this Atlantic Ocean-to Delaware Bay-to Delaware River migrant, which resembles a miniature tarpon, is an equal opportunity abuser of darts and flutter spoons. The oftentimes subtle strike belies the through-the-air acrobatics and dogged subsurface runs. Indeed, this is the prime quarry for the ultra-light and light tackle aficionado, and fly fishing for them, especially on a 5-weight or 6-weight outfit will make your body hairs salute.
Historically, the American shad played a vital role in the birth of this nation. Not only did it feed the Colonial Army and those living up and down the Delaware, but the fishery proved a vital piston in the region’s accelerating economic engine.
Tens of thousands, and more, of this toothless traveler, are on their annual spawning run up the mighty Delaware, and while they do not feed (no eating when loving), they’ll swipe at the aforementioned lures, and also spinners and weighted flies that pass in front of their noses…much like we would swat and smash a pesky mosquito or greenhead.
Figure the bucks (males) to weigh 1.5 to 3-pounds, with the roes (females) coming in at 4 to 7-pounds, sometimes heavier. The existing state record is a Jurassic Park-like 11 lb. 1 oz. behemoth caught by one Charlie Mower back in ’84.
While many of the shad die after spawning, a fair percentage survive the rigors of travel and mating and return to the ocean and will revisit the following year. Mower’s monster is proof that even a third upriver run is possible.
This is shaping to be another migration of the ages if early catches in the lower section of the river around Burlington and Florence are an indication. While ideal water temps for shad aggressiveness is 54-60, they’ve been being caught in surroundings as gelid as the high thirties to low forties. From this corner, that means a mother lode is on the way, with Mother Lode II bringing up the rear, and the fishing will soon reach a free-for-all scenario, especially as this weekend’s warm weather and subsequent spike in water temperature accelerates the run close to redline.
This will mark the fourth straight year of a run that will be labeled “epic”, and from this weekend through the last week in May, shad will be caught from Trenton north through the Delaware Water Gap. It’s basically a 5 to 7-week season that can provide mind-boggling fishing if a variety of factors align. These include water flow and clarity, weather (shad prefer cloudy days), school movement, flutter spoon and dart color and size selection and, of utmost importance, location, location, location. Shad will seek the deeper channels and courses on their way up-current. There’s safety in the depths, so if in a boat set up in the channel or in the deeper sections, and if wading, get within casting distance of the deepest water.
During the next three weeks, expect solid shots at shad from Trenton through Belvidere. The daily limit is three. Shad roe (“Delaware Caviar”) is delicious. The meat? An acquired taste, for sure. Some relish it. Some can take it or leave it (like us, unless it’s been roasted plank style or smoked). And many have no use for it. As such, keep a female and/or a buck or two if you are adept at the fine art of roe or smoke cookery, otherwise, let ‘em go.
Guide Service: Don’t have a boat or don’t want to trailer it to the Delaware? Don’t want to do the wading and casting thing? Then hook up with Rusty Balls Guide Service (484-239-4723). Owner/operator Rusty Held has 30-plus years experience fishing the Big D in the Phillipsburg stretch of the river and will put you on the manic migrants pronto.
Shad Seining: Want to witness the work of the last, and longest lasting, commercial shad fishery on the Delaware? Then head to Lambertville and get a spot along the bank on the sliver of land known as Lewis Island at the end of Lambertville Lane where the Lewis Fishery, started in 1888 and now under the direction ogreat-grandsonon Steve Meserve, will be running its haul seine net starting at 6 p.m. daily through May. Shad that are caught will be offered for sale, so bring an ice-packed cooler. Those shad which are not purchased will be released to continue their way upriver. It’s really a sight to behold, so bring a video camera.
Shadfest 2018: Lambertville and its across-the-bridge neighbor New Hope (PA) will be the site of the 2018 Shadfest running April 28-29, rain or shine. Two days of wide-ranging music along with myriad arts and crafts (for youngsters and adults), artists, food and, of course, shad any which way you want it, will be featured. Perhaps the boniest of all fish, you’ll have an opportunity to watch fillet experts actually de-bone shad. It’s easier to cut through leather with a butter knife. Trust me on this one. And try the planked and the smoked shad. You’ll go back for more. Visit www.shadfest.com for additional info.