If Rodney Dangerfield were a fish, he'd probably be a hickory shad. They just don't get much respect. This article by Mark Dysinger aims to set that straight and give the shad the attention it really deserves from fly anglers.
The hickory shad is a schooling species and highly migratory. It is grey-green in color along its back, silvery with a dark shoulder spot followed by several faint spots along its sides, and is distinguished from other shad by a strongly projecting lower jaw. This shad is also smaller on average than American shad, with 14-18 inches (one to two pounds) covering the majority of fish caught. The preferred foods of adult hickory shad are baitfish, squid, and oceanic crustaceans. All are of interest to the fly angler.
Salt and fresh
Hickories are anadromous, spending the majority of their lives at sea and returning to river systems to spawn. This spawning begins in spring and can be different by a number of weeks depending on location along the coast. Although they are occasionally caught as far north as Cape Cod, the majority of these shad are taken from Rhode Island south to the Carolinas. They are caught a bit farther south than that, but we're talking about the concentrated majority of fish here. It should be noted that hickory shad do not feed during the spawning run up rivers. This doesn't mean that they can't be caught at that time; in fact, it's quite the opposite. Reaction strikes on flies swung in currents account for many fish simply because they can be so concentrated in their spawning areas. That being said, the feeding binges that occur after spawning and in the open ocean provide angling opportunities for hungry fish that are once again in their predatory role. It's these fish that I will focus on for the remainder of this article.
When searching for hickories, light level can play a significant factor. Overcast or rainy days are far better than bright days, and the periods of dusk and dawn are also good. Fortunately, these shad are nocturnal and will feed throughout the night when bait prevalence and tide conditions are right. Add rain to the equation when fishing at night, and the results can be superb.
Moving water is another key to locating hickories. The only times that I have caught them without moving water were when slack tide happened to coincide with the setting sun (again underscoring the importance of light level). These fish are not afraid of feeding in strong tidal currents, and any coastal areas that constrict these flows are potential shad magnets. Outflows from salt ponds, tidal creeks, and back bays are very reliable on ebbing tides, as are the beaches that border them or abutments of bridges that cross them. Incoming tides will find these fish moving back up into the same areas that they came from on the ebb. They will also move up to such structures as jetties, barrier beaches, points, and near shore reefs. Marinas can be wonderful places to find shad during off-peak hours. The dock and marker structures seem to appeal to baitfish as well as the shad, and the artificial lighting afforded by these areas makes for some interesting fishing at night (where allowed).
The Hickory Shad (Alosa mediocris) is widespread along the western Atlantic coast from Maine down to Florida. Shads are found in many variations almost worldwide, although they are predominantly warm water species.
Hickory shad feeding behavior can also tip off an angler to their presence. When hickories pummel baitfish, they often drive them right up to the surface and create boils. When the feeding is at its peak, the shad can even vault clear out of the water in their excited pursuit. There seems to be a strong correlation between the amount of available light and the hickories' probability of feeding on top; the lower the light level, the higher in the water they feed. But even when the shad aren't showing themselves at the surface, the mere presence of bait, low light, and moving water can be positive indicators that they are at least in the area and potentially feeding lower in the water column.
Given the proclivity that hickory shad have to school in large numbers and attack bait en masse, it stands to reason that unless the fish are actively feeding and showing themselves you shouldn't stay glued to one particular spot for too long without any action. The schooling nature of these fish makes them quite competitive for food sources, and if they are around you will most likely find out soon enough. The conundrum is this: a spot that has plenty of bait but no action at the moment might become a froth of feeding fish in only a brief matter of time. A slight increase in current flow or change in light level could be all that's needed to turn the switch. Hickory shad are transient from tide to tide, and you should do your best to be there and intercept them when they move through certain areas.
From an angling perspective, it pays to have a few rods rigged up with different lines in order to be prepared for these fish when you come across them. I usually have one outfit rigged with a floating line and one with an intermediate or sink tip. The hickory shad waters that I fish are rarely deeper than eight feet, and these lines cover that range nicely. If I will be covering water that is any deeper or has stronger currents, I won't hesitate to use a heavier grain line to get the fly down to the fish.
Some folks like to chase hickories with rod weights as low as five, but in my opinion this just isn't fair to fish that will be released. A five weight rod may allow a shad to show off its strength, but it will also take considerably longer to bring the fish to hand. In the interests of not totally exhausting the fish during the fight, I typically use an eight weight outfit, and have gone down as low as seven. This heavier weight still lets the shad fight well, and also makes it easier to cast weighted flies and sinking lines if the need arises. Seven and eight weight rods are also nice to have when a striper, bluefish, or other incidental species happens to grab your fly.
Hickory shad aren't too fussy with fly selection, and on those rare occasions when they are it pays to simply match the size and color of the prevalent bait. For tickling the bottom or getting down in heavy currents, it's hard to beat clousers and jiggies from two to three inches long. Deceiver types and epoxy baitfish patterns of a similar size work well in the middle to shallow depths. And although not many folks fish topwater flies for hickories, they can and will take them off of the surface when busting on top. For these situations, I have found that small crease flies and gurglers outperform standard poppers.
Fly color usually isn't too critical. Unless the fish are particularly selective, I use bright colors such as pink or chartreuse because they attract so much attention and make the fly stand out from the bait in the water. But for low light fishing, darker colors such as olive, brown, gray, and black provide a sharper contrast. I tie all of my hickory flies on size 1/0, 2, and 4 hooks, with the vast majority tied on size 2. Anything smaller than size 4 can be taken too deeply by a shad, and anything larger than 1/0 results in too many missed strikes.
If I could only use one fly for hickory shad, it would be an olive over white clouser minnow. This is a versatile fly pattern that can be fished at most depths, and the color combo of dark over light allows it to be effective in both high and low light conditions.
Let the fish dictate what presentation to use. When they are actively busting bait on top, an active and panicked retrieve is an obvious choice. When the fish aren't showing themselves and you're probing for them deeper in the water column, the best retrieve is usually one with a slower and steadier cadence. And when hickories are feeding in a rip, they will actively move within the strong current but will rarely leave it to chase a fly. In this situation the best retrieve is usually a simple swing of the fly in the rip, letting the water present the fly to the fish feeding within it. One would think that night time fishing would require a slowed down retrieve, but I have rarely found that to be the case. These are generalities and should be taken as such, but they are very good places to start presentation wise when confronted with certain situations.
Hard to hook
Perhaps the hardest part about fishing for hickory shad is keeping them hooked once they've taken a fly. Unlike many saltwater game fish that take their prey from behind, hickory shad tend to side swipe their quarry. This can result in angler frustration because of short strikes and missed hook sets. And once they are hooked, these fish will surprise you with their strength and leaping ability. One way to cut down on missed fish is to use a two handed retrieve, which allows for a very positive hook set once a fish really commits to taking the fly. A good hook set also cuts down on fish lost during the ensuing fight, particularly the jumps.
There is a bonus to fishing for hickories. Very often, particularly in the fall when young of the year baitfish descend estuaries and migrate towards the open ocean, other game fish can be caught side by side with the shad as they compete for the same food source. I know of several southern New England locations that I fish in October and November where a day's catch is split right down the middle between shad and schoolie stripers. There are even cameos made by the occasional bluefish or weakfish. Also, be aware that with the decline in menhaden populations the hickory shad have become a larger part of the diet of big stripers and blues. When hickories are around, these larger fish may not be far away. Because of this, I tend to keep at least one heavier rod on the boat rigged up in case the big girls make an appearance.
Fishing for hickory shad isn't complex, nor should it be. They're a sporting target on the flyrod, and if you ever happen to cross paths with them you will quickly find out why. By letting them show their finer qualities, you just might give them a chance to earn your respect.