Shad darts

by Scott Sadil

“Essentially,” writes John McPhee in The Founding Fish, his monumental paean to Alosa sapidissima, the American shad, “all shad darts are homemade.”

McPhee continues: “If you don’t make your own, you buy darts that someone (else) made at home.”

Is that true?  In our divided yet increasingly homogeneous modern world, it seems fabulous that shad darts could appear here and there like so many loaves of fresh-baked bread—that darts, as McPhee explains, “are sufficiently idiosyncratic to be traceable to the zip code where they were sold.”

Because I was never quite sure what shad darts actually were, nor if they would qualify as a genuine fly for fly fishing, I was slow to come by them.  Also, after studying the hand-drawn illustration in McPhee’s book, followed by some research online, I realized that the lures sold on the West Coast as shad darts were simply small, lead-headed jigs, nothing like the graceful cone-shaped darts favored by eastern seaboard anglers.

I ended up buying my first batch of darts from Lockett Lures, an outlet in McVeytown, Pennsylvania, on the Juniata River, a tributary of the Susquehanna.  This is no place to go into the subtle yet distinct features that distinguish a genuine shad dart from a common leadhead jig, other than to say that last season, while casting my new darts with a light, two-handed rod loaded with the appropriate Skagit line, and swinging said darts on a long light leader, I hammered the shad on my neighborhood Columbia River, the sort of success I had previously only imagined while watching the hot-shot shad masters with their spinning rods and spinning reels.

Inspired by my success, I decided this year to fashion my own shad darts.  Readers might note that along with tying my own flies, I’m the sort of fellow who would rather build a boat than buy one, bake bread, and grow his own tomatoes.  If shad darts, as McPhee claims, are all essentially a homemade product, why should I let others have all the fun?

McPhee seems to agree with me—although I can’t say I’m a fan of his methods.  He describes the lead he used for one dart coming from the lead wrapping from the neck of a bottle of wine; the mold he uses, made by a “machinist from rural Pennsylania,” makes only one dart at a time.  It takes him weeks, he says, to paint his darts, because he’s got other things to do—but also because he wants “time to pass between coats.”

Casting tools

I have to wonder about McPhee’s rate of production.  Elsewhere he mentions he loses “at least a hundred darts a year to bottom snags,” a significant number only because it means he must spend a good deal of time fishing for shad, not that he’s any less effective than other shad anglers, all of whom know how easy it is to lose terminal tackle.

Then again, one glance at the size and breadth of McPhee’s oeuvre suggests he may not have quite as much time on his hands as some of us have for fabricating shad darts.

Or is it simply a matter of priorities?  After getting molds and hooks for four different sizes of darts, and then casting and painting a hundred or so darts this past weekend, I was deep in the final step of production: tying on the tails and then saturating the thread wraps in lacquer.  Suddenly the phone rang; a call from Marc Whittaker, my connection in Chile.  Was I ready to go to Tierra del Fuego and fish for sea-run browns?  

He sent some photos of lovely flies that I immediately imagined casting through the wind on the Rio Grande.  Then I looked over at the lineup of shad darts gathered on the lip of my tying bench.  Really? 

I’m headed to South America and spending my time making shad darts?

I took a deep breath, warding off panic, and set myself to finishing the job at hand.

Gray’s angling editor, Scott Sadil, is often heard paraphrasing Tom McGuane’s famous claim that fly fishing is very time consuming.  That’s sort of the whole point, added McGuane.