Shad’s the Limit

by Scott Sadil

I can’t help it.

Every year about this time, when the days are longest, the weeds tallest, the garden still refuses to recognize the season and I’m faced with a hundred and one other projects I really should get to, if only the wind, ripping through the Gorge, wasn’t making it all but impossible to start – about this time I get up one morning and think it looks like a good day to go shad fishing.

Of course, it helps when, for two weeks now, counts have been totalling upwards of 300,000 fish a day passing Bonneville Dam.

I like those odds.

Still, you’re fishing; you just never know. And even though, each shad season, I gain a little more experience, and I seem to get a little better at it, or I at least bring a few more fish to hand, I don’t seem to be able to generate much enthusiasm from other local fly anglers – so I never get any reports before I finally set off on my own.

Columbia River shad country

Or maybe that’s a reflection of my own unwillingness to let on – at least too much – when I get into any fish anywhere.

There’s also the possibility that serious fly fishers, the sort of anglers who should, by all rights, be traveling far and wide this time of year in search of steamy hatches and feeding trout, don’t really put much stock in chasing Columbia River shad, a clear departure from the rarefied prey that many of them would consider the raison d’être for the sport. Even John McPhee, who, by any measure, appears to love fishing for shad with a fly rod in hand as much as he likes life itself, doesn’t consider he’s fly fishing once he attaches a shad dart or other sort of weighted lure to his line.

“I am shad fishing with a fly rod,” he likes to say.

No doubt the shad dart is not a fly. By the same token, of course, neither is a Perdigon, a Copper John, and probably a host of other lures and jig-like concoctions many of us now regularly hurl at the end of our fly lines, whether for trout, steelhead, or some type of saltwater prey. 

The moment we pinch a wee bit of lead splitshot to a leader, in fact, may well be cause to exclude us from the strictest definitions of the game. At the same time, I like to recall an occasion I tried teasing my buddy Fred Trujillo about a hunk of lead he was using to get his Egg-Sucking Leech through a high, off-colored river and down to where the steelhead might be holding. He was using a fly rod, a fly reel, a fly line, and a fly – but he might as well be gear fishing, I said.

John Day Dam

Fred gave me a look, then pointed to the lead on his line.  

“I call it a one-inch shooting head,” he said – a joke I refuse to explain to any of the uninitiated readers in the crowd.

True shad darts, anyway, are my own attempt this year to elevate my game. Up until now, I’ve always relied on so-called flies I’ve tied myself, usually little more than a hook with a painted lead conehead slid over the bend and forward to the eye of the hook, then held in place with a few turns of chenille in front of a sparse, sparkly, synthetic tail.  

Not a lot going on.

Last year, however, I worked a little harder at it, finding some jig hooks with a ball of painted lead molded beneath the angled hook eye. To the shank of the hook I added the usual bling and associated gew-gaws, usually for no good reason other than a streak of religion that makes me feel I should add something to my cast.

Shad darts

But this year, during winter, I went so far as to order several dozen genuine shad darts, the real deal, from Lockett Lures, in Pennsylvania.  Don’t ask me why you can’t find genuine shad darts here on the west coast.  I also ordered a mold for making my own darts – but so far, due to the pandemic, my Do-It dart mold hasn’t yet arrived.

Not a problem.  Knot a 1/16-ounce shad dart on the end of a long, light, length of fluorocarbon leader and, with a mid-size two-hander, let it fly.  McPhee, among others, considers the act of casting a lead shad dart with a fly rod and a fly line at best a challenge, in many cases (crowds, obstructed backcasts, unfavorable winds), all but impossible.  But a double-handed rod takes care of almost all those problems – and when the dart swings in the current, your line lifted free of the water with that long rod, any shad that touches the dart is reported to you instantly.

When it all comes right, it’s quite a tug – and what could be better than that?

Gray’s Angling Editor Scott Sadil usually releases the shad he beaches before he can decide whether to kill them.