Fishing for the ‘Poor Man’s Tarpon’

Story and images by Dan Neuland, reprint courtesy of Frederick News Post

The flowering dogwood trees bloom each spring in mid-April signaling to anglers that the annual shad run in the tributary rivers of the Chesapeake Bay should be at its peak. No doubt, the tributaries are now full of migratory fish that have traveled hundred of miles to spawn in the rocky, shallows of freshwater rivers. Unfortunately, anglers who have been eagerly anticipating their arrival are very disappointed this year.

The opportunity to catch shad this spring in Maryland was cut short by Governor Hogan’s restrictions on non-essential travel and the ban on recreational fishing that was announced on March 30, 2020. Fishing for hickory and American shad became a strictly catch and release recreational fishery in 1980 in Maryland. Therefore, any thoughts this angler had of making the trip to the Susquehanna River at the Conowingo Dam or Deer Creek in Hartford County to catch shad this month were reluctantly cast off, pun intended.

Fortunately, I did have two successful days fly fishing for shad in late March of this year while fishing for shad in the lower Potomac River before the resulting closures in Maryland and Washington, DC from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lower than normal river levels and warming water temperatures made for ideal conditions for the early shad run at Fletcher’s Cove. At the time, the entrance to Fletcher’s was open and provided convenient access to launch my kayak. Fishing pressure was extremely light as the boathouse opening was on hold and the rental boats remained stowed on shore. Unfortunately, the entrance to Fletcher’s Cove has been blocked since early April in an effort to limit the number of people using the area for recreational purposes.

PVFF member Mark Richardson

Fly fishing for shad from a boat in a deep river like the lower Potomac requires a full sinking fly line and weighted flies or jigs. Shad are often found in 15-20 feet of water. I use a 350-grain sinking line on a 7-weight fly rod to put the fly where the fish are schooling. Look for shad in eddies and current seams where the faster water meets the slower water. Migrating shad seek the path of least resistance and will key on current breaks such as rocky outcrops where they can nose upstream in slower water.

A sink-tip fly line works well in smaller, wadeable streams like Deer Creek. In water depths under 6 feet, flies require little or no weight and a 5-weight fly rod is ideal. Wading above the holding water and swinging the fly directly below will elicit strikes as the fly just hangs in the current below.

Casting a full sinking line requires a well-matched fly rod that can effectively throw a heavy line. When fishing from a boat, there is usually plenty of room for a long backcast but a long back cast is not required when using a “water-haul” technique. When done correctly, the water-haul technique looks effortless as the line shoots out across the current.

To begin a water-haul cast, make a short false cast by shooting the line in the intended direction. Lower the rod tip, then pick the line up before it sinks, allowing water tension to drag the line and help load the rod on the back cast. To present the fly, do not overpower the rod by raising your whole arm. As Lefty Kreh would say, ‘keep your damn elbow down!” Use a faster haul on the forward cast and the weight of the line does the work.

Cast across the current, angling downstream. When the line hits the water, quickly mend upstream and throw slack line into the water. This allows the line to sink quickly without the tension of the current pulling the line to the surface. When the line tightens, begin stripping quickly with the tip of the rod pointing down towards the fly.

Shad tend to hit the fly as it rises from the bottom and they strike the fly hard, surging deep using the river current to their advantage as they can bend a 7-weight fly rod, tip to butt. The bigger American shad will fight hard on the bottom, testing the strength of your knots while staying deep. The smaller hickory shad will make lightning fast runs and keeping the fish from throwing the hook can be a struggle, as they will leap into the air with great zeal, earning the nickname “poor man’s tarpon.”

A stiff leader is needed to turn over the heavy fly or jig. I build a tapered 4’ to 5’ leader with Maxima fishing line that terminates with a 10-pound tippet. I attach only one fly but many anglers use a two-fly rig very effectively. It is wise to stock your fly box with a variety of colors and weights for various water conditions. Once you find the fish, you can catch fish after fish until your arms ache.

It is my sincere hope that the recreational fishing and boating ban will be lifted soon and will allow anglers the opportunity to catch the tail end of the shad run in Maryland and DC. If and when that happens, please follow all social distancing guidelines and enjoy your well-deserved time outdoors.