The Pursuit of the Poor Man’s Tarpon
Fishing for Alosa mediocris, AKA the Hickory Shad or “Poor Man’s Tarpon” has become an addiction of sorts for many anglers across the Mid-Atlantic. Each spring, this member of the Herring family completes its trek from the salty Atlantic to the freshwater streams and creeks of its birth- to spawn and preserve the shad legacy for yet another year. “The Run”, as it’s affectionately known, usually begins in late March in southern Maryland waters such as the Potomac River and continues into early May in the northern reaches such as the Susquehanna River. Most tributaries and rivers in between these two great bodies of water are fair game for this anadromous wonder. Anadromous fish are equally adept at surviving in salt and fresh water- but prefer to live most of year at sea and spawn in freshwater. Thus, the Hickory Shad’s visit to freshwater is fleeting- and we are there each year to greet the run and get our fix of fast and furious catching- not just fishing!
Although I’m a lifelong angler, my first experience with the Hickory Shad was in April, 1993. I had just returned from home from nearly two months working in England and decided to take a drive on a picturesque Saturday with my wife Heidi and daughters Lauren and Lindsay, aged 3-1/2 and 1-1/2 at the time. We ended up on Stafford Road in Susquehanna State Park right at the mouth of Deer Creek (hey, I’m a fisherman what do you expect!) which was jam packed like your neighborhood strip mall. I quickly jumped out of the car and ran up to the old, rickety railroad bridge crossing Deer Creek to see what the buzz was all about (by the way, thank you Maryland DNR for replacing that loosely strewn collection of railroad ties with a real bridge some years back). It was about shad- and lots of ‘em. Dozens of anglers hooked up at the same time, landing one fish after the other. Slender, sleek, and silver- shad are famous for their aerial acrobatics, often jumping clear out of the water several times to shake the hook before being landed and released. They are roughly 12”-18” in length and weigh up to a couple of pounds but fight stronger than any fish it’s size that I ever encountered. They look and act just like the legendary Tarpon, just much smaller- hence the nickname “Poor Man’s Tarpon”. As I watched in amazement, Heidi held onto the girls hands with a G.I. Joe style Kung-Fu grip as they wanted to “pet” every fish that was remotely within their reach. Alright, this looks good, where do I sign up?
The Susquehanna river proper is almost exclusively a spin fishing paradise for shad during this time-with, of course, a few exceptions- using tandem shad darts, shad dart/shad spoon combos, or the deadly small Tony Acetta spoon with the green strip. 100 fish or more per day is a reality for the Intrepid Angler willing to go the distance. That is the allure of shad fishing. You catch fish until your fingers feel like coarse grit sandpaper, your feet are numb from standing in 50 some degree water all day, that 32 oz jumbo High Voltage coffee is screaming for you to let it out for the last 4 hrs or you loose all of your darts and spoons. Loosing your rigs is the price of admission, your debt to the river god. Get used to it, feel good about it and simply get more stuff on the way home.
The basic equipment for spin fishing for shad is pretty simple: A 6 ft. light action rod, 6# line spooled on an appropriate sized reel, a handful of 1/16-1/8 oz darts, the spoons described above and you are ready for action. I like to tie a 3 ft. section of 12# test mono leader to my main line using either a blood knot or surgeon’s loop to give my rig more durability. If you don’t want to fuss with knots then a barrel swivel is your best bet to connect your leader. Once your leader is set, tie your darts or dart/spoon combos about 1 ft. apart. A dropper loop is the most secure knot for the top dart while the Trilene knot works great for the bottom dart. I’ve used Trilene knots for both connections in the past and found that this knot reduces breaking strength on the top dart- resulting in more lost rigs. Either way, experiment and determine the fastest and most durable rigging methods for you. Spoons are always rigged on the bottom to fully capitalize on their tantalizing action. If tying on a Tony, use it by itself- it’s all you will need. Some of my best days ever were using Tony’s. Their action really irritates the shad into striking with uncanny regularity. Simply cast your rig straight out from the point you safely wade to from shore and start a medium fast retrieve. Repeat and try different retrieval speeds until fish start biting. Location and depth are the two most important factors in the whole process. Figure our where they are and modify your retrieve (slow, medium, fast, burn-it) and lures accordingly. Side note: braided and fused lines are fun as long as you’re catching fish. The infinite rockiness of the bottom of the river can be a hurdle though. I like braided and fused lines, just not for this particular application because it’s not if snags will happen, it’s when- and when they do you either have to cut a lot of expensive line off or spend time and energy dragging sunken logs from the abyss with your super molecularly modified fishing line to save your dart.
Fly-fishing for shad in the Susquehanna is difficult most days due to high water flow, the great number of anglers, and plentiful back cast obstructions- which are mostly trees and other anglers. Please do not insert yourself and your fly rod in the middle of a group of anglers with spinning gear in high water conditions- it won’t work! Don’t even think about it unless you are absolutely determined to have a rough day. If the water flow is low and/or you are in a boat, then forget what I just said and go for it! We’ll get into some deadly fly-fishing techniques here next.
On Friday April 25, fellow Intrepid Angler and contributing editor, Brian Bartell and I decided to meet at the Deer Creek pumping station and give some newly learned techniques and fly patterns a quick test before heading to work for the day. I’ve known Brian for 28 years and we’ve caught lots of fish in lots of places. Our motto, “Fish First, Work Later”- you gotta kick the day off right if you can. We rolled up to the parking area just before 6 am and our plan of placing our flag in the best spot was simply a dream- the place was filled already with the fly-fishing troops we’ve grown to recognize. The morning’s conditions: a little bit of sunlight peeking through the low hanging fog, clear water, and crisp high 40’s air temperature- everything seemed perfect- except for the fish. For the next 1-1/2 hrs we tried a few ‘good’ holes and had no takers. A few strays here and there from other anglers but mostly it felt quiet and calm- like it does when “the Run” ends. The feeling that time has passed you by and you weren’t paying attention. We reminded ourselves that the peak is usually about right now! The “peak” is a phenomenon that occurs with little warning. It’s all out “the right place at the right time”.
You know it’s the peak when you catch 12 fish on 12 casts, get a hit on #13, then proceed to hook up on consecutive casts all over again. Continue this until you can’t fish any longer or have been satisfied by your fly-fishing virtuosity. The fish are here somewhere, we know that. Just have to find them. Time to move!
We headed downstream about ˝ mile, towards the mouth of Deer Creek. When the water flow of the Susquehanna is reduced, the water level of Deer Creek is also reduced. This makes the fish holding deeper holes and riffles more obvious to the angler. Shad tend to stay put in tightly bound schools when the water level of Deer Creek is somewhat low. Their migration upstream put on hold until water levels rise. Today, the water was low and we quickly moved to some traditionally productive hot spots.
Since we were on a time crunch, we decided to each work a different spot to locate the shad quickly. Brian worked a flat, somewhat shallow riffle while I tried a deep pool with an adjacent ridiculously fast moving riffle. I cast my chartreuse “Beldart” fly into the pool, gave it 3 count to sink a bit, and then started a rapid fire retrieve. Three quick strips on the line and “wham”, fish on. Four more casts, four more fish. – all using the same rapid fire retrieve. I waved Brian to come down and by the time he got there I’d landed 8 shad in 10 casts.
My preferred gear is a 4 weight rod, WF4F line, matching reel, and a 5 foot x 15# mono leader. If the water is really moving or you need to get the fly deeper then attach a 4 foot sink tip. Brian started out fishing the pool with a sink tip and 10 casts later, still no fish. He removed the sink tip and immediately started catching shad. This is all part of the process of figuring out what the fish want- they’ll tell you, just be willing to change up until they start to bite.
Over the next 2 hours we landed about 80 Hickory Shad between us- and perhaps the same number of fish “swatted” at our flies as we burned them through the pool. We’d absolutely hit the peak and solidified the legend of the chartreuse “Beldart” fly- named in honor of it’s resemblance to the shad dart and SNL’s Conehead character- “Beldar”- the patriarch of conehead family famously played by Dan Aykroyd. Here’s the pattern, evolved over the past 3 seasons into a truly deadly fly for the Poor Man’s Tarpon. Variations with red, white, hot pink, orange, and yellow are effective as well.
May the fish be with you!
Side note: My daughter Lindsay, now 16 and whom I mentioned being with me during my first Shad experience, joined me for a little fly fishing for shad a few days later and landed her first shad on the fly in addition to many white perch. Then next generation continues……………
Hook: Mustad #34007 Stainless Steel, size 4
Body: Chartreuse Crystal Chenille, Medium
Tail: Red Krystal Flash, Pearl Flashabou
Head: Silver Cone, Medium
Thread: Chartreuse UTC 140 Waxed Nylon
The Intrepid Angler Archives
The Intrepid Angler on Tour - The Hells Canyon Sturgeon Enlightenment
The Pursuit of the Poor Man’s Tarpon
Flat Fish on the Fly
Gettin' Jiggy at the CBBT
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