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Set Your Sights on a James River Slam

By Dr. Peter Brookes

Photos by Dr. Peter Brookes

To heck with all those overly dramatic New Year’s Resolutions. Yes, the ones that you have likely dropped by now. How about taking on a task that is achievable—not to mention fun?  Sound fishy? Well, yes, it is!

I am talking about the so-called James River Slam.

Of course, we all know that Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) has its official Trout Slam Challenge, which requires an angler to net the state’s three trout species (brook, brown, and rainbow trout) in a single day. (Read about my go at it last year here.)

DWR also has an official Bass Slam Challenge that consists of catching at least three of Virginia’s four bass species (smallmouth, largemouth, striped and/or hybrid striped bass) in a single year, rather than a single day.

While DWR has not given its seal of approval yet and there is no cool DWR sticker for it as with the other Slams, the (unofficial) James River Slam is also a worthy challenge for the able conventional or fly angler. According to local lore, the James River Slam consists of catching three species of fish in the “Big Jim” in a single day: a shad (hickory or American), a striped bass (striper) and a white perch.

Some folks have dubbed it the “Virginia Anadromous Slam,” highlighting that these three species of fish are either “semi-anadromous” (white perch) or “anadromous” (shad and striper). These species either spend most of their lives in brackish (semi-anadromous) water or saltwater (anadromous) and then both types migrate upstream to spawn in freshwater. Salmon, for instance, are probably the most famous anadromous fish in North America.

I decided to give the Slam—reportedly a Richmond area rite of piscatorial passage—a go last spring and hooked up (pun intended) with friend and James River guide Reid Parker to target these migratory fish.

Usually, you have a two-week window to seal the deal on this Slam; Reid suggested mid-April since the waters have warmed to the low- to mid-60 degrees and the shad have usually started their run up the James.

You know the old adage: “When the dogwoods are in bloom, shad are in the river.” This window of opportunity is not firm, of course, but, historically, the peak spawning overlap on the James River of these three species does seem to run for about two weeks in April.  It is certainly possible to get a Slam outside of that time frame, but the chances are a little lower.

Reid and I met up around noon on a mild but overcast spring day in mid-April at Rocketts Landing on the upper tidal James River—not far from the interstate, I-95, and downtown Richmond. I assumed we would have a bit of a boat ride in Reid’s skiff before getting to our first spot. Uh-uh. We pushed away from the pier and started setting up for fishing right away. I could see the Richmond skyline without even squinting.

Indeed, the sweet spot for the Slam is generally from Rocketts Landing upriver to the 14th Street bridge and the river fall line, according to Alan Weaver, DWR’s anadromous fish expert and fish passage coordinator.

Although I am generally agnostic on the choice of fishing gear and tackle, I was chasing the Slam that day on the fly; we used a 7-weight fly rod with a sinking line and colorful clouser minnows and shad darts. Basically, your go-to shad rig.

In a few casts, I was into white perch.

Perch was almost an every-other-cast proposition that afternoon.  While white perch are not as strong a swimmer as stripers or shad, they will put a nice arc in your rod; their aggressive willingness to take a hook is also welcomed. It felt good to get the “skunk” off the boat early in the trip.

We had to search a bit harder for shad, but they were biting, too. I landed a couple of nice hickory shad; the challenge was to keep the flies away from the pugnacious perch so the shad could get a look. (Slam aside, if you have not fished for shad in Virginia, you owe it to yourself to do so. Can you say, “bucket list”?)

A photo of a man's hands holding a hickory shad.

The hickory shad.

Reid advises me that we are only likely to get into hickories on the James; Americans are scarce in the river. No matter, the hickory—aka “poor man’s tarpon”—is a great sport fish that may entertain you with some “silver king” acrobatics after a hook-up.

Okay: Two species down, one to go.

We headed upriver toward the I-95 bridge to a secret spot of Reid’s in hopes of finding a striper. I had to cast around a bit, but after a while my line drew tight. The tug was not very hard, so I assumed it was another pesky perch. Instead, my catch was a teeny-tiny striper. We had a good laugh.

I had technically completed the James River (Anadromous) Slam, but Reid and I decided that we needed a larger striper to feel like we were “Slam-worthy.” And we did net a more substantive specimen before heading back to the landing late afternoon.

A photo of a man's hands holding a small striped bass.

The striped bass.

What an awesome urban fishery: Shad, striper, and white perch in a few hours of angling in sight of the city skyline.

Of course, you can fish for just one species, but be acutely aware of the differences between hickory and American shad. While, as I mentioned earlier, you are unlikely to hook into an American on the James, they are currently catch-and-release statewide.

If you want to harvest hickories, be sure to check the DWR and Virginia Marine Resources Commission’s (VMRC) websites for the latest Virginia regulations, including current moratoria on alewife and blueback herring—a common bycatch during the shad run.

Of course, you will need a Virginia fishing license to wet a line in “America’s Founding River.” In addition, you must also register with the VMRC Fisherman Identification Programit’s free and online!—since you are angling for anadromous fish.

And, lastly, take a look at DWR’s very neat Shad Cam at the Bosher’s Dam fishway on the James River. It is a great opportunity to see these amazing fish make their run home after four or five years at sea as well as let you know when their run has started.

Trout Slam—check. James River Slam—double check. I guess it is time to “angler up” and get after that DWR Bass Slam in 2024. With warmer weather coming and that new Slam in my sights, I will definitely see you on our wonderful Virginia waterways soon.

Dr. Peter Brookes is an award-winning, Virginia outdoor writer.

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