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Try These Tactics for Shad Fishing

By Mark Fike

Photos by Mark Fike

Shad darts and spoons are definitely the traditional go-to for targeting shad, those acrobatic silver fish. I used them for years and never thought about trying something different. But sometimes change can have some very positive results.

These days, I rarely use shad darts. Instead, my go-to rig is a crappie jig weighted with a split shot pinched on the line at least 12 inches above the jig. My retrieve is erratic, which, when married with the bright colored crappie jigs or grubs, entices strikes when others using the traditional shad/spoon rig are not catching much.

I owe my success to an older gentleman who was fishing along the crowded banks of the Rappahannock River at Old Mill Park in Fredericksburg years ago. I was walking along the banks of the slightly spring rain-swollen river looking for a spot to cast among all the people lining the bank, as is typical in April. As I got to a section that was dense with small trees, I spied a small spot I knew I could squeeze into and sling shot my dart/spoon rig into the river. Someone was just downstream of me fishing on the other side of a clump of dense trees. It was hard not to notice that nearly every time their line went out, a hook-up resulted and a fish began doing acrobatics all the way to the bank, where it was promptly released.

I continued casting without success. Finally, I noticed that the person downstream of me was not using the same setup I was. When he stopped fishing, I dropped my gear and wandered around the clump of thick, small trees separating us. The old man was picking up his gear and grinning.

“You want what I am using?” he asked.

“No Sir, but I sure would like to see what it was.”

Instead, he cut the one on his line off and handed it to me and winked. He explained that he caught a lot more fish with that crappie jig than he did with the darts and the spoons days. I have not looked back.

While I am not sure exactly why the crappie jig works better for me, I suspect it could be a combination of the fish not seeing a million of them running in front of their faces all day long and I also think the curly tail of the white or chartreuse grub I use adds just enough flutter to draw strikes.

An 1/8-ounce hot pink jig head seems to be the best choice after years of fishing with crappie jigs. Sometimes a pearl white jig head works well too, but I almost always end up with a hot pink one back on the line. Most days, chartreuse seems to be the best choice for the grub, but a pearl white or bright white curly tail grub on an 1/8-ounce jig head will work well too.

One critical point to catching more shad with this setup is to vary your retrieve. I crank moderately three turns or so, pause and crank two or three more, and pause and repeat. A twitch can be added to the retrieve as well. The twitch usually is where the hit comes—or when I pause. Be sure to reel slow enough that the jig stays down in the water column where the fish are. The speed will be determined by the power of the current in which you are fishing. Play with it a little bit to figure it out.

As with the shad darts and spoons, fishing on a moving tide and during lower light hours is the best time to catch shad during the spring on this setup. I use a light action graphite rod or an ultralight or light action rod paired with the appropriate spinning reel and line that is six-pound test.

I think besides the simplicity of using a crappie jig and a split shot, I also enjoy the fact that I often catch a handful of other species while fishing for shad with the same crappie jig setup. Of course, I catch hickory and American shad. American shad must be released immediately. Most years I will catch striped bass and white perch on nearly every trip. I have caught herring too, which also need to be released immediately.

Sometimes I catch crappie (big surprise there!), smallmouth bass, and largemouth bass. Last year I caught a nice blue catfish jigging that crappie rig back to the boat! So, you never know what you might be able to catch and even take home for a fish fry with this setup.

Don’t hesitate to switch grub color or jig color. While the hot pink and pearl white jig heads work well for me, perhaps a chartreuse jig head or black jig head might work better where you are fishing, or maybe a different size. Just be sure you let the setup sink a few seconds before retrieving it so it is down at the depth where the fish are.

  • April 13, 2023