By John Kruse
Not to be confused with an oft-uttered curse phrase, “Oh shad! “is something you may hear an angler say repeatedly as they hook into these fish in quick fashion this month in the Columbia River Gorge.
The American shad isn’t native to the Pacific Northwest. It is an Atlantic Ocean fish that spawns in several rivers along the east coast and was an important food fish for Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1871 Seth Green, a fish culturist, transported eight cans of shad fry to Sacramento, California by rail. More than 2/3 of the fish survived the seven-day trip and they were put into the Sacramento River. The stocking took and the Sacramento still hosts a healthy run of American Shad to this day. The shad, which are an ocean-going fish, also began spawning in Oregon’s Umpqua River and in the Columbia River, where the strongest run of these fish return every year from mid-May through early-July.
The shad is a member of the herring family. On the Columbia River they commonly weigh between 1 and 4 pounds. They are scrappy fighters and fun for both adults and kids alike to catch from boats or from shore.
In the last few years jumbo runs of these prolific fish have returned to the Columbia River. Last year, over 7.5 million shad returned, a new record. This year’s run looks to be healthy, if not record breaking. As of June 9th, over a million shad had passed over Bonneville Dam.
Fishing for shad is a simple affair. The main places to target them are on either side of the Columbia River below Bonneville Dam (very crowded) or the John Day Dam (less so).
Start off with a medium action rod between 6 ½ to 8 ½ feet long. A spinning reel with 12-pound monofilament is a good bet, not because the fish will break you off, but because the shoreline is rocky and your line will become damaged on the sharp edges. The lures to use are very simple. A shad dart is a uniquely shaped jig head that usually sits on a bare hook. Common colors to use are Chartreuse/Green, Green/White, Red/White or Chartreuse/Orange. Shad Killers, which look like crappie jigs and are made in Hermiston, Oregon also work very well. The size of jigs you’ll want to use range from 1/8 to 1/16th or even 1/32 of an ounce.
Tie on the jig and a three-foot leader to a swivel. Above the swivel you’ll want a sliding swivel with a ½ to ¾ ounce weight. Simply cast slightly upstream, reel slowly, making sure your weight and dart stay above bottom. As the line quarters towards you reel in rapidly to make sure you don’t get hung up. If you are fishing from a boat plunking a weight on the bottom and fishing a small DickNite spoon can work wonders.
It’s not uncommon to catch one to three dozen shad on a good day, especially when the dam counts show over 10,000 fish a day crossing over Bonneville Dam. As for what to do with them? There are three schools of thought here.
A lot of anglers will keep them for sturgeon or crab bait. These oily fish work very well for both. Some anglers will eat them. Fried shad roe is considered a delicacy by some and baked shad or pressure cooked and canned shad is an option as well. I wouldn’t recommend smoking them though. I ruined a Luhr Jensen smoker a few years ago when I tried to cook them this way. The smoker pan and everything inside was coated with shad oil and I was never able to remove the smell or awful taste that resulted from that experiment.
The third option? Just catch and release them. They really are a lot of fun to go after and for kids who have never caught anything bigger than trout or panfish, the sporty fight offered by a three to four-pound shad is one they’ll remember for a long time.
John Kruse – www.northwesternoutdoors.com and www.americaoutdoorsradio.com
Brent Cyphers from The Dalles caught several shad in the space of a few minutes fishing below John Day Dam earlier this month.