It’s a cold, post-frontal January morning in east Central Florida. While launching my skiff in predawn darkness, I can barely see the end of my trailer as a heavy fog bank has settled in. Luckily, I know this part of the Saint Johns River like the back of my hand, so finding my intended fishing spot in zero visibility goes according to plan. Heavy fog of this nature is uncommon on the Saint John River basin, requiring a precise mixture of warm river water, cold winter air and dead-calm conditions to occur.
Idling slowly through the impenetrable fog to position my skiff, I can hardly bare the anticipation of my first cast and the impending solid pull of an American shad on my 5-weight fly rod. As I lay out my first cast and my fly settles in, the shad takes and the battle is on. On the first hard run, this hearty fish takes me into my backing, jumps several times and starts doing laps around my boat. As the battle wains and my excitement peaks, my mind drifts back some 50 years to my very first shad fishing trip with my uncle Joe.
It was late December 1965, and I’d been planning my first shad trip with my Uncle Joe for over a month. I could hardly stand my anticipation of the coming shad season on the St. John River and my early morning rendezvous at Uncle Joe’s house, two doors down at 6 a.m. sharp. In preparation for the trip, we eagerly rigged out his trusty Orlando Clipper boat the afternoon before and hooked the trailer to his truck. My mother packed us a lunch, and all of my next-day’s clothes were neatly laid out before going to bed. I set my alarm clock for 5:30 a.m., and I hit the sack early so I would be fully rested for our adventure.
Little did I know, my older sister, Sandy, had plans of her own, and after falling asleep, she snuck into my bedroom and changed the time on my alarm clock, moving it ahead by two hours. She also changed the time on all of the clocks in the house, as not to alert me to her trickery. Needless to say, Uncle Joe was not real happy to see a 6-year-old boy at his front door, fishing rod in hand, at 4 a.m. Luckily for me, my Uncle Joe shared the same passion and excitement for fishing as I, and the story later became legendary within our family and, oh yes, Sandy still has some payback coming.
Between 1950 and 1970, American shad fishing was extremely popular in Central Florida, and the arrival of the first run of the poor man’s salmon was a much anticipated event. Anglers from across the state of Florida and the eastern Atlantic seaboard swarmed to the St. Johns River on the first reports of shad. There was even a month-long tournament call the Shad Derby, where for a fee of 5 dollars per angler, the individual who caught the largest shad won a new boat, motor, and trailer. Huge fish camps like Lemon Bluff and Marina Isles lined the banks of the St. Johns River to support the then popular recreational fishery, but like most of old Florida and the popularity of shad fishing, they have long faded away.
As the largest member of the herring family, American shad ascend freshwater rivers along the Atlantic coast of America each spring from the ocean to spawn. Juveniles spend their first growing season in the river of their birth and then swim to the ocean in the fall to grow and mature. They remain in the ocean for two to six years before they become sexually mature and return to spawn in the river they originally hatched.
Historically, shad had been an important food source in North America since the colonial era. Shad have also been important to recreational anglers in the modern era; however, recreational angling peaked in the St. Johns River during the 1950s and 1960s. Atlantic coast commercial landings peaked at the turn of the twentieth century, but have declined dramatically along with most of the shad’s range. Obstruction of spawning runs, pollution, and high harvest rates have all taken a toll on abundance, prompting the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) to mandate protective measures that include a directive to monitor existing populations and rebuild stocks.
Commercial landings in the St. Johns River also peaked in the early 1900s and declined significantly throughout the century. Recreational effort and landings have also decreased markedly in recent years. The net ban in 1995 eliminated most of what remained of Florida’s commercial American shad fishery. Later, in 2005, a commercial fishery off the coast of the Mid-Atlantic States was terminated and should no longer be impacting the stock.
Today, both American and hickory shad are holding their own and they start arriving on their annual spawning run to the southern reaches of the St. Johns River between Lake Monroe and Lake Harney “Shad alley” around Christmas day, with the peek run occurring near the middle of February. They then move south into the vast marshes of the St. Johns between Lake Harney and Lake Washington. Concentrations vary from year to year based on water levels and other environmental factors. Remember, the average age of American shad is only four to six years old when they return to the river of their hatch to spawn, and like salmon, the majority of the adult St. Johns River shad die from exhaustion once the spawning season is complete. Therefore, the quality of shad runs can vary from year to year based on the successful spawn of their parents.
Shad can be caught in any number of ways, from light fly fishing to slow trolling or casting small darts and spoons on ultra-light spinning rods.
For spinning gear, I like a 6-foot ultralight rod with a 2000-series reel, spooled with 6-pound test braided line. Most anglers either slow troll or cast shad rigs, which consist of a small, brightly colored tandem dart and spoon combination. The two tackle shops in Central Florida carrying the rigs are Bitters Bait and Tackle in Longwood, (407) 699-6619, and Mosquito Creek in Apopka, (407) 464-2000. Both of these locations will gladly assist you in getting set up, and help you get started.
As for fly fishing, I suggest a 4- or 5-weight matched rod and reel with sufficient backing, and either a floating or intermediate (sinking) line, depending on if you are fishing in shallow or deep water. I would also suggest a fluorocarbon leader and small, brightly colored weighted flies like the Crazy Charlie. Another highly suggested resource for those avid fly anglers is to attend the monthly meeting of the Back Country Association, http://www.backcountryflyfishingorlando.com.
Although small, averaging between two and four pounds on the St Johns, American shad are a feisty, run-and-jump, deep digging, cartwheeling, fun fish most anyone can catch. And the best part of shad fishing is it’s a great way to spend time fishing during the winter in Central Florida on those cold and windy days when fishing the open waters is out of the question. It’s a late-in-the-day, sleeping in, second-cup-of-coffee type of fishing, which is perfect on those cold winter days.
There is hope, as commercial harvest is eliminated and water quality improves, the American shad stock will rebuild and this will be reflected in improved recreational catch rates and renewed recreational interest in the species. Either way, if you haven’t experienced the American shad run during the winter in Central Florida, you are missing the boat. So get hooked up and have some fun.
Speaking of boats, is there an Orlando Clipper easing in through the fog? It must be Uncle Joe, because I think I’m in Fish Heaven.