Smallmouth Shad Smorgasbord

“Look, there’s one busting bait!”  Clients that fish with me on the Delaware River can expect to hear that quite often from mid-summer right through much of the fall season as smallmouth rocket to the surface in pursuit of unsuspecting prey.  This is when my “shad fishing” begins.

A number of mid-atlantic and northeastern rivers (Delaware, Connecticut, Susquehanna, Merrimack, Rappahannock and even the Potomac) and several oftheir tributaries support annual runs of American Shad from the Atlantic Ocean during the early to mid spring.  The adults enter the river during the early spring period to spawn.  Once their mission is accomplished, they perish leaving behind millions of baby shad, or fry.  The shad fry remain in the river throughout the summer and into the fall, until water temperatures fall or until a push of high water forces them downstream to the Atlantic ocean.  While residing in the river, the fry grow from tiny creatures to lengths of three inches or more by the fall.  Once the fry reach the two to three inch range, smallmouth bass start to key on them as their preferred forage.

Shad fry travel downstream in schools, or pods, and can be located in the following areas:
· Creek mouths provide slightly cooler water temperatures.  Cooler water entering the main river from a tributary stream provides increased oxygen levels.
· Grass beds provide the fry with refuge from predator fish, primarily smallmouth bass.  Larger smallies hold near grass beds adjacent to deeper water.  This is a classic ambush point for smallies targeting shad fry hiding in grass.
· The top portions of deeper runs or pools where a fast rapid or run begins to slow and deepen are also likely areas where shad fry can be located.  They will also occasionally be located in tails of pools as they migrate.  During low light periods, shad fry will eat tiny bugs and organisms from the water’s surface.  It’s like popcorn shad, as they are dimpling and jumping on the surface.  It gets the blood boiling!

The pods can also be located in the center of a deep, calm pool cruising toward their next resting place.  The easiest method for locating  cruising pods of shad fry is to watch for feeding smallmouth.  Often smallies with pin the fry between themselves and the surface, creating some exciting surface explosions!  When this occurs, you will hear the exclamation, “There’s one busting bait.  Can you reach it?”

Shad fry are much easier to locate during lower flows.  They are still “there” when the water rises and goes off-color.  They are much like smallmouth in this respect.  The fry become shoreline cover and eddy oriented during high flows.   Knowing the primary areas where fry hold during lower flows helps locate them when the water is higher and murkier, when they can’t be seen by the naked eye.

When water temperatures are above 50 degrees, small soft jerkbaits, primarily Sinkin Salty Shads, created by Case Plastics, are deadly when twitched or “walked” on or near the surface during the downstream migration of the shad fry.  Another favorite method is a Texas-rigged Senko or Senko copy bait like a Case Magic Stik or Yum Dinger.  Texas rigging the lure allows it to be twitched, creating reaction strikes from less aggressive smallmouth.  Light colors like pearls and smokes are preferred.

Topwater lures like Pop-R’s, Zara Spooks and Torpedos work well in calmer water areas or drop offs near grass beds.  Buzzbaits are a great choice for aggressively feeding smallmouth in shallow water with some current.  During higher flows, throw spinnerbaits and buzzbaits to structure and eddies near where shad fry hold.  Try Mizmo tubes and suspending jerkbaits to go below the fry during murkier water conditions.

There will be times when the fry are located, smallmouth are feeding on them and not eating the lures on or just beneath the surface.  Go beneath the activity with a Mizmo tube or grub, or deadstick a Salty Shad or Senko copy bait.  Often, this occurs as the light penetration increases during mid-morning.  This technique is excellent for creating bites from larger, less active smallmouth that tend to hold deeper when larger amounts of light penetrate the water.

When the water cools below 50 degrees, a suspending jerkbait, like a Lucky Craft Pointer is an excellent choice.  Crankbaits in shad patterns work well, especially in colder, murkier water conditions.

Some of the finest smallmouth of the season are caught during the spring adult shad run on a number of mid-atlantic and northeast rivers.  Knowing the itinerary and holding areas of their offspring offers anglers tremendous opportunities for numbers of bass and trophies right throughout the summer and well into the fall season.

20 inch smallmouthThis 20 inch smallmouth was taken on a Case Sinkin Salty Shad
twitched on a flat where smallmouth were targeting shad fry.  (7-04)

Blaine Mengel, Jr.

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