Rappahannock River Shad Fishing

by Chris McCotter

  It seems like a lot of things have changed over the past few years, but some things remain the same here in Virginia come spring. The dogwoods are going to bloom, and the shad are going to run up the tidal rivers on their annual spring run to spawn.  

    Virginia anglers will have the opportunity to target hickory shad, American shad, and herring with only the hickory shad being aloud to be kept. 

  Many anglers take the spring run as an opportunity to stock up on catfish bait as many feel that the fresh shad to be the best catfish bait available. 

  The main reason I think you will see 100’s of anglers lining the banks of our tidal rivers is because they are fun to catch.  Many anglers reference these fish as a poor man’s tarpon and once you have one of these silver missiles attached to your line you will see why. They often will leap from the water, putting on quite the acrobatic display. 

   Naturally, when my friend Mark invited me out recently for a day on the Rappahannock River to chase them, I had to say, yes. 

  We dropped my boat in at the City Docks Ramp located in Fredericksburg and idled a short way down the river.  While many anglers target these fish with shad darts or small spoons, Mark handed me a spinning rod with a trolling sinker and a small crappie jig attached a few feet below the sinker. 

It didn’t take long before both Mark and I had put a few fish in the boat, but it was obvious that Mark was doing something different because he was catching them three times as fast.

   As any good angler would do, I made Mark switch rods with me to make sure that it was not the bait’s fault. As Mark quickly hooked up on my rig, I realized that it was in fact not the bait, but me. Mark had a certain cadence dialed in and after a short while I was able to find my rhythm and started getting bit almost every cast. 

  I would be hard pressed to find a better way to spend a beautiful spring day on the water than catching shad almost every cast. Mark and I caught over 50 shad in a short period of time. 

  One other thing is you often end up with other fish besides shad on your line. I think we caught 9-10 species of fish, including crappie, striper and bass during the time we were on the water. 

 The American shad is a fish with a life cycle similar to that of salmon; adults migrate from the ocean to freshwater to spawn, and after hatching, young shad remain in the rivers for their first summer and migrate to the ocean the following fall. They remain at sea to maturity and typically live for five to seven years. 

  The shad was the most important fish in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries from colonial times until the 1930s, when the population went into steep decline, the result of years of overfishing and fragmented habitat and spawning grounds. 

  The fish once ran up the Rappahannock to the mouth of the Hazel River, a few miles above the town of Remington, and up the Rapidan River to the town of Rapidan. The fish, once prized for its meat despite an abundance of bones, and more so for its roe, has been making a slow but steady comeback to the delight of sport anglers.   

  There were two major reasons for the precipitous decline in abundance of American Shad in the James River: overfishing (primarily during the spring roe fishery) and dam proliferation; these factors worked in concert with general poor water quality. 

  Females are larger than males and typically mature at age five, which coincides with the age at which they have fully recruited to the gill nets used in the roe fishery. The removal of virgin females prior to spawning not just once but for multiple years greatly reduced spawning potential of the stock. 

   In the James River, American Shad historically migrated as far west as Covington, Virginia. In the mid-1800s, six dams, including Bosher’s Dam at the fall line in Richmond, Virginia, were constructed, blocking access to spawning grounds and confining American shad to tidal waters. 

  All of these dams, except for Bosher’s Dam, were either naturally or artificially breached between 1989 and 1993. A fishway was installed in Bosher’s Dam in 1999 that was specifically designed for passage of American Shad, coinciding with removing blockades to migration. Further, a hatchery program on the James River was initiated in 1992 to support recovery of American Shad stocks in Virginia.

   American shad have played an important role in supporting recreational and commercial fisheries since colonial times. Native Americans and early settlers utilized shad as a major food supply. The Chesapeake Bay shad fishery became an important industry around 1869 and developed greatly in following years. Commercial landings of American shad in Virginia decreased from 11.5 million pounds in 1897 to less than a million pounds in 1982.

  Concern about the decline in landings of American shad along the Atlantic coast prompted the development of an interstate fisheries management plan (FMP) by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Management Program. The main focus of the plan is to regulate exploitation and enhance stock restoration efforts. A moratorium on the taking of American shad in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries was established by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) beginning January 1, 1994. The prohibition applies to both recreational and commercial fishers. 

  Immediately following the moratorium, there were no monitoring programs that provided direct assessment of stock recovery. To address this deficiency, a method of scientific monitoring was proposed to estimate catch rates relative to those recorded before the prohibition of in-river fishing in 1994. Catch-per-unit-effort (CPUE) were compiled from logbooks that recorded commercial landings using staked gill nets in the middle reaches of the James, York and Rappahannock rivers during the period of 1980-1992. 

  The American shad monitoring program began in 1998 and consists of sampling techniques and locations that are consistent with and directly comparable to the historic logbook data collected by VIMS. The monitoring program is the only direct method available to determine the size of spawning runs relative to decades prior to the moratorium.

  Back in 2003 the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stocked nearly a half million American shad fry into the Rappahannock River at Kelly Ford. The then director of the state agency declared flatly that there is no doubt the project will succeed. 

  “In three to five years, we’ll be here celebrating a success story,” said William L. Woodfin, who praised his agency’s partnership with the Fish and Wildlife Service. 

  About 168,000 American shad fry for the stocking came from the state’s King and Queen Hatchery near Tappahanock, Virginia, and 244,000 came from the Harrison Lake National Fish Hatchery, operated by the Fish and Wildlife Service in Charles City County, Virginia. 

  The shad eggs that hatched into fry were collected from broodfish taken from the Potomac River by biologists from Virginia and the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin. That shad stocking program released a minimum of five million shad fry over the next several years, with the goal to aid in the speedy recovery of a healthy shad population. 

  Albert Spells, the Fish and Wildlife Service Virginia Fisheries Coordinator and manager of the Harrison Lake hatchery, said biologists expected about 1,000 returning adults for every 350,000 fry stocked in the wild. 

   The problem with the Rappahannock River was Embrey Dam, located a couple of miles above nearby Fredericksburg, that had blocked 73 miles of shad habitat for nearly 100 years. The 22-foot high, 900-foot wide dam was removed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2004. 

  When the Embrey dam, built in 1910, and a nearby crib dam, built in 1853, were removed, the Rapidan and Rappahannock Rivers provided a combined 112 reopened miles of shad and herring spawning and rearing habitat, and an estimated 900 miles of potential tributary habitat will become accessible. 

   Charles G. McDaniel, chairman of the state board that oversees the DWR, called the Rappahannock River stocking “something that’s going to benefit everyone,” and praised the support of Virginia Senators John Warner and George Allen for their help in securing a comeback for the American shad. 

  Well, in the years since stocked hatchery fish would be expected to return (i.e., age four fish in 2007), the percent hatchery origin fish encountered in the Rappahannock River ranged from 0% (2007 and 2021) to 8.9% (2016). And due to the low level of return, DWR and USFW ceased stocking American shad in the Rappahannock River for the foreseeable future. The program was an unexpected failure.

    Fisheries biologists were confused. The natural recruitment of American Shad in the James River and Rappahannock Rivers had been altered due to overfishing and dams. Therefore, they hypothesized that increased hatchery inputs of American shad larvae and removal of the dams would lead to more returning adults as well as to a higher proportion of hatchery adults in the spawning stocks of that year-class.

    Sadly, this didn’t happen.

  Long-term monitoring of the James River American Shad spawning population allowed for the critical examination of the contribution of hatchery individuals to the yearly spawning run and the relative success rate of each hatchery year-class. Although American shad populations did not rebound as planned, from the data DWR and other state biologists determined that the James River spawning stock of American Shad was dependent upon hatchery inputs, with ideal hatchery returns occurring during years of moderate levels of hatchery stocking. 

    Unfortunately, hatchery operations for American shad on the James River ceased in 2018 due to financial constraints, difficulty in obtaining broodstock, and the apparent ineffectiveness of restoring the natural population. Because the age-5 year-class is the first year of full recruitment to the gear used for monitoring the spawning stock, the full consequences of the termination of hatchery inputs on the James River should be evident this year. 

  Hickory shad are the most common shad species in the Rappahannock, while the larger American shad is caught from time to time.

  Rapphannock River shad are most frequently caught between March and May. It is not uncommon for anglers to catch over 100 fish in a day of fishing. Some individuals swear by Mother Nature and wait until the shad bush starts blooming to go fish. Others start right when the cormorants appear at the fall line in Fredericksburg. 

   Shad are typically caught from the bank or a boat using a spin fishing rod or a fly rod. Shad congregate in large schools alongside several publicly-accessible locations in the City of Fredericksburg – a national destination for recreational shad fishing, especially for fly anglers. 

    Shad can be caught on spin tackle using artificial lures such as spoons, shad darts and jigs. Fly anglers often choose to use a sinking line and small, brightly-colored heavy flies such as Clouser minnows. 

   According to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, female shad release eggs at night when water temperatures reach about 61°F. Once fertilized, the eggs drift downstream with the current and hatch in 48 to 70 hours. Females can contain more than 300,000 eggs. After hatching, the young fry spend their first summer in freshwater and move towards higher salinity waters by fall.

    Despite their great abundance in Fredericksburg, current shad populations are believed to represent just a fraction of their historical level. 

  If you try shad fishing this spring, keep in mind the Rappahannock, like all rivers can be dangerous. Some pools are deep and waders should take care. A properly fitted PFD is important to wear on days of high flow or fishing around strong current. Waders are helpful but bank anglers catch plenty of shad, too.  

  As noted above, most of the shad anglers pull from the Rappahannock are hickory shad but American shad are a possibility. 

  Light spinning gear and fly rods are the norm for Rapp River shad fishing. Weighted streamers, shad darts and small spoons work well most of the time.

  White and red is a popular color combination for darts and streamers, but many local experts prefer chartreuse bodies with a dark green or red head. Usually a specific dart will be working, and if the fish are choosing smaller darts, anglers will rig two in tandem, one 18 to 24 inches ahead of the second one. Fishing two streamers at once on a fly rod can also be productive. A 5- to 7-weight outfit with a 9-foot rod is perfect for this fishing.

  There are some nuances to learn when beginning shad fishing. Top spots to try are deep pools, with the larger ones holding the most fish. Some shad can be caught in the upper sections of the pools, but the lower third of the pool usually holds the most fish.

   To cast and present your bait to shad, first position yourself directly across from a prime zone or slightly upstream from it and cast across. Next, let the fly or dart sink a few feet, and then begin a slow to moderate pumping retrieve. The pulsing retrieve will draw more strikes than a steady one on most days.

  The shad stay in the river and strike darts and flies through mid-May. This month the action slows, but if you scale down to smaller flies and darts you can still enjoy good action.

  Shad fishing is a great way to take a kid fishing or perhaps somebody just looking to get into fishing. The bites are often plentiful, the equipment required is relatively cheap, and the weather can be great.

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