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Gangbusters for Shad

When the forsythia bloom, the hickories start running

Pulling into my driveway this week, I caught the briefest  flash of bright yellow out of the corner of my eye. A neighbor’s forsythia bush was beginning to bloom. My mind returned to this exact time a year ago.
    Late that morning, a friend and I were pussyfooting up to a riverbank on the upper Choptank. We had already spent a number of fruitless weeks chasing elusive yellow perch and again feared failure. What we saw in the water restored our hope.


  Hickory shad are at Deer Creek near the head of the Bay, in the Choptank, the Elk and the Patuxent. Smaller runs are usual in most Chesapeake tributaries. White perch have also begun to show in the Choptank at Greensboro, along the Tuckahoe, the Magothy at Beachwood Park and up toward the headwaters of the Chester and the Sassafras.
  Anglers practicing for the opening of rockfish trophy season, April 20, have been encountering fish by trolling just south of the Bay Bridge along the edges of the shipping channels and the deeper waters off Poplar Island. Fishing the top third of the water column and never exceeding three knots has been the key. Light-tackle anglers working 10- and 12-inch soft plastic jigs have been landing some giants targeting the rips off Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant. This is a catch-and-release fishery.

Hunting Seasons

Light Geese Conservation Season: thru April 13

Wild Turkey Spring Season Junior Hunt: April 13

Wild Turkey Spring Season: April 18 thru May 23

    My jaw dropped as a large shoal of big silvery fish, flexing as a unit, melted away from the near shore and back out into the spidery, central vortex of tumbling water. Hickory shad, hundreds of them, more than I’d seen at one time in many years and more than I’d ever seen in the Choptank.
    Trembling, we backtracked away from the shoreline and moved upstream to the head of the pool. Rigging tandem shad darts, orange and black as I remember, we each made long casts. Using light spin rods with four-pound-test line, we aimed diagonally downstream so that our darts would swing back through the rough water into which that mass of fish had disappeared.
    As our lures swam into the intended area, both of our rods were nearly jerked from our hands. Downstream two lovely hickories, almost two feet long, somersaulted out of the water, flashing in the morning sun. Our drags buzzed as they re-entered the water and took off downstream. We both whooped with delight.
    Gangbusters is a word that over the years has come to mean an enjoyable chaos. The term originated with a popular 1940s weekly radio show, Gang Busters, whose beginning was announced by the sound of wailing sirens, screeching tires and the rattle of machine gun fire.
    That morning on the Choptank was gangbusters for us. The fish wore us out as we lost count of those caught and released. They were still biting when we left the river some four hours later, arms sore, weary and out of shad darts. We lost many of our lures to the river’s rocks to be sure, but we also left more than a few firmly clenched in the jaws of powerful and determined hickories.
    The hickory shad has had a troubled life the last 30 years in the Chesapeake with dams, silt from careless development and polluted stormwater runoff savaging its efforts at reproduction. The anadromous, ocean-running fish faithfully return in large schools to their sweetwater birthplaces each spring to spawn. In Bay waters, they are near the northern limit of their range.
    Though generally measuring 16 to 20 inches, with its lifespan of up to nine years the hickory can grow to surprising size. In 1972, one of the last years that they could be legally harvested, the Maryland state record fish, a four-pounder, was caught.
    Their response to being hooked is generally to leap high into the air, leap again and then tear into a long run. Hickory shad fight like a miniature tarpon. The species continues to be protected from harvest in Maryland, but they are eligible for catch-and-release.
    Up to 10 million hickory shad fry are also raised and released by DNR hatcheries every year in a long-term effort to rebuild the stocks. If you haven’t tangled with a hickory shad with light spin gear or a fly rod, you have an angling treat coming.

Natural Resources Police Turn 145
    Maryland’s Natural Resources Police celebrated 145 years on March 30. The force descends from both the State Oyster Police, created in 1868, and the Office of the State Game Warden, created in 1896. Fighting a difficult and endless battle with poachers and other natural resource outlaws, policing our waterways, keeping boaters safe and providing them aid and assistance, Natural Resources Police deserve our respect and gratitude.

Opening Day Rockfish Tournament
    Boatyard Bar and Grill holds its 12th annual catch-and-release tournament Saturday, April 20. Limited to the first 200 boats entered, it has become highly popular. Information at