My first cast met with instant success and, as my slim rod bent down, a flashing, silver missile erupted vertically in the middle of the stream, arced over, splashed down and then grayhounded across the roiling current. Hickory shad had returned.
I knew it was time earlier that morning when I saw the first signs of dogwood blooms in my front yard. With their emergence the hickories had to be on their way.
Collecting some shad darts in bright colors and some small three-way swivels as well as a couple of bobbers, I chose my two favorite five-foot spin rods and a pair of warm neoprene boots and set off for the upper Choptank on the Eastern Shore.
Hickory shad arrive each spring to spawn throughout the Bay’s tributaries, with some returning multiple times in their 10-year lifespan. The harvest of all shad and river herring (a close cousin) has been prohibited in Maryland since 1981, as their population has declined due to unwise agricultural practices, urban development and damming. Catch and release, however, is allowed, as cool water temperatures keep the mortality rates low.
About an hour later I was rewarded by another good fish, and soon another. As the sun warmed the waters, the bite improved. By mid-afternoon I had notched a rewarding number. The best one, an estimated 20-incher, gave me six nice jumps before it came unbuttoned. Hickory shad is one of the more sporting fish that visits the Chesapeake.
My technique of fishing a pair of shad darts linked by a three-way swivel 18 inches below my bobber is a site-specific rig, chosen to keep the darts just off of the rocky, shallow river bottom and to hold the lures free from snags. Generally it is best to fish the darts — two always seem to draw strikes much better than one — bobber free so you’re able to explore the deeper waters where these fish also lurk. The hook wire on the shad darts is pliable enough to bend back to the proper shape, so be sure you do, otherwise you’ll not be able to keep a fish on your line for more than a second or so.
I prefer one-sixteenth- to one-eighth-ounce black-tipped orange or chartreuse shad darts, dressed with yellow or white calf tail. But a one-eighth-ounce curly tail jig in bright green is also popular on the Choptank.
An 18-inch hickory shad is a big one. Four-pound test line is plenty, but six-pound allows the additional luxury of prying a rock-fouled dart off by pulling hard enough to bend the hook.
Spring Fishing Extra
This time of year you may also encounter late-run white perch and early-run rockfish. The stripers must be released in all rivers, no matter what their size, until June 1. White perch, however, can be kept for the table and are absolutely delicious, with no minimum size or catch limit.