Sporting Life

Memories of Springtime Hickory Shad

By Dennis Doyle

If you’ve been angling a few years with a reasonable level of enthusiasm you’ll find that you’ve also accumulated some very real aquatic memories. Days past often come intensely to mind with recollections of watery adventure and bursts of natural wonderment. It’s a great world out there in Maryland’s Tidewater and even the average fisherman will eventually get first hand and very personal and intense experiences that can haunt them for years to comeā€”and I mean that in a good way.

I distinctly remember one particular spring day that occurred about now, a year or so ago on the Upper Choptank. It had rained almost the whole week prior, which raises the water levels, leaches sediment into the flow and makes fishing difficult. On this morning, however, things had calmed a bit, the water had cleared remarkably, fish had moved up the river with their spawning urges and many had paused below a deep bend in the channel in front of me.

I could see pods of silvery shapes making tours of the wide circular current that forms there, arching their backs and flashing signs of imminent spawn. It was early in the week and early in the morning, no one was in evidence yet but I was sure that it wouldn’t be for long. It was a popular spot so I rushed to get my 6.5-foot, 6 weight, Scott fly rod, a favorite of mine, rigged. As soon as anyone else showed up, I would have to put up the fly rod to avoid tangling with other anglers, unfamiliar with the physics of casting flies but for now the place was mine.

Watching a pod of cruising shadows, I worked my first cast out and attempted an intercepting drift about 40 feet out front. I could barely see the two streamers swing into the current as my line tautened in the current. The fish and my flies merged, and feeling the sudden weight on my line, I gave a firm tug, set the hook and the water exploded.

It was a big female hickory fresh from the ocean and wildly indignant. Greyhounding downstream, she took my loose line up off the water, came tight with the reel, and soon the spool was spinning madly as she made her first run. I let her go.

I feathered the spool with my fingers, increasing the tension on the line and made a determined attempt to slow her down. There were lots of nasty rocks, sunken brush and branches downstream and I didn’t need their interference. The big hen responded by rocketing completely out of the water, vertically twisting and shining in the bright morning light. I can still clearly see her in my mind eye as I write this, better than any photograph.

Jumping again and again she pulled my rod nearly horizontal, throwing cascades of water across the breadth of the stream and sparkling in the crisp morning air, as if she was almost transparent. Then the fish was gone. My heart hammered, my fingers trembled and I felt as if I’d had a visitation from the spirit of nature itself.

Catching my breath, I retrieved my line and flies, checked them for fouling, then worked out another cast as best as I could. My coordination seemed to have abandoned me and it took a good 15 minutes before I felt myself again.

Then again, my line came tight and another shad, this one a male, made a serious attempt at flying out over the water, splashing down, then throwing a wild, wet tantrum in the middle of the stream while I did my best to hold onto it. Eventually working it to the shoreline, I slid the rascal up on the bank and made ready to release it. Hearing someone behind me, I turned, fetched out my camera and asked the new arrival if he’d help me.

As I tried to maneuver the hickory into place for the picture it struggled out of my grasp, sinking the second streamer hook well into my index finger, bouncing free off the shore and then into the depths. Turnabout being fair play, I forgave the finny rascal, stumbled to my vehicle, fetched some tape and clipped off the fly, wiped the blood off my finger and wrapped it tight with the tape to keep it out of the way.

Putting up my fly rod, as other cars started to arrive, I rigged my light spin rod with a pair of shad darts and, thanking the mighty fish gods, went on working the Choptank for the bounty that seemed omnipresent that morning. I knew this trip was going to be easy to remember.