There are two species of Shad that spawn in the St. Johns: The American Shad (the larger of the two) and the Hickory Shad. The smaller males will run from 12 to 15 inches while the females can reach up to 5 lbs and up to 26″ in length. An average female will run 22 to 23 inches in length and weigh about 4 lbs.
The Shad are not thick in the river until around the 1st week in Feb. It is at this time you can start fishing upstream (south of) St Road 46 at Lee’s crossing, especially near the mouth of the Econolohatchi River (Econ for short) where it empties into the St. Johns. The fish are always there like clock work and with the right flies or jigs one can expect to catch dozens of fish in a few hours of fishing.
The Econ has excellent shad fishing with a mile or more of grassy banks to fish from and or places to wade. There are no trees and the fly fisherman will find the fly-fishing similar to meadow stream fishing in the west. A lot of Shad spawn in the Econ with the best fishing coming in early February.
A 4 or 5 weight fly rod 7.6 to eight feet long will serve you well loaded with a weight forward floating line. I also carry a number one sinking line (bone fish line) just in case the river comes up from rain. I personally prefer to fish a sinking line because a sinking line is easier to cast into the wind and it gets the fly down into the current faster.
My favorite setup is a 3 piece 4 weight, 8 feet long. A 9-foot leader ending with a 3x tippet is what I use. Seldom will you break off a fish with 3x tippet unless you get really excited. You can even go to a 2x if you prefer. Shad are not leader shy.
When the wind is just cranking (20 knots or more), fly-fishing can be a challenge; especially if you have to cast into the wind. What I do then is take off my fly reel and put on an ultra-light spinning reel loaded with 4lb test mono and fish 1/8 once jigs. I use swimming grubs in the same colors as my flies. Preferably use jigs with red or chartreuse heads. Plain lead headed jigs work well with smoke colored grubs.
The most basic method is to cast across current and swim and or jig the fly down stream. If a fish “boils”; cast upstream of the “boil” and swim the fly through the “boil”. A “boil” is when the shad swim up toward the surface to take a minnow and just before breaking the surface of the water it starts back down. The action of turning at or near the surface of the water is what makes the disturbance (boil).
Shad like to spawn in 4 to 6 feet of water on a sandy gravelly bottom with about a 4 mph current. However, before they reach their spawning area and while they are migrating up stream look for shad in the following areas:
- Anywhere you see birds diving to take minnows.
- Fast current areas.
- Where two currents come together.
- Big pools. These are resting areas for the shad.
- Eddy lines formed by fast moving currents along banks.
- The tail ends of long broad runs where the water depth is spawning depth.
- The head of runs especially if the water is dropping off a shelf.
- Eddy lines formed along the base of tree roots especially if there is lots of current.
- Shad “washing” activity. Hundreds of fish all “boiling” the surface at the same time.
All my fly patterns are tied in the Clouser style except for the Shad Buster. Sizes 6’s and 4’s on a Mustad 34007 hook (or its equivalent). Eyes are lead medium dumbbell in Red or White. Colors: White, Pink, Chartreuse, Smoke, Gold, and Silver. Tie in lead eyes, wrap the body and tie in a wing. The wing should extend at least halt the length of the body shaft past the bend of the hook. The finished over all length will be 1 1/2 inch.
I usually start with an all white pattern or my Shad Buster. Chartreuse is my go to color because it catches everything: bluegills, specs, and bass, in addition to shad.
I use a gold pattern when there is bright sun and or during the middle of the day. My silver shadfly is one of those flies that shad just like to eat. I seldom catch bluegills or specs on it, but shad will eat it every time. If I’m catching lots of bluegills and specs and want only to catch shad I will switch to my silver pattern.
Biologist will tell you that Shad do not eat when they come into the river out of the ocean. But I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt, I have seen Shad eat and chase minnows. When a Shad “boils” the surface it’s because it’s chasing after a minnow.
My “Shad Buster” pattern: Not a Clouser style. This pattern has lots of motion in addition to flash and is a consistent fish producer.
Hook: Mustad 34007 size 4.
Eyes: Large silver bead chain.
Body: Pink crystal braid or crystal chenille.
Tail: White marabou.
Collar: White spade feathers, 3 turns in front of eyes. The feather barbules should extend back to the bend of the hook.
By the way did I mention that the Shads Latin name Alosa sapidissimameans: means “most delicious fish”. Both the yellow and white roe are delicious. And if you have never eaten smoked shad do yourself a favor and try it. It’ll keep you coming back.