It's hard to leave the water, especially when the fish are snapping. So I've determined the pronouncement "just one more cast" is merely folly, a falsehood built on self delusion. In nearly 30 years of fishing I cannot recall a single instance where I had announced that this would absolutely be my last cast of a trip and followed through on it. I've always taken a few more, lingered to try and squeeze out few more moments of enjoyment, or better yet a day's best fish. Only when faced with realities of time commitments do I call it quits, mostly in resigned silence.
That was the case earlier this week when I joined Mike Bailey of Friends of Fletcher's Cove for a few hours of Potomac River shad fishing before work. And it was also during a protracted exodus that I hooked into my best fish of the morning, an American shad pushing four pounds that spit the hook an instant before I could handle the leader.
A half-hour before first light, we launched the small rowboat from the iconic Fletcher's Boathouse (boatingindc.com/boathouses/fletchers-boathouse), where for more than 150 years people have flocked to enjoy the nation's river. Fletcher's entire fleet of 18 rowboats shared our morning, as did mallards, wood ducks, geese, cormorants and even a small flock of Bonaparte's gulls, I assume refueling and resting for a spell before continuing north to their Canadian breeding grounds. Catfish, herring, rock, and both white and hickory shads roiled all around us, in unabashed expressions of fish love.
It's likely Bailey knows this section of the river as well as anyone currently — the names of boulders and rocky outcrops rolls off his tongue with ease, like you might list your kin. He's been casting a line here for 35 years, and points out which riffles and boils hold smallmouth bass, shad and stripers.
We're set to fish, but before we do from his bright yellow tackle bag he pulls out a not-so yellow banana and without a word he plunks it down on the bench seat like a marker buoy, as if to declare, "Superstitions will not deter the good shad bite that awaits." I just laugh.
A first-class river ambassador, he's generous and frequent with his advice on everything from the most effective shad lures to the best way to release an alosa, even if you've done it a thousand times. He's meticulous about proper rod care in the way some folks are when they politely insist a visitor use a coaster for his beer. Like any good guest you simply smile and thank your host for his reminder.
I broke the ice with a boisterous American, pulsing with oceanic energy, its silvery flanks shining like crushed diamonds plucked from deep within a carbonate womb. For nearly three hours we had steady action, interrupted briefly when we switched tactics to try and catch a rockfish. They weren't cooperative this morning, but the previous week they were when the river wasn't flowing so fast, Bailey noted.
At one time shad and other herrings were the dominant commercial fishery on the Chesapeake Bay, peaking at about 17 million pounds by the turn of the 20th century. Decades of overfishing, river passages blocked by dams and pollution-induced poor spawning habitats, however, conspired to push these fish to the brink of collapse. Today, shad fishing is of the sporting kind exclusively, save for the harvests of a few indigenous tribes in Virginia.
During the late 1990s I spent a few a balmy evenings, "in the full flush of Spring returning," accompanying commercial waterman Harley Lewis and Jim Cummins, then a biologist for the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, as they set drift nets for American shad. Those two spearheaded the on-the-water efforts to jump-start depleted shad stocks. They'd catch shad, and strip their eggs and milt into a container, which would be trucked to a hatchery where they'd be raised into fingerlings. Later, school kids would release the juveniles back into the Potomac, the concept being to increase the chances for survival. And it has worked, to some degree.
Today, it is Fletcher's Cove that needs help, Bailey explained between casts. Fill dirt from 1960s era infrastructure projects was deposited here, creating an artificial dam of sorts upstream from Fletchers that accelerated sediment build-up in the decades that followed. Efforts in the 1980s and 1990s to relieve that siltation didn't fully take. So public access to the river via Fletcher's Cove, and Fletcher's Boathouse that rents rowboats, kayaks and canoes as well as sells fishing licenses, bait and tackle, is again under threat.
As frontman for Friends of Fletcher's Cove (friendsoffletcherscove.org), Bailey's love for this section of the Potomac is infectious. Yet he's realistic enough to understand the significant challenges that lie ahead. It'll take a concerted effort from both private groups and public agencies. FFC and its partners, including Keep America Fishing, Trout Unlimited and the Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, are working to fund and implement a plan to reverse the siltation. One thing is as clear as a shad's eye: Bailey and others love this part of the river and are willing to fight to protect it.
TIPS TO CATCH SHAD
For my money, pound-for-pound American shad fight just as hard on light tackle as almost any Chesapeake Bay fish, as do their smaller cousins, hickory shad, which are also called poor man's tarpon because of their acrobatic leaps. Hickories usually show up in bay rivers before the whites, but this spring they arrived together; another sign that perhaps it's shaping up to be a quirky year? The peak run usually occurs from early April through mid May, which means it's on, so get out now so as not to miss out. Here are some tips to help you catch them.
Lures: Shad darts (1/8 to 1/4 ounces) in flaming reds, hot pinks, orange or chartreuse are shad killers — metaphorically speaking, of course, since shad are strictly a C&R gamefish. Mini-tube jigs or round jigs (my preference, dressed) tipped with rubber grubs, straight or curly tailed in champagne and hot pink catch, too. Small fluttering spoons can be also good at times. Why shad hit a fly is intriguing since they're almost exclusively plankton feeders. Once in freshwater, shad have been known to eat small aquatic insects. Most likely, however, they strike flies out of aggression. Basic shad flies can be tied on No. 4 hook with chenille body, marabou tail with flash crystal flash and tinsel.
Rig: Three-way swivel (No. 2 or smaller) with the heavier dart tied on the shorter (12 inches or so) shot of leader; the lighter lure runs behind on a 20- to 24-inch leader. Go barbless or mash down barbs for easier release. Consider using a rubber coated, shallow trout net.
Rod/Reel: Six-foot spin outfits in the 8- to 10-pound class, with 3000-4000 reels are fine. I prefer braid to mono, and a 12- to 15-pound fluorocarbon leader.
Fly Gear: 5- or 6-weight with sink-tip line. Tapered leaders less than 8 feet work fine for me.
When & where: Potoma, Gunpowder, Choptank, Deer Creek, and Octorara Creek are hotspots. Shad are light sensitive, and therefore are most active early morning or evening, though they'll bite throughout the day on overcast days. They hang in the seams where the current and/or tidal bumps up against the eddies. Cast upriver and retrieve your lure, paying close attention so that you don't let any slack in your line. Slowly retrieve your lure, giving it a little "snap" yet ensuring you cover different parts of the water column. Once you've dialed into the right combo of lure weight and color, retrieve speed and depth, stick with it till the bite slows. And then change tactics to find out what they want next.
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April 17: MSSA's Essex Middle River chapter monthly meeting, Commodore Hall, 1909 Old Eastern Avenue in Essex. Captain Bill Zimmerman from the charter boat Salty Dog speaking on Trophy Rock fishing.
April 18-May 23: Spring Turkey Season, includes Sundays in certain counties. Bag limit is one (1) bearded turkey per day and two (2) bearded turkeys for the season. Shooting hours 4/18-5/9 are one-half hour before sunrise to noon; 5/10-5/23 are one-half hour before sunrise to sunset.
April 19: MSSA Annapolis Chapter Meeting. Gary Richie of Spankin' Stripers baits will present his method of trolling for striped bass, as well as sell his custom made baits. 7 p.m. at the American Legion Post #7, 1905 Crownsville Road, Crownsville.
April 20: CCA MD Annapolis Chapter Banquet. CBF's Merril Center, 6 Herndon Avenue, Annapolis. 6 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Email email@example.com for details.
April 21-23: Bay Bridge Boat Show. Details at annapolisboatshows.com/bay-bridge-boat-show.
May 3: Free State Fly Fishers' meeting. Capt. Tom Hughes, an Orvis endorsed fly fishing guide, will speak on fishing the Bay. Davidsonville Family Recreation Center, 3727 Queen Anne Bridge Rd., behind Ford Hall. Free. Contact Joe Slayton, Labjoecool@comcast.net, (410) 757-4646.
May 5-7: MSSA's Championship on the Chesapeake. Details at mssa.net.
May 6: Small Boat Offshore Seminar, hosted by CCA MD Baltimore Chapter. Loew's Annapolis Hotel, 126 West Street, Annapolis.
June 3: Kent Narrows Light Tackle & Fly Tournament. Hosted at The Jetty, 201 Wells Cove Road, Grasonville. Contact David Sikorski at (443) 621-9186 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
June 16-18: MSSA's 28th annual Tuna-ment, featuring two new Boat Divisions — under 31 feet, over 31 feet. Register at mssa.net.