Retired Department of Natural Resources biologist and shad expert Dale Weinrich plays a hickory shad on fly tackle in Deer Creek.
Retired Department of Natural Resources biologist and shad expert Dale Weinrich plays a hickory shad on fly tackle in Deer Creek. (Bill May photos)

Fishing for hickory and white (American) shad has been a rite of spring for centuries in mid-Atlantic country. In our area the locus of shad fishing is the Susquehanna River complex, which includes Deer Creek on the western shore and the Octararo River on the eastern shore. Today only sport fishing is allowed for both species on a catch-and-release basis.

The first run of shad are hickories, which average a bit under 2 pounds and usually arrive in the Susquehanna in mid-April and enter Deer Creek and the Octoraro in good numbers when water temperatures reach 50 degrees and stay in that range. The hickory run usually ends by mid-May, by which time the run of white shad, which begins in late April, is well underway. White shad, which average 3 to 4 pounds, rarely enter the feeder creeks but stay in the mainstem Susquehanna River until the first week of June.


Generally fishing is best in very low light — early morning and late evening, cloudy weather or slightly discolored water. Bright days with clear water usually make fishing tough — except some days they'll hit with abandon.

Location is likewise critical. Look for a place where you can swing your lures or flies to the fish at the tails of pools, or along "seams," or edges of deep holes.

Fishing for shad took off in the 1950's, with the boom in affordable spin fishing and fly tackle and culminating in publication of C. Boyd Pfeiffer's Shad Fishing in 1975. Republication of this book in 2002 is a testament to the continuing popularity of this fishery.

The ideal fly rod for hickory shad is the ideal trout rod, a 9-foot, 5 weight. Today's standard line is a floating 5-weight with a 5-foot sinktip section and 3 to 4 feet of clear, 4X leader.

A lot of flies work for hickories, but few patterns are needed. A proven pattern, the only one some good shad fishermen use, is a #8 streamer fly with a slim silver or gold body and red over yellow marabou wing. A Wayne Blottenberger pattern of a red chenille body with a silver rib and a red marabou wing has also proven effective over the years.

The ideal fly rod for white shad and both species in the Susquehanna River is the ideal smallmouth rod, a 9-foot rod casting a 7 to 8-weight line, either sinktip or full sinking, and a 3 to 4 foot leader of clear 3X. White shad flies are considerably larger; the favorite is a 1/0 dart fly, weighted or unweighted, with a white or gold crystal chenille body and red chenille head. Fly rod spoons in silver or gold are other good choices.

Recommended spinning tackle for hickories is a medium-light or medium 6 to 6 ½- foot rod, matching reel and 6-pound test monofilament (or 8 or 10-pound test in crowded areas) to cast small darts or gold spoons. For whites, use medium spin tackle, 8 to 10-pound test monofilament and larger darts and spoons. Popular dart colors are red and white, red and orange, red and chartreuse.

Spinning tackle usually doesn't work as well in small streams like Deer Creek and the Octararo River; in the Susquehanna, it is the rig of choice, since often long casts are needed and shore fishermen sometimes have no room for backcasts. I recommend fishing only one dart or spoon at a time, adding split shot for extra weight if needed. You can expect to lose plenty of lures on the rocky bottom.

The basic tactic for all shad consists of a cross-current cast and accelerated swing along the edges of holes and seams and to the ends of the pools as described above. With either fly or spin tackle, you can accelerate the swing by keeping the rod pointed across the stream at right angles to the current, so the belly of the line whips the fly or lure into the shad with a sideways presentation.

Once the fly or lure is directly downstream, mend the line to one side to give another acceleration, then repeat to the other side, then lift the line and let it drop back slightly. Sometimes a slight jigging action helps during the swing. Strikes can also occur with a dead drift or with the fly or lure just hanging in the current. Then retrieve and repeat the cast and swing.

Shad strike with a solid "thump." Both species are great jumpers and fighters. Hickories are a bit more aerial, and whites are more impressive sluggers.

When fishing the Susquehanna, pay attention to flashing lights and sirens from Conowingo Dam that signal the opening of additional gates. Waders need to head toward the bank, and boaters should get their motors running and be prepared to haul anchor.

Most bank fishing for both species is along the Western shore of the Susquehanna. Though fishing just below Conowingo Dam can be elbow-to-elbow, it can be fun and productive for spin fishermen as long as good sportsmanship is observed. Basically this means not crowding other anglers and drifting your lures in a pattern similar to other anglers. There are numerous other good spots along the western bank, with the mouth of Deer Creek and the area near the Rock Run Grist Mill two of the more popular.

Boat fishing, launching from the Lapidum ramp, is even more productive. The ideal rig is a 14 to 18-foot aluminum boat, powered by a 20-horsepower motor with a rock guard on the propeller. Boating and anchoring must be done with care, and boaters need to keep a knife handy to cut an anchor rope in an emergency. Fly and spin tackle can be used, and mixed bags of smallmouth bass, stripers, white and hickory shad, white perch and channel catfish are common. Only the perch and catfish may be kept in spring.