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Shad Fishing in the Central Valley

American Shad make their way up Central Valley rivers and streams each spring for their annual spawning run.  These tough fighting fish have been called "little tarpon" for their fighting abilities and are pursued by sports anglers across Northern California.  Native to the Northeastern United States, American Shad have been introduced to the west coast and are now found in large numbers in the Sacramento and Colombia River systems.  The best time to target shad in Northern California is during May and June during the tail end of the striper run. American Shad

American Shad are relatives of the herring and spend most of their lives at sea.  The males average between two to four pounds while the females can reach up to six or seven pounds.  They are oily, bony fish and are mostly enjoyed as a sports fish, not as table fare.  If you decide to keep some shad, they are really good when smoked.  Their roe is considered a delicacy by many Asian cultures.

American Shad shouldn't be confused with Threadfin Shad, which also live in the California Delta system.  Threadfin shad only reach about six inches in length and are commonly used as bait for striped bass and sturgeon in the delta.

Practice catch and release, and good luck!
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Tackle Jump to the top of this page

Rod
Spinning Rod
Most people like to use about a six to seven foot medium rod with a fast tip.  Try to go light without getting too light.  Ultra-light panfish and crappie rigs are a little too light to bring in shad out of the current.  A light trout rod is what you are looking for.

Reel

Go with a small to medium sized spinning reel.  Most people stick with spinning reels because the lures we will be using are light and need to be casted far.  One important factor is a smooth drag.  Shad have soft mouths and we'll be using a really loose drag setting.  A jerky drag lead to lost fish. Shimano Spinning Reel

Line

I like to use six pound test P-Line Fluoroclear.  It is a hybrid cross between monofilament and fluorocarbon. P-Line Fluoroclear

Lures

There are several lures to choose from when shad fishing.  The traditional shad dart works, but here in Northern California most people prefer to use crappie jigs.  An 1/32 oz. crappie jig with a 1" curly tail grub is the most popular lure.

Colors can vary from day to day.  Be sure to carry lots of different color combinations to see what the fish are hitting on that particular day.  Keep changing your colors until you find what the fish are interested in.  The standby color for the jig head is red, followed by chartreuse or pink.  For the grub, champagne is the top color, followed by chartreuse, white, and pink.  If you buy a shad dart that comes with a tail (like the ones shown here), trim it off or the lure will be too big.

Jig Head
Jig Head

Curly Tail Grub
Curly Tail Grub

Shad Darts
Shad Darts

One thing to keep in mind is that shad do not feed in fresh water.  Much like salmon, they stop feeding once they reach fresh water and begin their spawning run.  They strike out of aggression or out of instinct.

Setup Jump to the top of this page

Deep Water Boat or Bank Setup

You'll need to add some weight to get your lure down into the current.  When fishing in deep or slow water, tie about a three foot leader attached to a swivel.  Above the swivel add a 1/4 to 1 ounce barrel sinker.
Deep Water Boat or Bank Shad Setup

Shallow Water Boat Setup

In shallow water, you can simply add about four to six split shots about three feet above your lure.  This method works best from a boat because using it from the bank will ensure that you get snagged on the rocks often.
Shallow Water Boat Shad Setup

Shallow Water Boat or Bank Setup

In shallow water you can replace the split shots with an 1/8 to 3/4 ounce slinky weight.  This will help to keep you out of the rocks.
Shallow Water Boat or Bank Shad Setup

Deep Water Boat Setup

When fishing deep water from a boat, you can tie a weight to the bottom of your rig and then tie several grubs about one foot apart above the weight.  You can tie direct using a Palomar knot (left) and your rig will resemble a drop-shotting rig used for bass fishing.  Alternately, you can use a dropper loop like a surf rig (right).
Deep water boat setup for shad

Location Jump to the top of this page

Shad can be found throughout the Sacramento River system.  In the lower section of the river, Clarksburg, Freeport, Garcia Bend, Discovery Park and Verona are all popular bank fishing venues.  The American, Feather and upper Sacramento Rivers are also great places to catch shad.  The faster running, shallow stretches of rivers are more popular with jet boats and anglers using waders to access fishing sites.

Technique Jump to the top of this page

Find a Spot

The interesting thing about shad is that they can be found at all depths and in all types of water.

Deep Water

If you are fishing in an area that is wide and deep, you simply need to start fishing to see where they are holding.  If you are fishing of the bank in slow deep water like the Freeport area, start out by casting upstream at about a 20 degree angle.  Let it sink for a few seconds and slowly retrieve your lure as it sinks to the bottom.  Vary your retrieve to see what the fish are looking for that particular day.  Sometimes the fish want a medium or fast retrieve, while other times they want a slow retrieve.  You can also vary the amount of time you allow the lure to sink before you start your retrieve.  I usually start with a five second count and go up and down from there until I find where the fish are holding.  When the lure gets near the shore reel quickly to avoid getting snagged.

Shallow Water

If you are fishing in shallow water, like the upper American River, you'll need a lot less weight.  In shallow stretches of the river, shad tend to hold in water that is five to seven feet deep.  Look for water that has a decent amount of current running through it.  Use the split shot or slinky weight setups shown above.

The Strike

Shad tend to strike the lure fairly lightly.  You might feel an abrupt bump followed by pressure.  If you feel pressure, use a short quick hook set and start reeling.  As I mentioned earlier, shad have very soft mouths and are easy to lose if you apply too much pressure.  A huge hook set will tear their skin and cause you to lose the fish.

Fish On

Be sure to keep a really loose drag on your reel.  Your goal when fighting a shad is to keep light and steady pressure on the fish at all times.  When the fish make a run, let your drag do its job.  It should take several minutes to land each shad.

Time Jump to the top of this page

Times that shad will bite can be unpredictable.  Most people fish for shad either at mid-morning or late in the afternoon.  Sometimes shad will bite like crazy right before dark.  Overcast days seem to be good because the shad move up higher in the water column.