It is May 2, 2018, and the Shad Run is on!

The frequently rainy spring bedeviled shad fishermen. Heavy rains fall, then the shad are un-catchable for four or five days.

My previous trips inevitably brought shad, but it was hit or miss. This morn began the same way: three shad in the first 10 casts (7:45am) followed by 30 minutes of futility, one shad, then 20 minutes of futility. Come 10am, I had all of 10 shad in 2+ hours.

Then the tide really started to flow out, and the run was on. I bagged 40 or so fish in the next two hours, most of which were caught on the simplest rig: a silver or brass spoon at the end and a couple of big splitshot sinkers a couple feet up the line. Cast long, count to two as it falls, and reel back and medium speed. Neither the color nor the size of the spoon made a difference—the shad pounced. My rod hand actually got a blister from the friction as I hauled out one fighting shad after another. And my left hand is all scraped up from grabbing shad so that I could remove the hook. Beat-up paws and sore forearm muscles—these are signs of a very good day of shad fishing!

Hickory shad: Win some lose some

Spring has come, and the shad are running up the rivers and waterways of the east coast. Here in Washington, DC, shad come in from the ocean, through the Chesapeake Bay, and up the Potomac River. (Map here.) They make the journey from salty to fresh water to spawn.

Conveniently, the Potomac narrows in northwest DC, and angler flock to Fletcher’s Cove in mid-March and April to catch some of the bazillions of shad that stack up.

This spring has been rainy, which swells the river and makes it cloudy. It is tough to catch shad when they cannot see the darts and spoons, and a swollen river is a dangerous river. (See the rig below.)

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Shad Fishing at Fletcher’s Cove in Washington, DC on April 13, 2017

What. A. Day. I arrived at 7:30am, just 30 minutes after the tackle shop at Fletcher’s opened. every boat was rented. I was down, and considered going home.

But the sun was shining and the mercury was at maybe 55 degrees and it was a lovely morning. So I walked north past the boat dock to see if I might have some luck from the shore.

My first spot, a rocky outcropping right at the edge of the cove was a disaster. First cast I snagged and lost my two-dart rig. I seriously pondered packing it in. But with so many boats on the Potomac River and shad leaping and splashing, I had to try.

I am very glad I did. VERY.

I caught around two dozen shad from a muddy spot just south of what I call the catfishing peninsula. I had four of them in the first 25 minutes. And the fish were big. The smallest ones were 8″, but I consistently got fish 12 to 16 inches long. Below is a video of one of the whoppers. All the shad fought hard, and my line was busted three times. (I am inclined to switch super light braided line—maybe green—which will not break so easily and is much easier to tie, especially when it is sunny or windy. Or 10-pound clear monofilament will work.)

You can see from the video above that my rig was a small tri-swivel tied to my line (4-pound monofilament) and two darts (one chartreuse and one yellow), with one dart on about 22 inches of line and the other on about 16 inches.

As the video shows, you cast, then begin reeling once the darts hit. Frequently you’ll get hit in 5 seconds or less. You also might find yourself with shad on both darts, which makes reeling all the more an adventure.

Kosar Two Shad at once 04-13-2017

I wear a size 12 shoe, which shows how big these shad were. Photo credit: Kevin R. Kosar.

Oh memo to the novice: shad leap from the water and thrash alot, so keep the line tight and rod bent as you reel them in, otherwise they can pop themselves off the hook. And bring a net to scoop them in—lifting them straight from the water may get you a broken line or allow the fish to leap free.

Update: Additional experiments revealed that casting single darts (chartreuse, yellow, and orange) worked just fine. Switching to orange after working chartreuse heavily got positive results. Also, in slack tide, you cast and start reeling a second or three after the cast. As current builds, you may need to count to 10 or more before you slow reel so as to to let the dart sink down.

Shad Fishing On the Potomac River In Washington, DC, April 27, 2016

Shad double-catch Potomac River.jpgBrian took us on the river from 7am to 9am. As before, we set up in the center of the channel , a little to the Virginia side, a little bit above Fletcher’s Cove. The weather was cool, from the high 40s to the mid 50s, with light wind. The water was pretty placid.

I went with 8-pound light green line (Brian had clear 8-pound line), and I followed Brian’s lead on rigging. The rig is a tiny tri-swivel spiral, with 1.5 feet to the first shad dart (chartreuse), and 2.0 feet of line to the lower shad dart (red/white). Using a lighter rod (not a catfish killer) and a spinning reel (not the Zebco kiddie closed-face spincast reel) was important. The flex of the rod may allow the shad to pull the dart a touch then get hooked.

It is best to cast of the back of the boat. Typically, one counts to 10 to let it sink and then slowly reel in. However, on this day, letting it sink for 20 seconds was preferable. Much of the time, the shad were hitting low. But, we also had them chasing darts near the surface, at the end of a reel in. A man in another boat was casting and reeling back very quickly, and catching many shad.

Which underscores the point that shad are migratory and can go into feeding frenzies that lead them to hit low and high. Above is the double-shad I caught. Note the dart colors. In this instance the lower dart was pink.

Oh, to tell American shad versus hickory shad, have a look at

Shad Fishing On the Potomac River In Washington, DC, April 17, 2016

painted shad spoonThe sky was clear, the temperature was 50 degrees at 7:45 am and rose to 60+ by 11:45am.

I shore fished in the area a bit below where I previously used to shore fish for catfish. It was shady for most of the morning, and the water was mostly still. The tide was mostly in when I began and mostly out when I finished. It was pretty ideal—yet I caught just 1 fish. Why? Answer: I was rigged wrong, and had no spoons to try. One can never be certain what the shad will hit on. Different colored darts; different colored spoons—bring a variety.

Two experienced shad fishermen near me caught at least 6 shad each. The fish all were 9-12 inch American shad. They were using spoons on a rig like this:

Spoon————————long sinker—————–

There was maybe 2 feet of line between the spoon and the sinker. The guy nearest me used a long barrel sinker (I am assuming he had beads to keep it in place) and they were casting 30 to 60 feet. His spoon also was neon green. It looked from a distance a bit like this—although his seemed to have more spoon in the spoon-to-hook ratio.

I copied this style of rig and caught my shad on this:

Yellow bodied and red ended dart——round ends swivel–2 ¼ sinkers——


  1. Clip 2 feet of line, tie dart. Leave it.
  2. Then slide sinker on rod line, tie swivel to keep it from sliding off.
  3. Then tie rig line to the other end of the swivel.

I used one of the my girl’s little Zebco rods, which had 6 or 8 pound line on it. Light line is key as you have little weight for casting. (That said, some guys weightlessly fished for shad from boats—they were fly fishing them. Shore shad fishing is a cast and reel exercise.)

The re-rig worked—I got a nice shad, which I returned gently to the river. (Shad are catch and release.)

shad Potomac River

American shad caught from the shore of the Potomac River,

Shad Fishing and Catfishing In the Potomac River In Washington, DC, May 17, 2015

Woodhouse shad rig

Oval Sinker Used with Shad Rig

This sinker lengthens casts and helps get the dart deep into the water.

It was mid-60s, cloudy, with occasional light drizzle. It rained the night before, making the river swollen and cloudy brown. We left with Captain Woodhouse from Buzzard’s Point Marina (at the very southern end of Half St SW) at 7:15am

It was too late for shad fishing. We got a few hits in spots north of Fletcher’s Cove. So, we switched to catfishing, and brought in 7 catfish sized 14 to 20 inches. They hit on Safeway Hot Dogs (mix of chicken, pork, etc.) and also hit Fish Bite quick-dissolve fake blood worm. They hit blood worm alone, and hot dog alone, and hot dog plus blood worm.

Above is a sketch of the shad rig we used that day. The lower line is 2-3 feet. The technique is to face up river against the current, cast toward 11:00 or 1:00, then let the rig sink for 5 seconds before slowly reeling it in. Often, we are told, shad hit on the rig as it curves back against the current (as you pull it to the boat) and just before the rig surfaces at the boat.