A fish head boasts hues of green and blue.
Shad Shad were once very common throughout the Susquehanna River. © Two Fisted Heart Productions

Stories in Pennsylvania

Showing Up For Shad

For thousands of years, the migratory journey of the American shad marked the coming of spring on the Susquehanna River.

By Erin Mooney

The thermometer reads 24 degrees. Barren tree branches whip in the wind, remaining lifeless with no visible signs of spring. It’s the last week of March and we’re still in winter’s hold.

Where are the shad?

Until their arrival sometime in April, I’m left to wonder where they are in their epic journey to their natal rivers. For the next few weeks I’ll be in this limbo—waiting, wondering and watching rising temperatures, thinking about the shad on their journey home.

And then, without warning, they’re in.

And so am I.

A large dam spans the width of a river.
Conowingo Dam The Conowingo Dam is located on the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. © Creative Commons/Forsaken Fotos

Shad fishing happens in the morning or in the evening. And for those of us who must work in order to fish, it means packing the car in the morning before work, full of easy-to-tie marabou shad flies, sink tip lines, #6 rods and extra layers for the prime fishing when daylight fades into night.

There’s not a longer day than the one when your fishing gear is in the car and you’re trapped inside the office, waiting for the clock to relieve you of your 9 to 5 duties, knowing that you will soon be knee-deep in rushing water.

Just over an hour from Philadelphia, where the imposing Conowingo Dam halts the mighty Susquehanna, you’re almost there. There used to be shad by the millions moving far up the Susquehanna, but the dam mostly put an end to that some 90 years ago. 

The turns are familiar though I haven’t been here since the previous spring. Down the dirt road, curve to the left, past the eagle’s nest with several eaglets holding the attention of a gaggle of outdoor photographers, waiting for their money shot.

Before you see the stream, you can smell it. I take it slowly over the bridge, peering into the currents, hoping to glimpse a silvery flash of shad. There’s nothing. There never is. You just can’t see the thousands of fish swimming through, but they’re there.

A woman holds a fish.
Erin Mooney Enjoying a day fishing for shad near the Susquehanna River. © Courtesy Erin Mooney

Car parked, now gearing up, I strategize. Sometimes you’re standing in the sweet spot, where the fish swim the current. Two feet to the right or left can make a big difference. Fly fishing for shad is all about the swing, the depth and the current. It’s all about where the fish are and where they are not. 

The first cast washes away a fishless winter. Even though shad fishing is not for fly fishing purists, it’s the first real fishing of spring. After a few minutes of awkward casts, getting used to the sinking tip and a bit of weight on the line, it all comes back—the muscle memory, the repetition of decades. Cast, swing, wait. Cast, swing, wait.

As John McPhee writes in his book, Founding Fish, “Shad don’t exactly strike.  First there’s a fixed moment—a second or two in which you feel what appears to be a snag (and might be); then the bottom of the river seems to move, as if you are tied to a working trampoline.”

A river meanders through a forested landscape.
Susquehanna River Looking upstream towards the Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River, the largest tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. © Jane Thomas/IAN, UMCES

Shad jump, flop and hold on tight. The run can be fierce. Landing the fish is a prize and usually elicits a squeal of excitement from this angler. Murmurs of approval from other fishermen cascade down the bank. Was it a hickory or American? A quick check for sea lice as evidence of their saltwater journey, then a fast release back into the water. 

Winter is officially over.

The frenzy can continue into the night, well after the moon has risen into the night sky. When the fish have stopped their activity and it’s too dark to see across the stream, it’s time to head out. Maybe there was a broken rod, lost flies or even a frustrating night of just a few fish. Whatever the case, you’ve fished for shad.

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