Luper claims top prize in annual shad contest


The winning First Tar River Hickory Shad was caught over the Groundhog Day weekend by avid angler J.P. Luper of Rocky Mount.


Tight Lines

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

We have a winner of our Tight Lines’ ninth annual Tar River First Hickory Shad Contest.

J.P. Lumper of Rocky Mount caught that Hickory Shad Contest winning fish over the Groundhog Day weekend on the Tar River at “the pipe” on N.C.  97 across from the Rocky Mount wastewater treatment plant.

Waters there are consistently warmer and fish like it there, as do many anglers. With all the bridge pile driving at Old Sparta, the fish are seemingly bypassing the noisy disruption and seeking more peaceful waters upstream.

The former Tight Lines first and fifth annual First Tar River Hickory Shad Contest winner stated that he fished Old Sparta three days last week. Nary a fish, as the pile driving operation in the construction of the new bridge was scaring the fish.

Another former contest winner who also fished Old Sparta recently, our Tar River gateway into Edgecombe County, observed that the pile driving seems to have disoriented fish, stunning them with such noise and reverberations that they floated to the surface, then struggling to get away from the danger.

When the N.C. 33-U.S. 64 Business bridge on Main Street was replaced, pile driving and related disruptions were suspended in March and April to allow spawning runs for Shad and Striped Bass.

Congratulations, J. P. Luper — he is a most avid angler!

Most eastern North Carolina anglers divide their season by species: the shad season, the rock -striper season and the trout season.

First the shad arrive in mid-winter, about the time that redbud trees bring a splash of magenta to the bleak midwinter’s landscape.

Secondly, the striped bass herald the coming of spring, usually arriving when the dogwood trees burst forth into bloom.

Trout is basically a year-round fish. Autumn is the welcome season of trout fishing.

The nice thing about seasonal eastern North Carolina fishing is that you’re going to pull up a variety of fish anytime of the year. Those fish eat at the same all-you-can-eat-buffet, so your favorite location is productive, basically year-round.

The shad that are the object of desire are the hickory shad and the American shad. White shad is the nickname commonly used by locals for American shad.

Hickory shad, the Official Fish of the town of Tarboro, normally show up first, in fishable numbers in mid- to late-February. They average in size about 16 inches. They have an extended protruding lower jaw that looks like a pouting lip, and that is a distinguishing telltale sign that they are definitely a “hick.”

American shad grow a little larger, averaging about 22 inches in length, their lips closing together with no protruding lower jaw. They usually follow the “hicks” a few weeks later.

Spring is just weeks away, the differences between the prognostications of Punxsutawney Phil and Sir Walter Wally remain to be seen in 2019, as our weather shoots upward one day and plummets the next. Sometimes it seems both are right. So how does that effect the shad and stripers on their annual spawning run? Great question.

Obviously the anadromous fishes thrive in cold North Atlantic waters where they feed on nutrient rich plankton and krill, fattening up for their winter run to the rivers and creeks where they were spawned. You need to know that they do not freeze in salt water, but risk freezing in fresh water. So what happens when fresh water freezes?

The fish naturally know to go deep for saving themselves. Spawning cannot be successful in frigid waters, so they sense when that time is right. Romance waits for the perfect time at 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

A check of eastern North Carolina waters indicates the water temperatures are too low, but we know our beloved shad are on the way. There are millions of shad swimming down the eastern seaboard, heading to their native rivers. Their goal is to return to the exact spot where they were spawned.

Do you realize that these fish have a DNA fingerprint, so to speak? Their scales have a specific selenium count that is marked at the spot where they were spawned. A scale sample can determine the exact spot of their birth. So a fish that was spawned in Pitchkettle Creek would not be found near Fishing Creek or Swift Creek or anywhere else. It is this very accurate genetic marker that allows fish surveys to reveal that all striped bass caught in the Roanoke and Tar Rivers are fishery bred, not wild-spawn bred fish.

The Shad season opens in Florida and Georgia in December, then upward into the Carolina rivers by mid-February and later in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and beyond.

Isolated reports say the Shad have appeared in the Cape Fear and Neuse rivers and their tributaries. The first Hickory Shad was reported as caught on the Neuse River on Jan. 7 by Hailey Madison Walker near the Spring Garden Landing near West Craven Middle School. Congratulations to Hailey!

Mitchell Blake says this is the earliest Hickory shad caught on hook and line above the Cape Fear watershed in his memory. There was good water flow and temps in the 50s creating perfect conditions. Of course, that was before this polar vortex system fell upon us. Just last week, first Shad were noted at Pitchkettle Creek and various spots along Contentnea Creek as far up as Hookerton. The action around Grifton has been spotty.

We have not heard any reports from Grimesland to Falkland on the Tar River. Please e-mail us with details if you have caught Shad along the Tar, with nice big file size pictures.

With temperatures supposedly climbing above freezing, it should bring on the Hickory Shad.


With recent changes in striped bass rules on the Tar River, it would be logical to assume pile driving would be suspended during the spawning season in Old Sparta.

We shall check it out and share what we discover.

Catching fish? Good for you. Please share your fishy snaps with us at CarolinaAngler@gmail.com

See you on the water, my friend.