Shad fishing in the Tar and Roanoke rivers
BY RICK GOINES
Wednesday, February 27, 2019
It’s a brisk — read that cold as all get out — late February or early March morning while sitting on the riverbank waiting for enough daylight so I can see to toss my shad rig.
You have not lived until you sat on a riverbank and watched the sun rise. Eureka!
It is always exciting in those early morning hours to observe deer, wild turkey, ducks, bald eagles, egrets, muskrat, beavers and snakes all out looking for breakfast. Of course, all the usual backyard critters are there in force, too: squirrels, rabbits and a variety of birds.
Most of them pay no attention to me. I look at it like I am a guest in their home and try not to disturb or alter their routine. Of course, if the snakes get too close, I might need to disturb them a little.
With mist rising over the river, the very first cast brings a resounding thump, yielding a fat, sassy shad and another beautiful shad fishing day has begun.
I do the majority of my shad fishing in the Tar and Roanoke rivers. By no stretch of the imagination is shad fishing limited to those two bodies of water, as shad may also be found in many other rivers, creeks and tributaries. North Carolina’s Cape Fear, Neuse, Meherrin and Chowan rivers also boast of healthy schools of spawning shad.
The shad leave their North Atlantic feeding grounds and travel to the Roanoke River via the Albemarle Sound, whereas the Tar River shad chug-up from the Pamlico Sound to familiar locations where they have spawned repeatedly for generations. These migrations are commonly called “shad runs.”
To say that I love shad fishing would be a gross understatement. To put it in North Carolina good-ole-boy speak, “I’m slam eat up with it, Buddyrow!”
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 normally show up first, in fishable numbers 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.
Both are anadromous fish that feed and live in North Atlantic saltwater, but annually traverse the coastal rivers late each winter into early spring to spawn in the very same freshwater location where they were born. Striped bass, better known as rockfish, are also anadromous fish that follow these same routes and protocol in April. The shad and rockfish runs provide some very exciting opportunities for anglers in or along North Carolina’s coastal rivers.
Shad spawning is usually at night, and the optimum water temperatures hover in the mid to upper 50-degree range.
It is not unusual to catch a mixed bag of hickory and American shad, as they both tend to congregate in the same places and smack the same baits. If I had to pick a peak month, it would probably be March. During the peak of the run, catching two at a time on a tandem rig is not unusual.
It is believed that they strike darts, spoons and jigs more out of fear and agitation than as a food source. Our rigs are dragging by and threatening their spawning grounds, thus they bite instinctively to guard their spawning area from pesky intruders.
Ask 10 shad anglers their choice of preferred rig, and you will probably get 10 completely different answers. Like any fish pursued, anglers have definite favorites when it comes to shad rigs. Nungesser darts and spoons have been around for close to a hundred years, a North Carolina native creation. A variety of shad rigs are available.
I have tried them all, and my choice, hands-down, is the Custom Jimmy-D Shad Rig, tied by hand by Tarboro native Jimmy Dupree Jr. Dupree hand-tied 6,000 rigs last year. They come in a rainbow of jig and spoon colors. My favorite color is what I call a 3-G rig. Specifically, it is a tandem rig consisting of a ⅛-ounce green jig head, a green curly grub and a 1½-inch green Nungesser spoon. People ask my opinion of colors to throw and my response is, “Any color will do, as long as it is green.”
Of course, I am half-kidding. I use Jimmy-D Shad Rigs exclusively but will change colors to adapt to water clarity and sunlight. However, I do throw a 3-G rig more than any other. When in doubt, go green!
Shad rigs do not pose the threat of personal injury that other artificial baits do with their array of treble hooks; however, you still need to be cautious and smart when those hooks are flying about fast and furious.
Emergency Room Visit
Years ago, on the Roanoke River at Weldon, a 100-fish hickory shad day was ruined by fatigue and carelessness. Improperly taking a caught fish off the Nungesser spoon, it quickly snapped back and drove the spoon’s hook and barb deep into the heel of my thumb. Hard as I tried, I could not get that hook out of my hand. The doctor at the hospital emergency room did not have a big problem cutting it out, after he numbed my hand with four painful shots. Lesson painfully learned and remembered.
Rods, reels and related equipment can be purchased in a variety of places. Fishing gear, like most things in life, are true to that adage, “You get what you pay for.” Seek a reputable, knowledgeable tackle shop that can help you choose the rod and reel combo that suits your needs. Deal with people who know and understand fishing, and you can’t go wrong.
Weather or Not
If you are a fair-weather fisherman who demands creature comforts, shad fishing might not be for you. Shad have been caught in freezing temperatures that required one to chip ice out of the rod’s guides and eyelets before each cast. Water drips from retrieving the line is the instigating guilty party. Shad will bite regularly in frosty temps, gale force winds, rain, sleet and even snow. The only weather-related condition that seems to impact and limit your shad catching opportunities is a flooded river. Fortunately, most flooding usually only lasts a few days.
Boat, Bank or Professional Guide
No question that shad fishing from a boat offers flexibility and unique opportunities. Drifting, you find them, anchor or drift back over them and wear ‘em out.
However, bank fishing can also be a productive and an economical way to catch shad. Bank anglers are more the norm in shad season.
Several professional guides in eastern North Carolina specialize in shad fishing outings. Contact me and I will be glad to hook you up with an appropriate professional guide.
Each fisherman is allowed to keep 10 shad per day. Only one of them may be an American shad. Currently, an exception to that rule can be found fishing in the prolific Tar River shad waters where it is legal to keep up to 10 American shad a day. Smart to check the area you wish to fish for specific rules and regulations. Catch and release is always a good, viable option in every fish catching scenario.
The North Carolina state record for hickory shad is 4 pounds, 1 ounce and it was hooked on a dart in 2004 in Pitch Kettle Creek between Grifton and Vanceboro. The American shad record is 7 pounds, 15 ounces, caught on a spoon in the Tar River in 1974. That’s a mighty white! It appears somebody needs to shatter that 44-year old record with a pretty 8-pounder. Are you listening out there, serious shadsters?
Shad Buddies and Experts
Am I among the elite shad fisherman in eastern North Carolina? Not even close!
The only time I am the best shad fisherman out there is when I am fishing alone. With only 20-years shad fishing experience under my belt, I am still considered a rookie. I fish with shad experts that have been snatching shad out of the Tar and Roanoke rivers for more than 50 years. You have to respect their experience and expertise.
Shad fishermen are a dedicated, hearty bunch. I call them my “foxhole guys” because I want them in my foxhole protecting me and watching my back when the action begins.
Each March the country is consumed with a college basketball playoffs obsession, March Madness. A life-long shadster, Norfleet Temple of Tarboro, coined a phrase more aptly suited to serious March shad anglers. He calls it “March Shadness.”
One year I was fishing the Shad Hole on River Road in Tarboro when it struck me that the four guys fishing together near me collectively represented over 200 years of shad-fishing expertise. It seems almost unfair to the shad. No telling how many thousands of shad these guys have hooked in the Tar River.
It was exciting and motivating for me to see Joe Albea, 26-year broadcasting host of Carolina Outdoor Journal, putting his boat in the Tar River at Battle Park to pursue American shad. Albea is seen frequently at Battle Park during shad season. Joe can and does fish the most productive waters in North Carolina, so when a man of his fishing stature, experience, expertise and resources chooses to fish the Tar River at Rocky Mount for American shad, that really speaks volumes to me about the quality of Tar River shad fishing in Edgecombe County.
Since I am bragging about the excellent shad fishing in the Tar River at Battle Park, it should be noted that the NCWRC folks on the electrofishing boat shocked and gathered some American shad there as part of a restocking program.
I’ll let former Assistant District Fisheries Biologist, Bill Collart, finish the story: "For 12 years, 1998-2010, what we did was collect brood stock from the Tar, roughly 400 fish, took them to our hatchery at Watha in Pender County, spawned them and stocked them into the Roanoke River system, and of course, also some back into the Tar River. The Roanoke River is still being stocked with American shad with brood stock coming directly from the Roanoke River itself."
That's pure sustainability in action. Frequent catches of American shad at Weldon are a true testament to the success of that stocking program.
Take a Kid Fishing
Nothing tickles my innards more than seeing a child catch a fish. That unbridled, genuine smile could light up a room. Youngsters need fishing action to keep their interest and attention. Shad is a great starter fish to introduce them to angling because during the shad run, you can almost guarantee fishing excitement and success. Shower those young ’uns with praise and compliments, which helps build that fishing confidence and pride. It will last a lifetime. Waxing philosophically, “Teach a kid to fish today, and you might not have to fish them out of trouble tomorrow.”
The Founding Fish
Shad fisherman or not, the book, “The Founding Fish” by John McPhee, is a good read and comes highly recommended. It was very interesting to learn that George Washington was a commercial shad fisherman. In 1771, documents record that he caught 7,760 American shad that year.
The winter of 1777-78, George Washington chose to bivouac his army on the banks of the Schuylkill River, an area better known in history as Valley Forge. Food was scarce, and the men were very hungry. The spring shad run was credited with saving the troops from starvation and making a significant contribution to the Revolutionary War effort.
Thus the book title is, “The Founding Fish.” Cooking instructions and recipes as well as fascinating fish biology and tales of amazing catches, are featured throughout.
Unfortunately, today shad are not as much of a desired food item. I have never seen a shad dish offered on a restaurant menu. Wifey learned to debone American shad on YouTube and made ceviche, which was right tasty. We were a little bit surprised but pleased to see American shad in the fresh seafood section at a Whole Foods grocery store in Raleigh.
Fried shad roe is considered a delicacy and good eating in the South. Have you tried this North Carolina delicious answer to highfalutin’ caviar?
Granted, not the best sportsman-like attitude, but American shad are much in demand as bottom-bait for rockfish. Numerous times I have supplied American shad to appreciative rockfish anglers. One nice man even brought me a big rockfish as a thank you for the bait offering.
Triple Treat — Weldon to Rocky Mount to Tarboro
The perfect shad-fishing day for moi carries me from Tarboro to Weldon to Rocky Mount back to Tarboro
Getting up with the roosters, navigating the back-country roads from Tarboro to Weldon, it’s a very pleasant drive with an abundance of deer and wild turkey sightings. One morning I came upon a field with a herd of deer on one end and a flock of wild turkeys on the other. It looked like a perfect cover shot for Wildlife in North Carolina magazine. I sat in amazement, observing and drinking in that fantastic, inspiring scene.
As the sun rises, I am usually catching Roanoke River hickory shad and loving life. I am never more thankful and prayerful than when I am out there on the water fishing and communing with nature.
About noon, I take a break to fuel my ample body before I jump on I-95 South to head for Rocky Mount. Next destination is the boat ramp at Battle Park. That’s the place I catch some plump American shad, virtually in their prime spawning grounds.
Having enjoyed fishing success in Battle Park during afternoon hours, I head home to make sure Wifey has not moved in my absence nor thrown all my mess out the back door.
With a little early supper under my belt, it is off to the “Shad Hole” in Tarboro, to swap lies and jaw-jack with my fishing buddies, maybe even chase a few more shad before dark.
After that long day of traveling and fishing, I’m worn slam-out but happy and content. However, with 6-7 hours of sleep, I am ready for an encore performance.
Shad are an enticing, seductive mistress, which beacons and captures me four to five months a year. When I leave the house to go shad’n, I tell Wifey I’m going to rendezvous with my girlfriend, Shadeisha. Wifey becomes a reluctant shad widow February through May, but graciously accepts that role. She has been known to catch a few shad herself.
During shad season I am either fishing, eating, sleeping or making preparations to go fishing. Everything else is put on hold. Appointments and commitments are largely limited. Doctors’ appointments are postponed, if possible. Hey, it’s shad catching time. I don’t have time to die right now, thank you very much.
If my legacy in life was that I was an avid shad fisherman, it would be fine with me. Appropriately, my tombstone should read, “I would rather be shad fishing.”
Shad fishing venues are always my absolute sanctuary and a golden opportunity to commune with nature. For me, the riverbank is where nature meets civilization.
This magic called shad fishing that lies below the water’s surface can only be a gift from God to be enjoyed, respected and protected.