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Chris Gatley: American Shad

4/6/2010

Catching American shad on the flooded waters of the Delaware River is a daunting task. Boat ramps are under water, debris is floating everywhere and water currents are extremely dangerous. However, a few primitive launch sites do offer access for the expert boatmen.

All last week, professional fishing guides Steve Kollar of Washington Crossing, Pa., and Capt. Steve London ventured off in search of American shad. Using specialized jet boats with high gunnels and 200 horsepower motors to fight the currents, these adventurous guides targeted the torrent waters around rock shelves as shad and other fish used this structure to take a break.

Between recent storms, a huge school of situated themselves in a pocket of slower water below the dam. The heavy water flows and flooding river was no match for this migrating school of shad. This school hunkered down and waited for conditions to improve. And, the conditions have yet to improve, which means it has been easy pickings each day Kollar arrives.

According to Mark Boriek, fisheries biologist for New Jersey's Fish and Wildlife Department, hydro acoustic data shows that shad and other fish make major advancements upriver just as the CFS (cubic feet per second) drops below 28,000 CFS.

"In the Delaware River, striped bass, American shad, herring and sturgeon all migrated from the saltwater environment and into freshwater rivers on water flows below 28,000 CFS," Boriek said.

The crew of Kollar and London saw success even though water flows hovered at 60,000 CFS. The key, Kollar said, "Is to find the slow moving water near the structure and use shad darts."

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Shad darts have long been a tried and true tactic for the shad angler. However, most fishermen have replaced the use of darts with flutter spoons.

"Steve (London) always uses darts in cold water below 50 degrees as well as in heavy water flows because it reaches down to the bottom much better than spoons while offering less action than a shad flutter spoon," Kollar said. "London was dead on with these darts as we caught countless shad with half being heavier females, also called Roe. Not one shad hit a flutter spoon on this particular day."

Over the Easter weekend, Jim Donnely and Stu Kellerman witnessed insane fishing as Kollar once again put his fares on shad. They lost track of jigged shad somewhere around 60 fish, with 40 percent of them thought to be female Roe.

But, shore fishermen can be highly successful, too, especially when river flows are higher than normal like they are now. In these instances, shad will migrate along current seams, closest to land. A little research on river topography should be done first, especially after flooding rains like we recently experienced.

Neck down areas, rapids due to rock shelves as well as stream confluences all provide easy access for wade fishermen while offering plenty of holding water for migrating shad. Successful shad fishermen always seem to seek out sandy areas or pea gravel substrates along current seams.

This type of bottom structure yields optimal spawning grounds for Roe shad ready to release eggs. What's more, this type of bottom structure is usually found close to land where water flows are slower.

Right now, American shad are migrating up freshwater rivers despite the heavy rains that pounded the entire northeast. You just have to re-think your strategy and explore. Most East Coast Rivers have witnessed a drop in shad spawning activity due to less fish, poor water clarity, manmade obstacles and consecutive spawning years that have been less than decent.

Shad do inhabit the entire Atlantic coast from Labrador to Florida with an introduced stock along the Pacific coast. Unlike river herring who broadcast spawn leaving sticky eggs behind, female Roe shad release eggs in batches, dropping about 30,000 eggs into the gravel or rolling along the sandy bottom.

In southern rivers, such as the Delaware River running between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, most shad will die after spawning but not before leaving plenty of offspring behind.

Last year was successful for shad anglers on The Delaware River. Personally, I saw more Roe shad caught than I have in years. Judging by the recent catches of London and Kollar, things may just be getting better for shad fishermen on the Delaware River.

After all, these two anglers covered a 20-mile stretch of water and caught fish out of a dozen spots.

Editor's note: Capt. Chris Gatley can be found with his fishing clients chasing striped bass in front of the Statue of Liberty, or heading offshore to the Atlantic Ocean canyons off the NJ/NY coast for tuna. His articles on cutting-edge fishing techniques can be found in The Fisherman Magazine, and he's a regular presenter at key sports shows during the winter months (when he's not pursuing whatever he can find in East Coast rivers).