Show time for shad
Powerful fish proves it's not to be forgotten
By Peter Ottesen
June 25, 2008
On a quiet, sweltering night, as the sun's rays dipped below the oak forest that lines the American River, Eric Merlo wiped his forehead and uttered a sigh of relief. It was so hot.
On Friday, he had been sitting patiently in a drift boat for more than an hour, sweating in the intense heat, without a strike. That was about to change.
Merlo knew the fading light would trigger "show time," when dense schools of American shad would start feeding wildly. It didn't take long.
As if a switch had been thrown, Merlo's rod suddenly was bent double and a shad in the 4-pound bracket thrashed at the river's surface, breaking the silence with a mighty swat, before surging to deep water.
"This is fun," Merolo told guide Dave Mierkey, as his fish ferociously pulled line, running out of control from side to side below the boat. "These shad have a lot of heart and fight like mad. How long is this going to take?"
Merlo, who was on his first light tackle shad fishing trip, never had tied into the largest member of the herring family known as a "freshwater tarpon." He was surprised how powerful a shad could be, especially when hooked on light tackle.
Earlier in the week, fly fisher Bill Schwartz echoed the same feeling as he strained to bring in a 5-pound shad he hooked on a 7-weight rod with a shooting head.
"There's just nothing like it," said Schwartz, who hadn't fished for a shad in more than 20 years.
He broke into a wide smile and enjoyed the moment.
American shad are a forgotten resource, of sorts, even though they are a good-looking species with bright silver sides, white bellies and irridescent blue-green backs, with deeply forked tails. Scientists know little about them during their times at sea when they travel upwards of 12,000 miles at depths of up to 65 fathoms. Their flesh is extremely boney and not popular as table fare, except when smoked or pressure cooked.
Shad were introduced to the West Coast in the 1880s into San Franisco Bay and the Sacramento River. The anadromous fish, which spends five or six years at sea before migrating to freshwater rivers to spawn, has been so successful over the years that its range has expanded from Cook Inlet in Alaska to the tip of the Baja peninsula. They spawn from May to July each year, with females producing 600,000 eggs, about 30,000 in a batch.
Spawning is a mass affair, and just after sunset the water boils with fish scurrying about in all directions with little organization. Unlike salmon, shad continue to digest and assimilate food during their migrations and, when conditions are right, can return to spawn a second time. Their lifecycles can span more than 10 years, although the average is about half that.
"For sports anglers who want a challenge, landing a shad ranks only below hooking steelhead," Mierkey said. "They just don't quit and have the brute strength to break loose more often than not."
Each year shad invade Central Valley rivers. The run will last about another week in the American and is about finished on the Feather. But the migration will continue to build until the second week of July in the Sacramento River between Chico and Red Bluff.
"Cold water slows spawning activity and extends the migration," Mierkey said. "That's great news for anglers."
Shad are chiefly plankton feeders and a feeding frenzy can be incited by a variety of actions such as changes in water turbidity or temperature. The surest times they feed takes place a couple hours after dawn and near dusk.
American shad range in size from 1 to 6 pounds and should not be confused with threadfin shad, a tiny baitfish that inhabits the Delta and many low-elevation reservoirs.
"When you hook an American shad, there is no confusion," Merlo said. "It's a great fighting fish."
Contact outdoors columnist Peter Ottesen at email@example.com
Background: An East Coast species introduced into the Sacramento River in the 1880s.
Lifecycle: Largest member of the herring family, this anadromous fish lives 5 to 6 years at sea and spawns in freshwater rivers.
Fishing: Migration takes place in the Sacramento, Feather, American, Yuba, Russian, Klamath and Stanislaus rivers. The Columbia River in Washington hosts 2 million to 4 million shad each spring and summer.
Guide: Dave Mierkey, (209) 475-0403. Cost: $75 per angler