By Gerald Almy
A tangerine sun rose above Fredericksburg as I eased into the crisp, clear waters of the Rappahannock River. The air was chilly, but a thick wool shirt and neoprene chest waders kept me warm as I carefully worked out towards the head of a favorite pool.
The majority of the time I try to catch the same species most Shenandoah Valley anglers do -- bass, bluegills, trout, crappies, stripers and catfish. But each spring, a unique quarry draws me East for a special trip to the Rappahannock River at the edge of Fredericksburg -- the hickory shad.
The hickory is an anadromous fish that migrates up from the Atlantic Ocean, forging into a number of East Coast rivers to spawn in the spring.
With luck, the Rappahannock might even give up a few larger white shad mixed in with the catch. They both are fast, hard-fighting fish that put up a strong battle on light tackle before they are carefully released to complete their spawning ritual.
Quite often for this sport I use a simple ultralight spinning outfit and four or six pound line, but that morning I stripped line from a seven weight fly fishing outfit and began working it out with the nine-foot graphite rod.
At the business end of the tapered leader was a compact streamer I'd tied with a chartreuse body red head and short white marabou wing. To make it go down where the shad like to lie, I had wound a small amount of lead around the shank of the hook.
Casting across stream, I let the offering sink and then began a pumping retrieve, pulling in a foot or so of line with every third twitch of the rod tip. The tension was almost unbearable as I waited. Then suddenly it was there -- the sharp heavy take of the year's first shad.
Thrashing and bucking wildly, the fish jumped four times before I worked it in and twisted the hook free. I watched with satisfaction as it shot back into the water--healthy and ready to continue its mating mission.
That trip was one of hundreds I've made over 40 years in quest of this migratory gamefish from the sea. I've caught them in other rivers, too. The Potomac and James both have good runs. But over the years, no shad destination has captured my heart like the Rappahannock.
It's a perfect river for wading. But be sure you don't challenge the deep, fast currents by going too far out in mid-stream. It's also a great fishery because you can do it on your own, with no guides, boats or expensive equipment required. Just a spinning rig or fly outfit with some weighted streamers or shad darts is all you need.
Some anglers fish below the Route 17 bridge, but I like the waters upstream from there, with both the north and south sides productive. Morning is the best time to catch the shad, although fishing can be good all day if it's drizzly or raining and the light level stays low.
Be aware that shad tend to bite in flurries. If you don't get any strikes for a while, be patient. Soon they'll go into a feeding mode and you may catch two or three before the action slows down again.
Top spots to try are deep pools, with the bigger ones holding the most fish. Some shad can be caught in the upper sections of the pools, but the lower one-third of the pool usually holds the most fish.
Position yourself directly across from this prime zone or slightly upstream from it and cast out across. Let the fly or dart sink a few feet, and then begin a slow to moderate pumping retrieve. Some people also score with a steady reeling motion, but I like to activate the jig or fly. I feel like I get more strikes that way and enjoy the more lively approach.
The shad arrived in late March, but they'll stay in the river and strike darts and flies for another four to six weeks or so. By May the action gets a little slower, but by scaling down to smaller flies and darts you can still enjoy good action through the middle of that month. It's about a 1 ½-hour drive from Strasburg.
Besides shad, this stretch of the river also has plenty of chunky smallmouths, catfish, redbreast sunfish as well as migrating herring and white perch.
Be sure to exercise caution when wading. Wearing a floatation vest and using a staff are recommended if you go in more than knee deep. The rocks are slippery and currents swift.
Avoid wading through dangerous water just to get to a hard-to-reach spot. There are plenty of shad in reach without taking needless risks.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.