Gerald Almy: To catch Virginia’s gamefish, try shad lures on jig heads

Gerald Almy

If you’re looking for a versatile fishing lure for Virginia and nearby West Virginia waters, one of the best artificials you can turn to is a soft-plastic shad lure rigged on a jig head. In fact, I would wager you could probably catch just about any fish that swims with this simple, inexpensive lure.

Broad-based effectiveness

Over the years, I’ve landed crappies, pike, bluegills, muskies, pickerel, walleyes, smallmouths, largemouths, trout, catfish, steelhead, salmon, white perch, yellow perch, white bass and catfish on them. They’ve also fooled a wide variety of saltwater gamefish for me.

One of the primary attractions of these lures is their realism. That applies to both their overall shape and their action when moving through the water. The quivering, undulating tails give them an alluring motion and send out vibrations that add sound appeal to their realistic visual appearance.

Realism is often thought of as necessary for difficult fish like brown trout or permit. But the fact is, realism will never hurt your chances with any quarry – even humble fish like crappies. That’s what makes soft plastic shad lures one of the most effective baits you can use.

Soft plastic shad lures are not only widely effective, they also work year-round, in both cold weather conditions and on brutally hot summer days. They are great lures to turn to as fall approaches.

Stocked in a variety of sizes from 1-inch for panfish to 6 inches for stripers, these lures are a great addition to any Virginia angler’s tackle box. You might not tie one on as your first choice when you hit the water, but when your favorites fail to produce, they’re great “day savers” to turn to.

Many lure and tackle companies make soft plastic shad lures that can be rigged on a single hook leadhead jig. Bass Pro alone makes the Sassy Sally, Boss Shad, Baby Shad and Squirmin’ Shad. Companies like Mann’s, Berkley and Cabela’s also make their versions. I like to stock a variety of these and switch from one to the other depending on fishing conditions and the species being sought.

Here are my favorite fishing methods for both shallow and deep water fish.

Tactics for shallow fish

Several approaches work well when your quarry is feeding in shallow water. One is to simply cast and retrieve just like you would fish a crankbait at a slow to moderate speed. Target cover such as docks, weed bed edges, points, log jams, rocks, bridge pilings and the edge of flats or bars.

A second method that works on actively feeding fish in thin water is to rig a shad body on a large single hook so it’s weedless and fish it like a soft-plastic jerkbait. Cast out and then twitch and pump the lure back erratically just below the surface. Strikes can be violent with this approach, which works especially well on bass, pickerel and pike – either near cover or where you see fish swirling after bait in open water.

Tactics for deep water

If fish are in moderate or deep water, go with a slightly heavier jig head. This will vary with the depth of the water and the fish you’re going after. Because of their realistic shape and quivering tails, many strikes come “on the drop” with these lures.

Cast to likely cover or a dropoff and watch the line as the lure falls freely for any sideways twitch as the bait falls. Set the hook fast if you see or feel a strike.

If no take comes on the lure’s descent, several different retrieve options can work in medium to deep water. One time-tested method is to simply reel slowly. First try this near the bottom. If no strikes come, start reeling before the lure hits the bottom at a slightly higher level to attract suspended fish.

Shad appear to glide effortlessly through the water, so a smooth, steadily-retrieved lure mimics this best. If this approach doesn’t pay off, however, try pausing partway back to let the lure drop down suddenly.

If you still aren’t connecting, a final tactic that pays off is a lift-and-drop presentation. Raise the rod tip a foot or two. Then drop it back down as you reel in slack. Most strikes will come as the lure falls and you start to reel. Set the hook with a firm sweep of the rod.

Sizes, weights and colors

Top colors for shad lures include white, pearl, clear with glitter, bluegill, chartreuse, fire tiger, pumpkinseed, Tennessee shad, smoke and motor oil.

For crappies and bluegills use a 1-inch lure. For trout, go with 1-3 inch offerings. Walleyes and pickerel are best tempted with 2-3 inch shad lures.

For smallmouths on waters like our own Shenandoah River, anywhere from 2-3 inches is a good size range. Use bigger ones for smallmouths in lakes like Smith Mountain. I use 2-5 inch versions for largemouths, 3-6 inchers for pike and 6-8 inch offerings for muskies.

Weights of the jig head can range from 1/32-ounce for panfish up to several ounces for making long casts to tailwater stripers and probing deep wrecks in heavy tidal currents for saltwater gamefish.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.