Peter Brookes: Happy on the Rapp: Fishing for shad, striper

Hickory shad are often called the “poor man’s tarpon.” Courtesy photo by Peter Brookes

The phone alarm went off in my chest pocket exactly at 8 p.m. It was the time I agreed with myself that I was going to make my last cast, get off the rolling Rappahannock River and head home before dark.

But…the bite was on fire: stripers, shad and white perch.

“Just a few minutes more,” I told myself. It’s still light. Every cast is hooking a fish. The wife – a former Idaho cowgirl who thinks guys should hunt and fish – will understand. The locals have even gone home, reducing the chances of hooking a “townie fish” on a back cast.

“Yeah,” I whispered, “…stay just a little while longer.”

At 8:15 p.m. – still landing fish after fish on the same chartreuse and white Clouser Minnow fly – I had a hot flash. No, it wasn’t “manopause.” I just remembered that the town of Fredericksburg closed Old Mill Park at 8 p.m.

No wonder no one is here!

A great evening of fishing would end with my truck being locked in the parking lot, a ticket found on the windshield and a “Honey, you’ll never guess what happened to me…come pick me up” phone call that would probably result in a temporary suspension of my hunting/fishing “kitchen pass.”

Idaho or no Idaho, she’s got her limits.

Luckily, when I arrived huffing and puffing at the truck, the guard was just closing up the park restrooms. After grumbling at me that the park closed at 8 p.m., I noticed the park’s gate was still wide-open. Phew – disaster avoided!

And 30-plus fish caught and released.

Indeed, the Rappahannock River – or “Rapp” as some affectionately call it – is a great local fishery. Strange as it may seem, some of the best fishing takes place just below the Route 1 bridge, right near the bustling — and historic – downtown area.

I got interested in the Rapp from the stories (most likely exaggerations, of course, considering they come from fishers) of the annual spring runs of shad and stripers (aka striped bass or rockfish) up the river.

I began to feel like I must be the only person around here who hasn’t fished it.

That was going to change this year. I contacted Craig Conover, president of the Falmouth Flats Fly Fishers (http://www.ffflyfishers.org) which is an affiliate club of Fly Fishers International.

I told Craig that I wanted to get smart about fishing the Rappahannock. He told me that I was in luck as he was giving a lecture on just that topic at their next monthly meeting in a few weeks.

I hit the early evening get-together, which turned out to be filled with lots of great info. In fact, not everyone there was a club member; some others had also come to get the “skinny” on lipping hickory and American shad (which generally run in April) and stripers (which usually run in May).

All of these sport fish are fighters, spending part of the year in the salt water where there is no shortage of further-up-the-food-chain predators. In other words, these fish are strong swimmers, easily able to put a bend in a 7-weight fly rod.

The American and hickory shad have split, knife-like tail fins that allows for amazing bursts of speed. The hickory are often called the “poor man’s tarpon.” It looks a lot like a smaller version of the famous Atlantic gamefish, including fantastic jumps, tail-walking and head shakes.

Besides a better understanding of the fish, I found out that some gear choices can improve your chances of “hooking up,” like a sinking line/tip. This line type allows you to swing a sinking line/tip down and across the river into the strike zone.

You may also have to do some wading to get to where the fish are. The flows can be pretty good in the spring with seasonal rains, so a stripping basket and a wading staff are really useful – indeed, essential for a good, safe day on the water.

For flies, Shad Darts and Clouser Minnows are the ticket.

The other thing that is essential to your success on this wonderful Virginia water is knowing at what time Old Mill Park (and Falmouth Park across the river) – which both give great access to the Rapp – opens and closes.

Trust me on that one.

Dr. Peter Brookes is a D.C. policy wonk who escapes to his Fort Valley home and the great outdoors every chance he gets.