Ask the old-timers, and they’ll give you a variety of indicators that the shad are in the river. My neighbor across the street even has a “shad” bush whose buds and blooms send him digging through his garage for gold spoons and shad darts. When the dogwoods bloom is another classic sign and as reliable as any. Well…if you haven’t noticed, spring has come early to the commonwealth, the dogwoods are blooming, and my retired neighbor is scarcely to be found. The shad are here!
This time of year marks an amazing transformation to the James River, as hickory and American shad, as well as herring, stack up below the fall line in Richmond on their annual spawning runs. And one shouldn’t overlook the striped bass that come along with them. Every year there are some real bruisers caught right off the banks of the river within the city limits.
Fishing for shad from the banks of the James might be accurately described as urban combat fishing, but I love it. People from all walks of life find their way to the river, from the guys fishing off 14th Street Bridge to the downtown businessman fresh from work still wearing dress pants and loafers. You laugh, but I’ve seen it all!
Every boat owner within miles flocks to the river. Jon boats, canoes, ski boats, kayaks, bass boats, and small yachts take up just about every inch of fishable water from the 14th street bridge downstream to I-95 and all the way back to Ancarrow’s landing. If you are looking for peace and solace in your fishing experience, this ain’t it. This time of year is about the birth of a new fishing season, about something pulling on the other end of the line, about getting outside.
They come for the same reason Native Americans and then the first white settlers set up fish camps at the fall line in Richmond each spring, the river is literally teaming with fish this time of year. And it should only get better in the coming month.
The beauty of fishing the river this time of year is that everyone can do it. You don’t need fancy gear or high-end fly rods, just a basic spinning outfit will do, or an old beater fly rod with a sinking line.
If you are new to the game, I would suggest heading out to Greentop Sporting Goods and having them get you set up with what you need. Shad darts and spoons should do the trick. Many prefer to catch them on the fly rod, which requires a boat. A sinking line and small, simple shad flies in green, orange, or white are all one needs to get the job done.
For those wishing to fish from the bank, the 14th street bridge parking lot is a good start. Walk downstream. Where you see the anglers, you will likely find the fish. Those with boats are best to launch at Ancarrow’s Landing just below I-95 and head upstream.
A few things to remember while you are out there: You may not keep American shad. Usually the American shad is bigger than a hickory shad, but that is not always a true marker. The easiest way to tell them apart is their jaws. The American’s upper and lower jaws are equal in length when the mouth is closed while the Hickory has an under bite. Also instituted this year is a moratorium on herring. You have to throw them back. A good rule of thumb, if you are unsure, just throw them back. Most people do any way.
Even if you are not an angler, I encourage you to head downtown and check out the scene over the course of the next month. It is something to behold.
Tee Clarkson is the Outdoors Columnist for the Richmond Times Dispatch, teaches English in Henrico County, owns Virginia Fishing Adventures and Virginia Outside summer camps, and in his spare time somehow finds time to get outside with his wife and kids.
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