The Fry Fly is an easy to tie, small, lightweight minnow pattern that is a great match when fish are gorging themselves on mosquitofish in the St. Johns River. Shad can often be caught on this pattern when they are active in the upper part of the water column. The pattern does not have a bead chain or hourglass eye, but rather has a small tear drop shaped epoxy head that allows the hook to ride tip up, but also stay shallow rather than diving to the bottom. The shape of the head also creates a darting action when being retrieved that can elicit a strike.
In addition to shad, you will find bass, stripers/ hybrids, pan fish, and even gar will take these little flies, so they are a great alternate fly to keep in your box. The Fry Fly may not be a fly that you use on every outing, but when fish are active up top, they can be deadly, particularly in the early part of the season as the water recedes off of the pastures and in to the river’s banks. This concentrates the small Gambusia (Mosquito Fish,) grass shrimp, and other tasty morsels in to the river that have otherwise been spread out across the flat pasture. Fish of all kinds school up and the feeding frenzy can be amazing to fish.
Hook: Size 10 Heavy Scud Hook (edit: After a season fishing them, I think a Light Wire Curved/ Scud Hook like the Daiichi 1130 tends to ride hook tip up more consistently. Either way though, the shad do not seem to care. I think the epoxy teardrop creates a keel on the fly that causes it to wobble, and that is why they can’t resist them. So hook tip up is only important if you are fishing them on a sink tip near bottom where you might snag)
Thread: White Danville’s
Tail: White Kip Tail
Eyes: 1/8″ Prismatic Stick On Eyes
Head: Thin Clear Cure Goo
The Shad Buster is a fly pattern that I had seen in pictures and learned to tie, but I never really figured out what it was called until I stumbled across an old article that Steve Gardner wrote. Steve is a long time fly fisherman, ex-professional fly tier, and he frequents the St. Johns River in pursuit of shad where he uses this fly. The Shad Buster is a hackle fly, but unlike other hackled shad flies like the Shad Intruder and the Shad Comet, it uses a stiffer “spade” feather for the palmered collar. These types of feathers are typically used for tails on dry flies, and although the barbs have a webby base, the barb itself is stiff. While true spade feathers come from the shoulders and wings of the rooster, you can usually find suitable feathers at the outside of the top of a dry fly neck. Another difference between the Shad Buster and other types of hackled shad flies is the fact that the hackle is wrapped in FRONT of the eyes which causes the barbs to align in the gap between the two eyes themselves. This gives the fly a more triangular or arrow shaped profile rather than the rounded three dimensional umbrella shape of a soft hackle.
Hook: Size 6
Thread: Pink 6/0 Uni-Thread
Tail: White Marabou
Body: Pink Sparkle Chenille or Pink Body Braid
Eyes: Silver Bead Chain
Hackle: 3 turns of white spade feather
The Shad Comet is a fly I learned to tie after studying an image I found on a Google Image search several years ago when researching shad flies. I could never find instructions but was able to piece together the pattern based on what I saw in the image. This fly became one of my standard alternates and has been a fixture in my fly box since I first started targeting shad on the St. Johns River. When I first started tying this shad fly, I liked the way the fly looked, but found the process of tying hackle style flies tedious. I found hair wing flies like the Kip Tailed Clouser, Shad Dart, and Crazy Charlie much easier to tie and I gravitated towards them when tying up dozens of flies for the season. Because of this, hair wing type patterns became my defacto choice when targeting shad by no fault of the hackle flies themselves, but rather laziness and a self imposed restriction to use flies that I could tie and replace quickly. Now that I have become a better fisherman and lose less flies, I don’t necessarily need to tie two or three dozen flies for me and friends each year. I have also become a more patient fly tier and I find the process of tying soft hackle flies much more enjoyable, so these types of shad flies intrigue me much more than they once did. Only time will tell whether soft hackle flies will take lead over the hair wings but, more and more of them find their way in to my fly boxes each year.
At minimum, the Shad Comet is a great alternate pattern and one that I have relied on many times when the fishing got slow. The subtle use of flash and the innate action of the hackle lends itself well to fishing for finicky or spooky fish. Bright days and shallow water are where I fished them frequently. I have found that this fly does not require much from me to come to life and I typically fish it using a dead drift, and then retrieve it using a slow, smooth figure of eight retrieve. Most strikes come at the end of the dead drift, before starting the retrieve. An interesting note about the Shad Comet fly is, I have caught more gar on this style fly than any other as a bycatch when fishing for shad. I am not sure what gar think they are, but they seem to love them. Catching a good size gar on a 5wt is good fun, trust me!
Note: My favorite color combinations are orange hackle/ white tail, orange hackle/ orange tail, pink hackle/ white tail, and pink hackle/ pink tail. While I generally do not carry a lot of chartreuse flies, this is one fly that chartreuse seems to perform as well (or maybe even better on some days) as the other colors, so chartreuse hackle/ white tail, and chartreuse hackle/ chartreuse tail are also recommended.
The Shad Intruder is a fly that presents a remarkably fishy profile to the fish with a minimum of materials, just like the steelhead fly that it is named after. That means it looks good, and is easy to cast. Now it might be a stretch to call this fly an Intruder as this is a much smaller and sparse fly compared to the fly used to target steelhead, but the profile is reminiscent of the real thing. The Shad Intruder at its essence is really just a double soft hackle fly, but let’s face it, “Shad Intruder” just sounds better. 🙂
All kidding aside, using two soft hackles on the Shad Intruder really creates a three dimensional profile of a minnow when viewed from the sides, top, or bottom. When viewed from the back, I think it looks remarkably like a small shrimp, which is never a bad thing when targeting shad. The soft hackle barbs add a lot of action to the fly, even when at rest. While even a gentle current brings the fly to life, a strip-strip-pause brings all kinds of action. I love soft hackle flies anyway, but I really do believe they are under utilized when targeting shad. I will say that I have had a lot of success with them when the fish seem finicky and unwilling to take a super bright colored fly. Blue bird days in shallow water are great conditions to try this fly, but I have fished them deep on grey days when the shad would not take my standard offerings and had good success as well. Do yourself a favor, always keep a couple of Soft Hackle Shad Flies and Shad Intruders in your fly box. Doing so has kept the skunk off of me on more than one occasion!
Note: I typically tie this fly with either pink tinsel and dubbing, or orange tinsel and dubbing, but leave the tail hackle white and the main hackle natural. Orange is my favorite color in this pattern, with pink being the alternate.
The Shad Intruder:
Hook: Size 8, 2x Long
Thread: 8/0 Dark Brown Uni-Thread
Rear Collar: Pink Dubbing
Tail: One or Two Wraps of Short White Soft Hackle
Body: Pink Tinsel
Ribbing: Medium Oval Tinsel
Front Collar: Pink Dubbing
Hackle: One or Two Wraps of Speckled Hen Soft Hackle (length to the bend of the hook)
Eyes: Bead Chain
The Soft Hackle Shad Fly, like a lot of shad flies, is not so much a specific pattern, but more of a style or technique used to create a myriad of different shad flies. I have recently become obsessed with the simple elegance of soft hackle flies, and I believe they are under utilized when targeting shad on the fly. All that you need is a bit of colorful flash for the body, oval tinsel for the ribbing, a wrap or two of soft hackle, and a bead chain or hourglass eye and you have created an impressionistic shad fly that harkens back to a more simple time. We can essentially change the color of the Mylar body, and the color and type of soft hackle, and come up with endless variations of this classic.
I experimented with the version of the Soft Hackle Shad Fly that I tie in the above video in 2013 and had good success with it. I have started tying other variations for this year’s shad run, and I am quickly filling my fly box with them. I love the mottled look of the died Guinea Fowl soft hackle in this specific version, but I also tie soft hackle shad flies with natural color wings such as cream and brown grizzly. I believe the natural colors are a good option when fishing relatively shallow water on clear bluebird days.
Dare I say, with my new found obsession for this classic fly tying technique, some of my go-to patterns like the Kip Tailed Clouser and Shad Dart may be competing for space in my fly box. While hair wing patterns are easy to tie and certainly catch shad consistently, I also like to try different things on different days. As a fly fisherman that also loves to tie flies, what fun is it to tie the same exact patterns year after year, even if you know that they catch fish? It is through the process of experimentation and trial and error that new standard patterns are born and revered in a region.
Soft Hackle Shad Fly Pattern:
Hook: Size 8, 2x long
Thread: 6/0 Uni Thread (Pink in this version)
Body: Mylar Tinsel (Pink in this version)
Ribbing: Medium Silver Oval Tinsel
Wing: Soft Hackle (I chose a died pink Guinea fowl feather in this version but also use hen in cream and brown grizzly frequently)
Eyes: Bead Chain or Hourglass (I chose pink bead chain in this version)