What’s in my Backpack?

What's in my Backpack?

As the shad fishing ramps up in the early part of the season, it’s time to start planning and preparing for some trips to different areas of the river. For me, that not only means getting the kayak and canoe rigged and ready, but ensuring I have what I need in my backpack to do some hiking when its time to head down the path less traveled to find fish.

Luc Desjarlais’ book Wade Fly Fishing The Upper St. Johns River Basin (Florida) for American Shad provides a wealth of information on places to hike to fish for shad on foot. Some of these hikes can put you many miles from civilization, so being prepared is key. For example, my hike to the Indian Mounds last year covered around 12 miles where I barely saw a boat or another person. Even if you are not planning a long trip, it is important to make sure you are prepared. Cellphone coverage can be spotty in areas, and even if you have coverage, help could be hours away.

In the video below, I invite you to take a look at what I normally carry in my backpack. There are likely things I could add, and perhaps things I could remove, but this is what I choose for me. I hope that you will also give some thought as to whether you have what you need in your pack, not only to ensure a great day on the water, but to provide first response that could save your life in an emergency.  The video focuses primarily on the preparedness items that live in my backpack, rather than the items I would add to go fishing. In addition to the items highlighted in the video, I would of course add what I need for the day such as rod(s,) reel(s,) flies, vest or sling pack, lunch, water, etc.

If hiking is not your thing and you plan on using your boat, kayak, or canoe to pursue shad, give some thought as to whether you have everything you need in your float bag. I have a very similar list of items that live in my float bag that I bring every time I head out in the kayak or canoe. Regardless of how you are going to get to the shad, the key is to BE PREPARED!


Here is a list of the items in my pack along with weight.

# Item Weight (ounces) Pounds
1 headlamp 1
2 germx 2.2
3 Sun & Bug 0.9
4 Swiss Army Knife 3.5
5 TP 0.4
6 Duct Tape 0.7
7 Signal mirror 0.7
8 Poncho 1.6
9 Compass 0.8
10 Whistle 0.4
11 Paracord 3.2
12 Tinder Kit 2.5
13 Bivvy 3.9
14 Lightmyfire 1
15 Pillcase 0.4
16 First Aid/ Trauma 15.6
17 Water Kit 4.9
18 Green Dry Bag (for clothes) 1.2
19 Blue Chamois 0.7
TOTAL 45.6 2.85

First Shad Caught in 2018

Above is a picture of the first shad caught in 2018! Well, the first shad I caught in 2018. 🙂

I met up with Todd at CS Lee around 9:30. The weather was cold, with air temps around 43 when we arrived, and a 5-10mph wind that provided a wind chill that cut through you, particularly when wading in 48 degree water. My original plan was to check out the bridge, hit the creek mouths on the way down to the Econ, and then potentially head up to Culpepper bend to do some scouting. I decided to start shallow with the single hand fly rod and a light weighted fly, thinking the shad would potentially be looking for warmer water.

Based on the gauge height of just under 4 feet and a quick look by the bridge, we determined the water was still a little high to wade around the bridge. It could be done, but figured we would be in thigh to waist high water at times, and with the cold temps, we decided to skip it. As we passed, we noticed a couple guys fishing near the bridge from a gheenoe. A message from Suede confirmed that it was them fishing, and that they did find shad near the junction.

We worked the creek mouths for an hour or two, me working shallow with the single hander, and Todd swinging deep with switch rod. Todd noticed a fish shallow, right in an area of convergence where there was a nice eddy, and some odd current upstream of it, likely caused by the wind and water coming off of the pasture. After a couple of casts with a 7.5ft T8/ 2.5 Ft Intermediate tip, Todd was the first to hook up with a nice American shad using a size 2 Gold-@ss Gotcha with a tan wing. The fish made several good jumps and a decent run before coming unhooked. Todd graciously yielded the spot to me as he thought I would be better off fishing the single hand rod shallow in that particular area due to the backward current. I worked the area using a beadchain Crazy Charlie but found no takers. Todd promptly hooked up with a Hickory (pictured) quite literally 5 feet from me which was hugging the bank.

I decided to change rods and rig up the switch rod. I rigged a 5ft T8/ 5ft Intermediate tip, 6 feet of level leader, and a size 4 Pink/ White Kip Tailed Clouser, tied with a long wing and began swinging flies through the eddy. After several attempts I hooked and landed the fish pictured up top. While I had given up on the single hand rod and was using the switch with a sink tip, after some discussion, we both agreed that the trigger was likely the larger flies. Our thoughts were, with the cold water, a small meal might not be worth the effort, but a large source of protein likely made the fish bite… IF you believe they are actually eating on their way up to spawn. 😉

The fishing was slow, so we decided to join the masses up by the Econ. When we arrived, there were two or three boats working the channel, and at one point I counted six. We were surprised there were as many people out fishing for shad this early in the season on such a cold day. We wondered if it had anything to do with this strange guy that is compelled to blog about his adventures in fishing for, and sometimes catching said shad. 🙂 Who knows? But I say the more the merrier, there is plenty of river to explore if you get tired of the crowds.

We fished the west bank, which is comfortably wadable with gauge heights under 4 feet and did not find fish. In fact, we never saw anyone catch any fish, even the boats. The west bank has been spotty in the last few years. It used to be a great place to hang all day, working your way up the Econ a couple of turns, but honestly, it is starting to get to the point I am not sure it even warrants a stop. The east bank seems to produce better in years of late, but the water is still too high to comfortably wade there. Gauge heights of under 3 feet are much preferred but be aware, high weeds can make false casting tough depending on wind. Single hand Spey casting, or Skagit/ Spey with a long rod is my preference. That said, it seemed the fish were further downriver today.

With the slow fishing we decided to head up to Culpepper bend. We motored up with the trolling motor in about 25 minutes and found no current. We worked the turn upstream of Culpepper for about 20 minutes and decided to head back. The deep cycle battery pooped out about a turn from the mouth of the Econ on the way back, so we resorted back to paddles and made our way back down to the creek mouths. We fished for another hour or so before calling it a day around 4:00. It was a fun day, despite the cold. I will likely skip going out next weekend and wait for the run to thicken up a bit before heading back out.

We have a Winner!

We have a Winner of the First Shad of the Season Contest! Congratulations to Suede Langston for catching and posting the first picture of a shad caught on the fly of the 2017/2018 season! This beauty was caught near the Econ on December 28, 2017. As you can see, the photo clearly shows the fly, fly reel, and official contest token in the picture. Not only is Suede the clear winner, he did so by landing a coveted December shad! Great Job Suede!

The prize below was mailed to you today. I hope the flies help you catch dozens more this shad run!

Fist Shad of the Season Prize

Fry Fly

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, 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.

Fry Fly

Fry Fly:

Hook: Size 10 Heavy Scud Hook
Thread: White Danville’s
Tail: White Kip Tail
Eyes: 1/8″ Prismatic Stick On Eyes
Head: Thin Clear Cure Goo

December Shad Fishing Report

I have said it before, and I will say it again… December shad fishing, is generally a crap shoot and this year is no different. Todd and I decided to meet up at C.S. Lee around 9:30, but with both of us running late, did not hit the water until after 10:00. Being late actually worked out okay because it allowed the dense fog to melt off, but by the time we were ready, the temperature was already in the mid 70’s. With water temperature around 65 degrees, we both decided we would wet wade, as the expected high was in the low to mid 80’s for the day.

We made our way to the creek mouths just upstream of the SR 46 bridge. With the gauge height around the 5.4 feet mark, we found the wading here to be in the knee to thigh high area. The pasture is still basically under water which we expected would likely mean the bass and panfish would be spread out, and not there for the taking in the river. We spent an hour or so casting the switch rods, swinging flies with the hopes of finding shad. With the high water and decent current, I found the 10 foot T3 Tip matched with a 5/32 hourglass weighted fly was not bumping bottom. I switched tips to a T8 and found I had a nice bouncey presentation. Unfortunately there were no takers so we decided to head on up towards the Econ.

In years prior to my utter and total consumption with fly fishing for shad with a switch rod, I often carried an ultralight spinning outfit with me, mainly to use when the wind picked up to levels that made single hand casting uncomfortable. With a switch rod rigged with a Skagit head, I found myself less put off by wind, so I would generally never pick up the ultralight and it just lived in the hold of my kayak, eventually being demoted to a dusty corner in my garage. Remembering that it once served me well, I decided to include it again, at least in the early part of this season. While I of course much prefer fishing for, and catching shad on the fly, in high water years, a spinning rod adds the option of trolling for fish as you make way from one spot to another. If you find shad while trolling, there are likely more to be caught, so you can find an area to wade near where you hooked up, and hop out and start swinging flies.

I rigged up the ultralight with a tandem rig, a pink and white Roadrunner with silver spoon as the lead lure, and a red and white shad dart trailing behind, and set out on a slow troll with the Hobie on the way up to the Econ. I took my time and zig-zagged up river, covering as much water as I could until I reached the mouth of the Econ. No takers! Not a shad, not a striper/ hybrid, not a bass, not even a humble panfish. Not a good sign!

Todd and I found good current and swung flies near the mouth of the Econ for another hour and a half, thoroughly working the area at different depths using different tips, weights of flies and retrieval methods, and again found no takers. I received a call from Philippe and found that he and John had similar luck launching from Cameron Wight, and working the area near Lake Jessup, with hopes of finding shad hanging where the South wind pushed nutrient rich water from the lake in to the river. Phil had picked up a crappie, but reported slow fishing beyond that.

After a quick sandwich and a frosty beverage, I decided to take the kayak and anchor up in the channel near the east bank. While I much prefer to wade and move around versus fishing from the kayak, when the water is high, an anchor trolly and anchor can be advantageous. I started casting the ultralight and working the area. Around 2:00, a slight south/southwest breeze picked up, creating a subtle ripple on the water, which had been glassy all day. There were large gar rolling all around me, and desperate to get the skunk off me, I made a cast near a swirl a gar had made and began retrieving the tandem rig, with a quick, jerky retrieve and hooked up with a fish. I thought maybe I caught a hybrid bass as it jumped once or twice, but when I got it to the kayak, I found a tiny shad in miniature, a hickory no more than maybe 12 inches. Unfortunately I lost the fish before snapping a picture. I caught the fish in the upper water column, as opposed to the bottom third I had been fishing prior to making the cast to the gar.

I continued fishing the upper water column and quickly caught another fish (pictured here.) Both fish took the lead jig, the pink and white roadrunner. After getting a picture and returning the fish to the water, I moved to the switch rod, switched tips to an intermediate sink, and tied on a beadchain weighted white shad dart. I had not rigged my single hand rod today, expecting to focus on two hand casting, so I began working the area with the fly, making snap- T casts with the two handed rod while seated in the kayak, not ideal, but possible. I tried to emulate the retrieve I was using on the ultralight, with the fly, but did not crack the code. I likely could have caught several more fish using the ultralight, but the allure of catching one on the fly outweighed my desire to catch another on the spinning outfit. The breeze died down, the river became like glass, and everything shut down once again. Eventually I did switch back to the spinning rod and never hooked up with another fish. The breeze seemed to be what turned the fish on.

December shad fishing is difficult, but you can catch them. For me, it required dusting off an old standby, and making some compromise. While I wanted to swing flies, a Roadrunner, worked through the upper part of the water column, while anchored up in the channel is what was required. At the end of the day, a December Shad is a December Shad, and I will take it!