This is the last of six articles included in the series entitled Fly Fishing for Shad- The Basics.
The “fly” is what makes us all fly fishermen, and it is as critical to a shad fisherman as it is to a trout fisherman. The big difference is, you will rarely cast a dry fly to a shad, as they are much more interested in a streamer or wetfly most days. Unlike a trout, a shad generally likes a fly presented to them near the bottom of the river. The river bottom tends to be the shad’s domain, and they are not likely to rise to the surface for a tasty caddis or mayfly, except for the odd occasion in shallow water in the early morning or evening. For this reason, I prefer sinking fly patterns for shad to floating ones.
I found it interesting that, when I started to learn about catching shad on the fly, it was difficult to track down flies specifically used to catch them. It seemed that there were flies used in specific regions, but finding their names and subsequently their recipes proved difficult. Maybe it is because there are times when shad seem to take just about any fly presented to them, so anglers just decided the shad was too pedestrian to even bother naming flies for? Personally, I do not feel the shad is a second rate fish, and while sometimes it is true they will take just about anything, there are other times where they are certainly selective, and will definitely turn from an offering.
Now shad are nowhere near as discriminating as a trout, but of course there are fly patterns for shad that work, and fly patterns that do not. A basic rule of thumb is, a shad fly should be a small, weighted, brightly colored and/or flashy fly. That said, flies tied completely with flash and void of other materials tend to perform poorly versus a more subtle use of flash, at least on bright, clear days. While there are conflicting thoughts on whether shad actually eat on their journey to spawn, what is known is that they will strike flies, either out of hunger, instinct or aggravation, so you want a fly that gets their attention, but is not large enough to spook them or make them turn a cheek.
You will often read reports of how shad key in on a single color and that colored fly is all they will strike. Shad fishermen will tell you stories of how chartreuse was hot for an hour and how they caught shad after shad on chartreuse, only to find that after an hour, they would not hit anything but orange. While color is a consideration, I do not believe that fish key in to a single color and then abruptly change their opinion only to shun what they once loved. Instead, I believe this phenomenon is likely caused by the fact that shad travel in large groups of single file lines. A fisherman will catch fish after fish until that line of fish has passed your reach. After a period of time of nonstop action followed by a lull or no action, our natural instinct is to tie on a different fly. At some point the next pod of fish makes it within our rod’s reach and we begin catching fish again, creating the illusion that the fish have keyed in on our new color.
While I do not believe shad completely key in on a single color, I have found some colors work better than others, and I have my personal preferences. I think this is more about the profile of the presentation in relationship to the clarity of the water, and light conditions. Simply put, some colors do better at getting a shad’s attention than others, but those colors likely change depending on environmental variables.
I fish the upper section of the St Johns River. The water here is tannic and on average between 6-10ft deep in most places. I find that orange, orange over white, pink, and pink over white flies produce very well for me. I have less luck with chartreuse most years, yet meet fishermen every year that swear by it. There seems to be no rhyme of reason to it really.
What I believe is most important about a shad fly is the weight of the fly. The weight of the fly should be ample enough to get the fly down deep enough to the shad quickly. You know you are deep enough if you are either catching fish, or snagging a muscle, grass, or bottom occasionally. The fly should be heavy enough to get the fly down and either hover right around bottom, or bounce off of it. Too much weight, particularly when matched with a sinking tip can result in the line being anchored to the bottom, and unable to complete a natural swing downstream. This is obviously not the correct presentation. The key is to match the weight of the fly to your water conditions.
I prefer flies weighted with hourglass or bead chain eyes versus lead wraps or beads, as the fly rides hook tip up when tied with them. This is helpful as the water I fish typically has grass or muscle beds that can snag a fly that is pointed hook tip down too often. Most of the fly patterns I tie for shad have a 5/32 hourglass eye on them. The 5/32 size is my preferred weight as it gets the fly down fast, keeps it there, and can be cast without issue with a 5 weight rod. That said, for every pattern I tie with a 5/32 hourglass eye, I also tie a lighter version with bead chain eyes. These two different weights combined with a sink tip or polyleader provide the versatility to fish all of the water I frequent.
What I consider next important about a shad fly, is the size of the fly. Shad seem to prefer small flies, and I like size #6 hooks. When tying shad flies with tails on them, the tail should be short, no longer than the length of the shank, or just a bit shorter. Shad have a habit of short striking, so a small, compact fly is critical. If you find you are getting short strikes on the river, use your nippers to trim the tail down in size. Don’t worry, shad do not seem to mind a uniformly cut tail. While size #6 is my favorite, sizes #4- 8 are completely acceptable.
This site will likely end up full of fly patterns for shad to try. However, if I had to pick just two fly patterns for shad to fill my fly box with, without a doubt it would be the Kip Tailed Clouser first, and the Shad Dart a close second. These two flies currently make up the majority of flies in my fly box. I simply tie them in different colors, and weights on a size #6 hook. They are both very easy to tie, require minimal materials, and are proven shad fly patterns.
You can find all of the tying instructions for flies on this site by visiting the Shad-Flies page.
Read the Previous Article in the series entitled Fly Fishing for Shad- The Basics.
Thank you so much for providing all this information! I was out catfishing on the Neuse river the other night near a dam by Falls lake and there were pretty big fish coming up to the surface and jumping like crazy all over the place from 9pm-12am. I had never seen anything like it. After a bit of research I realized they might be shad coming up stream to spawn so I knew I had to get my fly rod ready. I had a couple questions though — 1st do you think those were actually Shad coming up to spawn in late march? 2nd do you have any advice for catching them at night on the surface?
Once again thank you for providing this wealth of information. Wish me luck!
This definitely sounds like shad to me, and the timing is about right for North Carolina. Guys have been reporting good numbers of fish since early March up there. As for catching them at night, this can be tricky, as what you are probably seeing up on the surface is spawning activity also known as “washing.” While the fish are spawning, they often will not eat. However, you could try swinging small Fry Flies, tiny Muddler Minnows (size 8 or 10,) or try skating other small floating flies across the surface. You might entice a take!