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They’re Not Just Bait! Rendezvous With Shad

The author’s first shad-fishing trip to Augusta was long overdue. Now it’ll likely be an annual event that father and son can anticipate all year.

Capt. Bert Deener | May 1, 2008

The author with the largest shad (American shad) of the trip, a 3 1/2 pounder. The fish smacked a gold Hildebrandt Shad King spoon trailed behind a chartreuse-silver flake Bass Assassin 2-inch Curly Shad.

Shad, both American and hickory, played a role as an excellent spring protein source in the early days of our country. Native Americans used to stack rocks across small streams in a v-shaped pattern and herd shad toward the point of the “v” to capture them. In today’s culture of refrigeration and ice available on every corner, other milder- tasting fish have taken the commercial spotlight. Although slipping as a commercial target, smart anglers still seek shad for their tremendous fight on light tackle.

Growing up in the mid-Atlantic region, the spring fishing reports always contained information about where the shad were biting. My father, Herb Deener of Waycross, and I talked about sampling Georgia’s shad fishing for years before finally trying it this spring. Our destination was New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam just below Augusta on the Savannah River, where the 8-lb., 3-oz. state record American shad was landed back in 1986.

We timed our trip to coincide with the Augusta dogwoods blooming and also The Master’s golf tournament, both traditional indicators of the start of the peak shad run on the Savannah River. Good numbers of shad usually stay in the area of the dam until late May or early June.

On the way to the ramp, we stopped by Lock and Dam Bait and Tackle for some pointers. Bob Baurle and Russ Payton were a wealth of knowledge, and Bob’s well-stocked shop allowed us to purchase the items we needed. Growing up right across the road from his shop, Bob is intimately familiar with the ins and outs of the river. He has been handing out fishing information for more than 51 years from his store at its same location as today. The boat landing is even named after him. Shad fishing is Bob’s forte this time of year, and we were all ears as he described some of his more productive spots and techniques.

After “Shad Fishing 101” at Bob’s store, we decided to first check out the action on the fishing walkway at the dam. As we approached from the parking area, we could see anglers swinging fish over the rails. We watched as anglers hurled multi-hooked sabiki rigs — the same as those used to catch bait — into the swirling water some 25 or 30 feet below. It was interesting to watch the dam-fishing experts try to guide their shad toward a waiting drop net to land them. It was almost as if the shad knew that if they swam over the little mesh basket, it was history. And, they did everything in their power to swim any other direction than toward the net. We watched a half-dozen shad make the trip over the rail before we headed to launch our boat.

We launched our boat and tied up to the service pier to rig our outfits with Bob’s suggested jig-spoon rig. The jig portion consisted of a 3/16- or 1/4-oz. jig head I custom built with a No. 2 gold hook with a chartreuse- silver flake 2-inch Bass Assassin Curly Shad impaled on it. The spoon trailing behind was a Hildebrandt Shad King spoon. Bob calls them “flicker spoons” because of the tiny willowleaf blades attached to the hook that flip in the current. The two smallest spoon sizes (1/32- and 1/16-oz.) usually work best for shad. Some of our rigs were made with silver and some with gold spoons. I used 17-lb. test fluorocarbon leader material to tie a 3- inch dropper onto which the jig head was connected and tied the spoon to the leader about a foot behind the jig head.

Bethany Owens, along with her husband Beau and friend Jason Danilovich, all from Augusta, caught dozens of shad by casting 2-inch chartreuse curly-tailed grubs rigged Carolina-style behind a 1/2-oz. egg sinker into the turbulence below the dam. They tied their boat up to the buoy line and cast toward the dam.

We used a 6-foot, light-action Pflueger Microspin rod and Pflueger Medalist 6025 reel for casting the double rig. I spooled the Medalist with 6-lb. test Sufix Elite monofilament. The ideal outfit for trolling the rig is an 8-foot, light-action Microspin rod, as the extra length provides a wider spread on your trolled lures. Some anglers use much heavier rods, up to medium-heavy Ugly Sticks. The advantage of a heavier pole is that the shorter fight gives the fish less time to pull the hooks. To me, the extra fight of a light outfit is worth a few additional lost fish.

Once rigged, we shoved off the dock and motored upstream toward the dam. One bend and we could see the dam in the distance. The top of the gravel bar Bob and Russ described was obvious in the middle of the river. We put our lines out and trolled up the north side of the bar and along the buoy line with no success. A boat was tied up to the middle of the buoy line, and its anglers were casting lures into the turbulence below the dam. As we passed, we watched them hook a couple shad. We turned around when we reached the Georgia side and came back across the buoy line and back down the South Carolina shore. On our trip back, we watched them hook another couple shad. While trolling downstream that first pass, we hooked our first shad on the chartreuse Curly Shad on the South Carolina side of the gravel bar. After a photo session of my first shad on hook- and-line, we put the lines back out and made another trip around the west and north sides of the gravel bar. Again, we hooked nothing going upstream, watched the anglers at the buoy line catch another couple fish, and Herb caught his first American shad at the end of the second downstream pass. That one inhaled the small Shad King.

The two primary rigs used for shad are (top) a Carolina-rigged 1/32-oz. jig head with 2-inch Bass Assassin Curly Shad or (bottom) a 3/16 to 1/4-oz. jig head and Curly Shad with a Hildebrandt Shad King spoon trailing about a foot behind.

We discussed tying up to the buoy line but did not want to get in the way of the other anglers. We were also hesitant to tie our small jonboat because of the turbulence there. After one more circuit with nothing heading upstream and another spoon-caught shad headed downstream, we decided to concentrate our efforts on the run between the gravel bar and the South Carolina bank. We used our Mercury outboard to motor upstream and used my 41-lb. thrust Motor Guide trolling motor to control and slow our downstream drift. All the while, we cast out 90 degrees from the boat and let our lures swing down- stream and flutter behind the boat in the current before making another cast. Our efforts were rewarded with an occasional fish smacking at our offerings. We missed and lost most of the fish that we duped into striking, but every few bites we would hook up and fight a shad to the boat. About half the fish ate the Curly Shad and half ate the Shad King spoon.

By mid-afternoon, the sun came out, and the activity level increased as if we had flipped a light switch. The shad started swirling on the surface and darting around in the current. Our number of bites picked up, as well. You could look in almost any direction and see shad splashing on the surface. We spent the majority of the day using the trolling motor and working around the various current breaks near the gravel bar. During late afternoon, the boat that tied up to the buoy line headed in, and I hailed them. I learned that Bethany and Beau Owens and Jason Danilovich, all from Augusta, had caught 85 shad and lost many more casting a Carolina rigged chartreuse 2-inch curly tail grub rig toward the dam. Come to find out, they make annual trips to the dam to catch shad, but this was one of their better ventures.

About two hours after the sun came out, it disappeared again behind the clouds. And, as expected, the activity level of the shad went back to mediocre. We caught several more shad, but there was a marked drop-off in the frequency of bites. During two days of fishing, we managed to get a total of 30 shad to the boat. The biggest was a 4-lb. American shad. We also caught one hickory shad and a blueback herring.

During the trip, we noticed several patterns develop. The bite was slow when it was cloudy but picked up significantly with the sun. Bob told us before the trip that this was the case, and it played out just as he said. During periods of clouds, we caught more fish on Curly Shads, while Shad Kings produced more fish in the sun. Silver was the best spoon color when the sun was out, while gold spoons produced better when it was cloudy. Two colors of Curly Shads worked for us, although we experimented with several hues. White was the ticket when it was cloudy, and chartreuse-silver flake was the most productive option in the sun.

Although the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam is the most publicized shad-fishing destination in the state, there are other locations that produce. The Ogeechee River is known for its shad fishery, with trolling small curly tailed grubs an effective presentation in the lower portion of the river. Also, a new shad fishery has developed below the low-head dam on the Ocmulgee River at Juliette.

You’ll find some detailed information about shad fishing contained in C. Boyd Pfeiffer’s book entitled “Shad Fishing: A Complete Guide to Species, Gear, and Tactics.” It is available in tackle stores, bookstores, and on-line booksellers, or you can get a signed copy by contacting Boyd at [email protected]

On the way back to Waycross, my dad and I could not believe we had not prioritized a shad trip before this year. With their powerful runs and occasional jumps, shad have moved way up my list of desirable fish to catch. I would not be surprised if a shad-fishing trip to the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam becomes an annual occurrence for my dad and me.

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