By Gerald Almy
Photos by Gerald Almy
A vivid orange sun rose slowly above Fredericksburg as I eased into the cold, clear waters of the Rappahannock River. The air was chilly, but a thick Icelandic wool sweater and neoprene chest waders kept me warm. Shuffling out carefully through the swift waters I worked my way gingerly towards the head of a favorite pool.
Like many other anglers, each spring I’m drawn to make a special trip to the Rappahannock River at the edge of Fredericksburg for a special fish—the hickory shad.
The hickory is an anadromous fish that migrates up many East Coast rivers from the Atlantic Ocean every spring on its spawning run. While the fish enter a number of Virginia rivers, the Rappahannock sees some of the heaviest concentrations, with shad present from late March into May.
Making this angling opportunity even more appealing, the river is open in many areas for public fishing around Fredericksburg. Some fishermen cast from shore, others wade, and still others launch boats, all focusing their efforts just above and below where Route 17/US 1 crosses the river. Boat fishing is done below the bridge, while most wading and shore fishing takes place just upstream from the bridge.
The fact that shad are only available in spring makes them an especially intriguing quarry. For many it’s an annual tradition they wouldn’t miss, some making the pilgrimage regularly for decades.
While the 1- to 2-pound hickory is the most common shad species that forges up the Rappahannock each spring, smaller numbers of the larger white or American shad also surge into the river and sometimes grab offerings intended for hickories. Whites can run 3 to 6 pounds and are a welcome bonus and strong adversary on the light tackle most anglers use for hickory shad. Keep in mind that harvest or possession is prohibited for American shad, so they’re catch-and-release only. As of April 2023, there are no restrictions on possession of hickory shad.
Fortunately, the same tactics work for both anadromous species, and spinning and fly fishing are both effective techniques.
Quite often for this sport I use a simple ultralight spinning outfit and 4- or 6-pound line. This is by far the most common type of tackle you will see in use on the Rappahannock. But on the morning described above I stripped line from a seven-weight fly fishing outfit and began working my offering out towards the middle of the pool with a 9-foot graphite rod.
At the end of the tapered leader was a compact streamer I designed with a chartreuse body, stout red head, and short white marabou wing. To make it go down to the middle water column levels where the shad like to lie, I had wound a small amount of lead around the shank of the hook before dressing the fly. I also used a sinking tip line.
Casting across stream, I let the offering sink and then began a pumping retrieve, pulling in a foot or so of line with every third twitch of the rod tip. The tension was almost unbearable as I waited. Then suddenly it was there—the sharp, strong strike of the season’s first shad.
Thrashing and bucking wildly, the hickory jumped four times before I worked it in and twisted the hook free. I watched with satisfaction as it shot back into the water—healthy and ready to continue its mating mission in the rapids of the Rappahannock.
That trip was one of hundreds I’ve made over 30 years in quest of this migratory gamefish from the sea. The Rappahannock is particularly appealing for those who like to fish unencumbered with boats or lots of tackle and lures. Pack a few streamers or shad darts in a small tackle box, done a pair of chest waders, and have at the quarry!
The river is powerful, though, and some pools are deep and require careful wading. Always use a staff and wear a floatation vest. If the river is running high and full from spring rains, be sure you don’t challenge the deep, fast currents by going too far out in mid-stream. If you prefer staying dry, plenty of good pools can be probed from shore.
Hickory shad fishing is a particularly intriguing outdoor recreation opportunity because you can do it on your own, with no guides or expensive equipment required. Just a spinning rig or fly outfit with some weighted streamers or shad darts is all you need.
Some anglers fish below the Route 17 bridge, from shore and more often from boats, but I prefer the waters upstream from there. Both the north and south sides of the river are productive.
Morning is the best time to catch the shad, although fishing can be good all day if it’s drizzly or raining and the light level stays low.
Be aware that shad tend to bite in flurries. If you don’t get any strikes for a while, be patient. Soon they’ll go into a feeding mode and you may catch two or three before the action slows down again.
White and red is a popular color combination for darts and streamers, but many local experts prefer chartreuse bodies with a dark green or red head. Usually one dart will work, but if the fish are preferring smaller darts it can pay to rig two in tandem, one 18 to 24 inches ahead of the second one. Fishing two streamers at once on a fly rod can also be productive. A 5- to 7-weight outfit with a 9-foot rod is perfect for this fishing.
Top spots to try are deep pools, with the bigger ones holding the most fish. Some shad can be caught in the upper sections of the pools, but the lower one-third of the pool usually holds the largest number of fish.
Position yourself directly across from this prime zone or slightly upstream from it and cast out across. Let the fly or dart sink a few feet, and then begin a slow to moderate pumping retrieve.
A few anglers have luck with a steady reeling motion, but I like to activate the jig or fly. I feel like I get more strikes that way and enjoy the more lively approach.
The shad arrive in March, but they stay in the river and strike darts and flies for another six to eight weeks. By May the action gets a little slower, but if you scale down to smaller flies and darts you can still enjoy good, though slightly slower sport through the middle of that month.
Besides shad, this stretch of the river also has plenty of chunky smallmouths, catfish, and redbreast sunfish, as well as migrating herring and white perch during spring.
• Be sure to exercise caution when wading. Wearing a floatation vest and using a staff are recommended if you go in more than knee-deep. The rocks are slippery and the currents swift.
• Avoid wading through dangerous water just to get to a hard-to-reach spot. Plenty of shad can be caught without taking needless risks.