Off the Porch: Roanoke River Hickory shad on a fly rod

Mar. 29, 2013 @ 05:05 PM

We were catching shad on the Roanoke River in Weldon. We weren’t slaying them as the expression goes, but we were catching fish. Hickory shad are smaller than their cousins, the American shad. Average fish run about 14” with large females pushing 20”. They are aggressive fighters, though not highly valued as table fare. They hit hard and jump a lot. On ultralight tackle, they’re great sport.
We’d fished about three miles of the river from the Weldon boat landing to below Trouble Field Creek, and we were catching enough to keep it interesting. We were using ultralight spinning tackle with 1/8 oz. crappie jigs. We’d tried the Nunguesser shad rigs the tackle shops recommend and couldn’t see they performed better than the crappie jigs we were using, and the crappie jigs cost a lot less. All the normal colors seemed to work about the same. We used yellow, white, and chartreuse with white, yellow and red heads. We’d probably caught about thirty fish apiece in two hours, not bad. We fished the mouths of the little ditches that serve as creeks on the Roanoke. We drifted the straight part of the river and we were now anchored in a popular area just above what’s known as the big rock.
On the other side of the river, a nice flats boat anchored up and the guy put his fly rod together while we watched. Our new neighbor finished a few false casts, did a water haul and waited a few seconds for the line to straighten out in the current. He then made about four strips and the light fly rod bowed with the obvious action of a hickory shad. I watched and continued to ply my crappie jig. I was getting a fish about every five or ten casts. The fly angler played his fish, scooped him up, removed the fly, and released the fish. He made a couple of false casts to get the line back through the guides and cast again. Once again, he paused to allow the fly to sink and stripped…. another fish! I was starting to get interested. I continued to watch as he caught at least five fish to my one. For a long time, I never saw him make a cast that didn’t produce a hickory shad.
When we got ready to move again, I motored up to him and asked what the trick was. I figured I was going to get an ambiguous answer about some secret hand tied fly or such, but what he told me was simple and I paid attention.
My next trip, I was equipped, and had a ball catching hickory shad on a 5 weight fly rod. It was just a matter of having the right setup. While not always the case, hickory shad will often strike a lure fished off a fly rod when they are picky with lures fished off spinning tackle. While I enjoy fishing with one, I’m the first to admit that I’m not proficient with a fly rod.
The trick is to get the fly down where the fish are and for that you need a high sink rate. My recipe for my five weight is eight feet of LLC 13 Cortland lead core line, as much as I can lift and cast. This is known as a shooting head. I use Cortland braided monofilament as my running line. Some folks use one of the interchangeable tip running lines but the braided mono works just as well and is cheap. I have found it in thirty and twenty pound test and though the twenty will get deeper due to smaller diameter, the thirty feels better in my fingers. I connect the two lines with leader loops. You’ll need a backer under the braided mono since it comes in 100 foot spools and that’s all you need to cast. I use a six foot long six pound test leader. The length seems to be plenty and the light weight allows the leader to break without any worries of the loops pulling out if I get hung on the bottom.
Since I’m really not good with a fly rod, I anchor up to accomplish this. You can’t have slack line and catch anything, so I anchor up and use the current to help me manage the line. I use a stripping basket to help manage my line while catching fish, because I’m clumsy and can snag something with a fly line on a high school gym floor. This is a relatively heavy line and I couldn’t possibly keep that much weight in the air for a long false cast, so you have to shoot the line. Per my mentor’s suggestion, I do a water haul with the connection of the lead core head and the running line just outside the top guide. Using this method, I can toss a fly as far as I can cast a 1/8 oz. jig with light spinning gear. Once the cast is complete, I wait for a few seconds for the line to sink and bring it back toward the boat in a series of short strips. If the fish are really running, it doesn’t take many. A two pound hickory shad on a five weight fly rod is fun. A lot of the fish go over sixteen inches and some push twenty. This is serious fun.
The standard fly for most confirmed fly shad anglers is a Crazy Charlie in white, chartreuse or yellow. I’ve been told that sometimes pink works best but I’ve caught fish on almost every small, bright streamer I’ve tried. Remember that you’re going to lose some since the Roanoke is a lure grabber full of rocks, trees, and who knows what else on its irregular bottom. I’ve had better luck with a Clouser or Deciever in light colors. The best fly I’ve ever used is a Clouser with a set of reflective mylar wings. I’ve had a couple of them, one I lost to the bottom and the other caught a ton of shad and stripers before it was simply worn out. This winter, I found a couple more at Bass Pro Shop and I’ll be using them again this year.
If you’ve never tried shad fishing, you should. If you’re into fly fishing and haven’t tried fishing for these little battlers, you’ve really missed something. See you on the river.

Weldon is about 160 miles from the Triad, in Halifax County. The boat ramp is a just on the far side of Interstate 95 on NC 158. It’s a busy, but well maintained ramp with lots of parking. Through the shad and striper season, Halifax County, and the Roanoke River provide some of the best fishing on the East Coast and are a fishing popular destination with anglers coming from all over the country. For more information go to:
Dick Jones is an award winning freelance writer living in High Point. He’s a member of the board of directors of the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association. He writes about hunting, fishing, dogs, and shooting for several NC newspapers as well as national magazines and websites.  If you’d like to have him speak to your group, he can be reached at or