Pike County Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs
Shad Fishing in the Delaware River
What is a Shad?
The American Shad (Alosa sapidissima) is the largest member of the herring family. Not to be confused with its smaller cousins, the "shad" southern anglers use for bait, the American Shad usually range from two pounds to eight pounds with an extremely rare monster over 12 pounds. Shad are anadromous. They are born from eggs scattered among the gravels of the upper Delaware. The fry live in the river until fall at which time they migrate down river to the ocean. At sea, the shad swim around, gorging themselves with plankton. After 2 to 5 years, they get the urge to breed and reenter the Delaware Bay. When the conditions are right, they race up the river to spawn and start the cycle all over again.
The importance of shad
The Lenape Indians harvested shad as an important food source. Washington's Army was saved from starvation by the annual shad run on the Delaware. Unfortunately, with the development around Philadelphia and Camden, pollution began to take its toll. Shad numbers were reduced as few shad were able to pass through the "pollution block" at the base of the river. Pennsylvania's only other shad water, the Susquehanna River also saw a decline of shad. With the building of the Conawingo Dam, shad could no longer migrate up the river. This loss of shad prompted the legislature to create the Pennsylvania Fish Commission (later renamed Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission) to study the loss of shad. The result was the first state agency in the United States charged with protecting and restoring fisheries. After World War II, efforts were made to rid the Delaware of the pollution block. The return of the American Shad was hailed as a sign that the clean up was a success!
Today, the American Shad is an extremely important sport fish. A few years ago, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission surveyed the anglers fishing for shad on the Delaware. The results showed an amazing number of angler had traveled over 100 miles just to fish for shad. Some were from as far away as New Mexico! Why were they willing to travel so far? Catch a shad or two and you'll know the reason!
What makes shad fishing so great?
O.K., you're a shad. You've just spent the last three years living in the ocean. You've dodged sharks, barracuda, and numerous other nasties that were determined to make you their supper. But you survived and you made it to the Delaware Bay. You hung out with your buddies waiting until conditions were right. Then you raced up the river. Against the flow! Over riffles! Never mind that you can't eat in freshwater. You've got one thing on your mind ... you're going to reproduce before you die! It's your only chance. But then just as you think you've got it made, something grabs you by the mouth and it is pulling at you. Are you mad? Of course you are and you're not going to let something like a fisherman delay you from your mission! That is what makes Shad fishing so great! 2 to 7 pounds of ocean tough fish with an attitude and he's not about to let you win. The reel burning runs of a bonefish. The tug-of-war contests of a bluefish. The acrobatics of a tarpon. --- All packed into one!
Fishing for Shad
Shad cease feeding before entering fresh water so artificial lures are the only way to fish for shad. Unlike bass or trout fishing, the lures are not intended to entice a fish to bite. Instead, they wobble in front of the shad and irritate it. Sometimes the shad will ignore the irritant. Often it will slap the lure with its tail. But, if the angler is lucky, the shad will snap at the offender, impaling its mouth on the hook. The shad's mouth is "crappy-like" in that it is paper thin and tears easily. Therefore, the angler must not try to power the fish in, but instead play it until it tires. Constant pressure must be maintained to keep the shad from throwing the hook.
The most common lure used in shad fishing is a small lead cone with a gold hook protruding from it. Commonly referred to as "shad darts", these lures come a variety of weights, sizes, and colors. Many have tails made of hair or plastic to impart more "action" to the dart.
There is no best weight, size, or color. Water depth and velocity are important when choosing the proper weight. As a rule of thumb, you should use the smallest dart that can be fished near the bottom in the particular spot you are fishing. The best color can vary based on water depth, water clarity, whether it is sunny or cloudy, and the disposition of the shad on the particular day. The hot color of the moment can suddenly change in a matter of minutes. With so many colors to choose from, it is recommended that the beginner start with several sizes of these classics: white with red, pearl with red, and chartreuse with green. Other colors may be added later. >>> T I P ..... Carry a pair of binoculars when fishing for shad. When other anglers are catching, you can easily spot the colors they are using and switch, if necessary. <<<
There are several ways to fish shad darts. From a boat, most anglers anchor and let the dart flutter in the current. Many lift and lower their rod tips to produce a jigging action. Lately some anglers have been successful by slowly trolling their darts up the channel. This latter method should be avoided in the peak of the run when there are many boats on the river. Whichever method you choose, it is very important that you always hold the rod in your hands. Shad will hit when you least expect it and can easily shake out a hook in the time it takes to grab a rod from a rod holder.
Shore fishing may be accomplished in two ways. The first is to stand on shore or in shallow waters and cast 45º upstream. Allow the shad darts to bounce on the bottom while drifting downstream. Reel in slowly so that there is a slight pressure on the lure and to facilitate hooking any fish that might strike. When the lure is 45º downstream, retrieve and cast again. Others cast as described above, but slowly retrieve to draw the lure across the channel. Another way is to wade into riffles or a shallow sand bar where there is deeper water below. Then standing at that point, fish as if you were in a boat. >>> WARNING ..... The current in the Delaware can be stronger than it looks. Check the strength of the current and don't "over wade" ..... WARNING ..... The Delaware can be very cold. Falling in could easily result in death from hypothermia! Always wear a life jacket when wading. ...... WARNING ..... Be alert for abrupt changes in water level especially when wading at, or below, the Zane Grey boat access. Hydroelectric plant water releases coming down the Lackawaxen can suddenly cause the river to rise making it difficult or impossible for waders to return to shore. If the water appears to be rising, don't take chances. Return to shore immediately. <<<
Flutter spoons are flat pieces of metal with a hook attached. They may be silver, gold, or bronze and are often dimpled. Sometimes all, or part of the spoon will be painted with bright colors. Flutter spoons are very light and often float high in the water. They are very valuable in the shallow waters of the upper Delaware and are fished from down riggers in the very deep waters of the lower Delaware. When fishing in Pike County, it is recommended that a "split shot" or two be added 2 to 4 feet above the flutter spoon to get it closer to the bottom. Once there, fish as you would a shad dart.
Although not very common, many Pike County anglers fly fish for shad. Lures include extremely small shad darts, flutter spoons, bare gold hooks, and brighter/gaudier streamers or wet flies. Again, as shad don't feed in fresh water, there is no need to" match the hatch". Fly fishermen will want to use # 7, 8, and 9 fly rods. The lure may be cast or slowly let out behind the boat. >>> TIP ..... Use as much backing as the reel can hold. Shad are known for long runs and will easily run past the standard length of fly line. ..... TIP ..... Shad are often shy of fly line. Use as long a leader as possible. <<< >>>> WARNING ..... See the warnings listed above for shore fishing and wading. <<<
When and Where to fish
When to Fish
In Pike County, the main shad run usually takes place after April 15th and before June 1st of each year. The exact time depends more on water velocity and temperature. While there are a few hardy fish who make the run early, generally shad don't run until the water temperature hits 50º F. As the water warms the "bucks" (males) usually travel up the river to stake out prime spawning sites. A few weeks later, they are followed by the "roes" (females). Should the water suddenly cool (eg. after a cold rain), the fish will find a sheltered area and will not travel until the temperature is more to their liking. As a result, it is common to hear reports of how high up the river the shad are, tracking the progress on a daily basis. In good weather shad can move from Bushkill to Milford in a day or so. Or, if the weather changes, it might take a week or more. High waters in the river may also make it impossible for the fish to move.
Shad may move up the river in small groups or large schools. Often there may be a wave of hits only to be followed by a long wait before the next group arrives. Certain areas below large boulders and islands provide resting areas for the shad. These areas are often productive when the schools are not moving.
Where to Fish
There is no shortage of areas to fish for shad in Pike County. Anglers need only to determine how far up the river the shad have gotten. And, once the shad have made it to Lackawaxen, the entire Pike County section of the river is fishable.
South of Milford
The entire river between Milford and Bushkill is part of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreational Area. Almost all of this land may be fished from shore. There are public boat ramps at Milford, Dingmans Ferry, Eshback, and Bushkill. (There may be fees to park at some sites.)
Matamoras to Milford
The river between Matamoras and Milford flows through private land. While shore fishing is legal under the Navigable Rivers Act, permission must be obtained before crossing the privately owned parcels. Airport park in Matamoras provides a good bit of public access to shore anglers. There are public boat ramps in Matamoras (Airport Park) and Milford (NPS) to access this section of the river.
North of Matamoras
The land North of Matamoras is mostly privately owned. Public lands owned by the Pennsylvania Game Commission or the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry allow public access. However even these are limited for shore fishing in that there is usually no road to take anglers to the river. Furthermore, the Pike County side of the river often has high, steep banks (or cliffs). Shore fishing may be easily accessed at the Matamoras Boat Access (about 1 mile North of Matamoras) or at the Zane Grey Boat Access in Lackawaxen. Boaters may also put in there as both these access areas have public boat ramps.
The state record for the largest American Shad caught on a rod and reel was an 9 pound 9 ounce monster taken by Anthony Mecca. The monster shad was caught in Pike County near Bushkill!
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's Angler Awards program recognizes the American Shad as sport fish. Awards are given to qualifying anglers who catch shad over 6 pounds, 4.5 pounds for children under 16. For catch & release, angler awards are given for catches over 22 inches.
Shad are kept both for their flesh as well as their roe (Pennsylvania Caviar). A regional favorite, fish markets and deli's throughout the Catskills are sure to stock shad and fresh shad roe, in season. The following are just a few recipes to get the beginning angler/chef started ...
clean and scale shad
cut unto 1/4 to 1/2 inch pieces
roll in flour and deep fry until done, cool
in non-metallic bowl put shad, 2 tsp pickling spice, 1 medium sliced onion, 1 garlic clove,
fill bowl with mixture of 1/2 white vinegar, 1/2 water
let stand 5 days before eating
Clean and scale shad
brush cavity with butter or margarine
put in roasting pan
add water to pan until 1/2 inch deep
place slices of lemon or lime on shad
add salt and pepper to taste
place in 300º oven for 2 hours
The Delaware River Shad Fishermen's Association
Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission
CLICK HERE to return to the Pike County Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs Home Page
CLICK HERE to return to the Pike County Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs Fishing Page