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Fly fishing for shad

Updated: Jan 3, 2023

Fishing the shad run in Northern Virginia

Potomac River shad on fly from a kayak

As my readers know, I generally fly fish for trout, but I am also keen to fish for other species in the metropolitan DC area (DMV). The more adventurous the excursion the better. I also own a kayak which often takes me fishing for species other than trout, one of which is the shad.

The 'Shad Run' is an epic event

In the DMV, a rite of passage for the avid angler is taking part in the 'Shad Run'. I am active in several local fishing organizations, including NVATU, NCC-TU and TPFR. The latter two earmark the 'Shad Run' as an epic event for their members. The two even collaborate on an annual ‘Shad Night’ event to herald the migration of the species up various tributaries of the Chesapeake, primarily the Potomac. The newsletters originating from these two organizations in February and March are buzzing with excitement over the timing of this ‘Shad Run'.

Shad is the "Official Fish of the District of Columbia"

The shad has been designated as the "Official Fish of the District of Columbia". It is also the subject of a seminal work by John McPhee, "The Founding Fish", and the documentary 'Shad Run' by Ben Dorger and Becky Harlan (in which I feature together with legendary shad angler Mike Alper). The migration of shad is not exclusive to the waters in the area of Washington, DC, and according to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, can be witnessed along a great portion of the east coast - most abundantly from Connecticut to North Carolina. In DC waters, shad are protected during the migratory period and it is illegal to harvest them.

The documentary "Shad Run" can be found online and on Maryland Public Television (the author with Mike Alper)

Virginia DWR collectively aggregates shad and herring into one freshwater species, including alewife, American shad, blueback herring and hickory shad. The gizzard shad is also a species that is part of the same family, but an unwanted catch in the Potomac because it is slimy, like an eel, and smells strongly of fish (go figure).

While I have 6 or 7 years of shad fishing under my belt on the Potomac, this is the first year I have ventured to three, distinct, local waters known for the 'Shad Run'; the Potomac, the Occoquan and the Rappahannock. In this post, I will detail how the experience is different fishing at each destination.

Fly fishing for shad on the Potomac River

The fervor that builds for the 'Shad Run' on the Potomac is unlike anything in my fishing experience. Growing up on the Jersey Shore, I used to think the striper run was iconic, but it pales in comparison to the excitement over the migration of the shad up the Potomac. These expectations are launched by the aforementioned 'Shad Night' and chronicled by the NCC-TU newsletter that usually begins in early March.

The author with a Potomac River shad

The 'Shad Run' usually coincides with the blooming cycle of the flowering trees that characterize the emergence of spring in the DC area. The impending migration is also signaled by the burgeoning population of cormorants that collect in the trees along the shores and large boulders in the river. As the migration ramps up, so does the collection of anglers on shore and the boat traffic on the water. The presence of dozens of eagles, osprey and herons adds to the great spectacle.

Fletchers cover is the hot spot for shad on the Potomac

The hot spot for the 'Shad Run' on the Potomac is Fletchers Cove, which is approximately 3 miles up Canal Road, NW from the Key Bridge intersection with M Street, NW. Fletchers Boathouse at the Cove provides boat rentals, supplies and advice, as well as fishing licenses. If you wish to launch a personal watercraft, such as a kayak, which I often do, then parking at the eastern end of the parking lot and launching from shore is okay.

There is no shortage of sagely advice available regarding tactics and tackle from either the boathouse, anglers on site, or the aforementioned forums/clubs.

Fly fishing for shad on the Occoquan River

A peaceful Occoquan River

The portion of the Occoquan River that fronts the historic town of Occoquan is about 22 miles from DC. This water is fishable for many species over the course of the year, but also presents opportunities for fishing the 'Shad Run'. There are places to fish from shore near the town, as well as on the opposite bank upstream of the Regional Park, but I prefer to fish from my kayak just downstream of the pedestrian bridge, upstream of the town center.

Launching a kayak on the Occoquan River

Putting in a kayak is easy from Occoquan Regional Park, which charges a launch fee. It is also possible to use the town launch (for free!), which is closer to the pedestrian bridge. Kayak rentals are available both at the Regional Park as well as at the town waterfront. If you time your visit with happy hour from Friday to Sunday or weekend brunch, you are likely to be enjoying live music emanating from one of the waterfront restaurants of historic Occoquan.

You know it is a fishing hotspot on the Occoquan if a heron is your wingman (top right of frame)

I have rarely felt pressure from boat traffic on the Occoquan upstream of the regional park, but I also tend to put in early morning or on weekdays. There was a recent Sunday when the traffic seemed impressive – a kayak angler told me there were 100+ participants in a fishing tournament that day, but because of the breadth of the river, it still did not feel oppressively busy. Like the Potomac, the 'Shad Run' attracts a large population of cormorants and resident osprey nest on the channel markers up and down the river.

Fly fishing for shad on the Rappahannock River

Fishing for shad from the Rappahannock (the Rapp) in Fredericksburg, VA has its own mythology and equals in excitement for anglers near Fredericksburg as it does for anglers near the Potomac. I made my first excursion to the Historic Port of Falmouth Park this past Spring and it was enlightening. The ‘beach’ at the park hosts dog walkers, bathers and fisherman all mingling together just down river of the bustling Cambridge Street bridge (Route 1 / Route 17).

Craig Conover of Falmouth Flats Fly Fishers on the Rapp

I was met there one weekday evening by Craig Conover, a member of the local fishing club Falmouth Flats Fly Fishers. Craig is a regular to the ‘flats’ and agreed to show me how one fishes the 'Shad Run' on the Rapp. We positioned ourselves just upstream of a prominent landmark that Craig referred to as Smith Rock. For some it represents the furthest point that Captain John Smith reach on his navigating the Rapp, for others it is a reference to Smith Coleman, former guide and fly shop owner in the area. This point is 100 miles from the Chesapeake Bay and it is amazing to think that shad and striped bass (rockfish around here) make it this far up the tributary.

Tight Lines!

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