At one time, the annual run of American shad into the St. Johns River set off the largest fishing tournament in Florida, as more than a thousand boats were launched to pursue these silvery fish, with top prize a brand new luxury automobile.
Those days are long gone, but the initiation of another shad tourney on a much smaller scale may bring many anglers back into a fishery that has been largely forgotten except by a few disciples.
American shad live most of their lives in the ocean, but when they're ready to spawn, they return to run up coastal rivers. The St. Johns, which enters the ocean near Jacksonville, is the southernmost river where they are found, and the fish sometimes travel more than a hundred miles up the blackwater flow of the river to spawning areas around Puzzle Lake, south of Sanford.
Shad spawning from Cape Hatteras southward make only one spawning run; like Pacific salmon, they die after they drop their eggs. Those north of Cape Hatteras, though the same species, may spawn several times during a life extending to 10 years, thus they get considerably larger than the southern shad. Average weight for the fish caught from the St. Johns is typically 3 to 4 pounds, with a 5-pounder a prize-winner.
Shad are great gamefish, with spectacular leaps and powerful runs, and there are typically thousands of them in the river from late November through early March. The reason that they're not more avidly pursued, however, is that the meat is extremely bony. Some eat the eggs, which are found in skeins about the size of a small sausage; these are floured and fried as a breakfast treat among Cracker anglers. (It's an acquired taste, however; to me it tastes like sand dosed with cod liver oil.)
Catching shad is not difficult once you learn the tactics. The easy way to go is to troll tiny jigs, about an inch long with weights of 1/16 to 1/8 ounce, on light tackle, typically 6-pound-test spinning gear. Don's Pot Gut Minnow is the classic shad jig, but they also grab tiny Beetle Spins and numerous other midget jigs and spoons. Among fly-rodders, small bead-eye streamers that will get deep are favored, with best colors white, chartreuse or yellow most years. Most fly-fishers use sink-tip lines to help sink their lures in the fairly brisk current found in the best areas.
Most shad are caught in the deep bends of the river north and south of State Route 46. The outside of the beds offers the deepest water, typically 4 to 8 feet deep, and these holes are where the schools of migrating fish settle.
Many anglers troll until they catch the first fish, then beach the boat and work the hole from shore, since repeated passes over the fish in a boat often spooks them. Sometimes trolling upstream draws strikes while trolling down does not, sometimes vice versa; it's likely that the fish are faced upstream, though, so trolling down-flow probably makes the most sense if you can keep the boat speed slow enough, typically just walking speed.
Fishing the steady current with tiny lures takes a bit of finesse; the tactic is to cast well upstream of the holding water and then let the lure swing and sink as it drifts with the current, so that it ticks bottom as it passes through the deepest part of the hole.
Successful shad fishing depends on low-water levels in the river. If it floods outside the banks - which it does frequently since the banks are typically only a foot above the water surface in this prairie terrain - then it becomes very difficult to locate the main channel where the fish are.
The river holds lots of largemouths, crappies and catfish in addition to the shad, and fishing around floating vegetation and creek mouths is usually the best bet for these species. Some anglers connect with large bass by slow-trolling live shiners in some of the same areas where the shad are located.
A visit to the St. Johns Prairie area around the river is well worth the drive, in any case - there are numerous bald eagles here, thousands of ducks in winter and every wading bird found in the fresh waters of Florida.
The Tampa Bay Fly Fishing Club hosts a Shad Outing each year in February; for details on this year's event, visit www.tbffc.org. For details on this year's regenerated Shad Derby, which runs through Feb. 28, visit www.fishingfloridaradio.com.