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SHAD FISHING ON THE ST. JOHNS RIVER.Back to Categories

This is for all you fly-fisherman who live in Florida or happen to travel to Florida for a vacation and want to get in a little fishing for Shad but don't have a clue.  Everything you need to know about Shad fishing on the St. Johns River is right here. 

flyfishingthings.com/American Shad

The shad enter the St.Johns in October-November and migrate the 200 miles to their spawning grounds in the upper St. Johns east of Sanford and Orlando Florida. The shad have been moving up river now for a few months and at this time of the year (December) they can be caught around the “Government Cut” area near Sanford Florida.Most will be taking trolling jigs from a boat.However, fly fisherman can do well wading stretch’s of the river between the Mullet lake section downstream to the “Government Cut” section. However, I'm going to focus on the area of the St. Johns where the shad spawn. That is generally upstream (south) from St Road 46 where it crosses the St. Johns River down to US 520. A distance of approximately 25 miles.There’s plenty of water to wade and access to the river is not hard at this time of the year because the river is at it extreme low point.  There are many spots where you can wade the river. There are two species of Shad that spawn in the St. Johns: The American Shad (the larger of the two) and the Hickory Shad.  The smaller males will run from 12 to 15 inches while the females can reach up to 5 lbs and up to 26” in length. An average female will run 22 to 23 inches in length and weigh about 4 lbs.

Although Shad are an extremely bony fish they are delicious to eat. In fact their Latin name Alosa sapidissima means: “most delicious fish”. Both the female yellow roe and the male white roe make great table fair.Many people like to smoke shad.
There is no limit to the number you can keep however, unless you’re over 65 you will have to purchase a fishing license. Please check state laws for possession amounts just to make sure. Floride fishing violation fines are expensive and they don't give warnings.  Unless you intend to eat everything you catch I would recommend catch and release fishing. Shad react very much like trout when hooked.  They’re a blast to catch. They jump and are very strong swimmers.

When to go.  February and March

The Shad are not thick in the river until around the 1st week in Feb.  It is at this time you can start fishing upstream (south ) of St Road 46 at Lee’s crossing, especially near the mouth of the Econolohatchi River (Econ for short) where it empties into the St. Johns.  The fish are always there like clock work and with the right flies or jigs one can expect to catch dozens of fish.  Shad run in pods or small schools.  What this means is that you'll catch a bunch of fish and then nothing, then another bunch then nothing, because that’s the way they run up river; in bunches. 

After the about 10 days the migration moves on upstream spreading out over the entire 25 to 30 miles of the St. Johns River to spawn; including well upstream into the Econolohatchi River.  The Shad stay in the river and its tributaries until the last week in March. Those that don't die will begin the run back down (north) the river to the Atlantic.  Although some shad stay in the river year round they are difficult to catch.  If you happen to go the day before they move out you might catch up to 100 fish, however, on the next day you might not catch one! This very thing happened to me.   It’s amazing; when they’re gone, they’re gone.  I concentrate my fishing from Feb 1 to the end of March.

Where to go.  St. Johns River from Lake Harney south to US 520.  That’s 15 miles west of Mims, Florida on SR 46 where it crosses the St. Johns River.

In December and January I like to fish the Government Cut area east of Sanford and upstream to the Mullet lake area.  The fishing is slow however it beats sitting home watching ball games.

On or around February 1st I will fish upstream and or downstream of the mouth of the Econolohatchi River; especially near the mouth. About a week later, the area around Hatbill Park is very good. The Hatbill area is about 7 miles upstream (south) from the Econ.  By the 3rd week in February I start concentrating on the St. Johns upstream from US 50 where it crosses the St. Johns 5 miles west of Titusville, Florida.  From March 1st until the end of March I fish almost exclusively between US 50 and St Road 528; a stretch of river about 15 miles long.  This is the main spawning area for the shad.

 If you have a boat you will be able to find the fish a lot easier, however, like I said the Shad are always moving and the St. Johns is a very big river.  You can drive to the river is some places and then hike to your favorite hole. However, a boat is the preferred way to go.

 If you don’t have a boat you can make the ½ mile hike to the Econ from the fish camp at Lee’s crossing on SR 46.  The first week in February this area is extremely good and anyone and everyone fishes from the bank.

The Econ has excellent shad fishing with miles of grassy banks to fish from and places to wade.  There are no trees. The fly-fishing similar to meadow stream fishing in the west.  A lot of Shad spawn in the Econ with the best fishing coming in early February.

 Equipment

Besides a good pair of chest high waders and wading boots you will need rain gear and or a wind breaker. A long sleeve fishing shirt and fishing pants inside a pair of chest high waders with a wind breaker over the top will keep you warm enough for most days. The wind can blow very hard (20 knots or more) during this time of year.  It can also be surprisingly cold.  Temp in the 50’s with wind and rain can make for a very chilly day.  There will also be days in the high 70’s with little wind and no rain. On days like that you can fish in a pair of shorts, with a short sleeve shirt and sandals. So, like a good boy scout, watch the weather and be prepared.

 The water temperature will range from the mid 50’s to the upper 70 degrees.  Because the river is shallow in this area it cools down and heats up faster than it does down stream. The optimum temperature for the shad is 63 degrees.

 A 4 or 5 weight fly rod eight feet long will serve you well loaded with a weight forward floating line.  I also carry a number one sinking line (bone fish line) just in case the river comes up from rain. I personally prefer to fish a sinking line because a sinking line is easier to cast into the wind and it gets the fly down into the current faster. Remember you will be casting into wind, sometimes a lot of it, and all daylong.  The leader setup is the same, as you would set up for trout fishing.  A 9-foot leader ending with a 3x tippet is what I use.   Seldom will you break off a fish with 3x unless you get really excited.  You can even go to a 2x if you prefer.  Shad are not leader shy.  However, the heavier the tippet the less action on the fly.  So rig accordingly.  Additionally you will want to have a pair of forceps to remove flies from the fish’s mouth, finger nail clips to trim your tippets and or leaders, extra leader and tippet material and of course your flies and jigs.  And don’t forget your hat and a pair of polarized sunglasses.

 When the wind is just cranking (20 knots or more), fly-fishing can be a challenge; especially if you have to cast into the wind.  What I do then is take off my fly reel and put on a light-spinning reel loaded with 4lb test mono.  You will find that with this type of setup you can cast a 1/8th once jig into the wind further (and with less effort) than you can cast a fly.  If you use ¼ once jigs you can cast even further of course.  My favorite Shad setup is a 8’ 2 weight rod with an ultra-light spinning reel loaded with 4 lb test mono.  Landing a 5lb Shad on a 2-weight rod is whole lot of fun. 

I don’t use a net, however, if you don’t know how to handle or land a fish without a net, a light aluminum net will work just fine.  When I catch a big female (4 to 5 lbs) I hand land her upside down belly up.  I remove the fly or jig with my forceps.  Shad will quite thrashing when you turn them upside down. Shad have a very papery mouth and flies are easy to unhook, however, if the fly buries into a bone you might have to work a little harder at removing the fly .

 Finally if you plan to keep some Shad to eat, storing them in a black plastic trash bag works great.

Technique or fly (jig) presentation.

If you haven’t read my pages dealing with streamer fishing presentation go back and read it.  You fish for Shad just like you would streamer fish for trout.   The most basic method is to cast across current and swim the fly or jig down stream.  If a fish “boils”; cast upstream of the “boil” and swim the fly thru the “boil”. A “boil” is when the fish swim up toward the surface to take a minnow and just before breaking the surface of the water it starts back down.  The action of turning at or near the surface of the water is what makes the disturbance (boil). You’ll see bass do the same thing when they’re chasing threadfin shad. Birds diving to take minnows are another good sign that Shad are pushing minnows to the surface. 

When fishing a big deep pool, I’ll cast the fly to where I think the fish are holding, let the fly sink for 2 or 3 seconds, then strip the fly up, let it sink again, and repeat until I either get a strike or strip the line all the way in.  If you’re fishing a jig, make your cast and let the fly sink, raise the rod tip as you reel in the slack, let the fly sink, raise the rod tip as you reel in the slack, and so on.  The strike will come on the drop—most times.  Another method is to cast across current and simply swim the fly or jig in a steady methodical retrieve. Keep the fly or jig near the bottom!   This is effective when fishing a broad flat area.  Additionally, just like trout Shad will hold against a bank near an eddy line.  In this situation swim the fly into the eddy line and let it hang there a few seconds then start a slow hand twist retrieve.  Just like trout the Shad will bite from behind; or attack as the fly moves past it.  A lot of times you will catch a crappie instead of a shad.  Did I mention that crappie is also delicious to eat?

Change flies when they quit hitting the fly you have been catching them on. Going to a different color is sometimes all it takes to start catching fish again. 

Update:

Here is a link to my all time best shad patternShad fly  For the receipt:

 
Shad Fly Patterns:

All my patterns are tied in the Clouser style except for the Shad Buster.  Sizes 6’s and 4’s on a Mustad 34007 hook (or its equivalent).  Eyes are lead medium dumbbell in Red or White. These are my own patterns that I developed through trial and error.  They are much more effective than the shad darts I bought from the local fly shop. 

I usually start with an all white pattern or a pink and white pattern.  Chartreuse is my go to color because it catches everything: bluegills, specs, bass, in addition to shad.

 I use a gold pattern when there is bright sun and or during the middle of the day.  My silver shad fly is one of those flies that shad just like to eat.  I seldom catch bluegills or specs on it, but shad will eat it every time.  If I’m catching lots of bluegills and specs and want only to catch shad I will switch to my silver pattern.

Biologist will tell you that Shad do not eat when they come into the river out of the ocean.  But I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt, I have seen Shad eat and chase minnows.  When a Shad “boils” the surface it’s because it’s chasing after a minnow.  Here are my shad fly recipes.

All White:

Eyes:  Red or white dumbbell mediam

Body:
  Pearl or silver.

Wing:
  White EP fibers or polar bear under fur (best)

 
Chartreuse:
  This pattern catches everything because it imitates a baby redbreast brim.

Eyes:
  Red dumbbell

Body:
  Chartreuse crystal braid.

Wing:
  Tan EP fibers with 2 strands of gold crystal flash mixed in.

 
Pink:

Eyes:
  Silver bead chain (large)

Body:
  Pink crystal chenille.

Wing:
  White EP fibers with pink crystal flash mixed in.

 
Gold:

Eyes:
  Red dumbbell.

Body:
  Gold braid.

Wing:
  Tan EP fibers with gold crystal flash.

 
Silver Shad:

Eyes:
  Silver bead chain. (medium)

Body:
  Silver braid or Mylar.

Wing:
  Pink crystal flash with silver over top.

 Shad Buster:
  This pattern has lots of motion in addition to flash.

Eyes:
  Large silver bead chain.

Body:
  Pink crystal braid or crystal chenille.

Tail:
  White marabou tied long.

Collar:
  White spade feathers, 3 turns in front of eyes. The feather barbules should extend back to the bend of the hook.

 Shad Jigs:

Buy Jigs with red, black, yellow, or chartreuse heads.
  1/8th once best or ¼ once for faster currents and or deeper water.

 Grub twister tails in chartreuse, pink, smoke, silver, brown, black, and yellow.
  Never be without chartreuse color.  You can purchase all these colors in one kit at your local Wal-Mart or from Cabalas or Bass pro shops.

Locating Shad in the River.

 
Shad like to spawn in 4 to 6 feet of water on a sandy gravelly bottom with a 4 mph current.  However, before they reach their spawning area and while they are migrating up stream look for shad in the following areas:
 

  • Anywhere you see birds diving to take minnows.

  • Fast current areas.

  • Where two currents come together.

  • Big pools.  These are resting areas for the shad.

  • Eddy lines formed by fast moving currents along banks.

  • The tail ends of long broad runs where the water depth is spawning depth.

  • The head of runs especially if the water is dropping off a shelf.

  • Eddy lines formed along the base of tree roots especially if there is lots of current.

  • Shad “washing” activity.  Hundreds of fish all “boiling” the surface at the same time.

 Well there you have it.  If you equip yourself as I have outlined and follow the instructions you should catch anywhere from two to six dozen shad in a single day of fishing.  Don’t forget to take your camera.  And remember; when fishing in Florida, if you walk the banks of the river always look where you’re stepping; there may be a Cottonmouth sunning itself.  And, never wade where the alligator(s) are nine feet or longer in the immediate vicinity.  The St. Johns River holds some of the largest alligators in the world.  I have personally seen an alligator that was almost 14 ft long lying on the bank sunning itself.  He wasn’t afraid of anything.  When he crawled into the water I got out.  He was big enough to take down a full-grown cow.  Most alligators in the St. Johns River will flee from your presence, but ever now and then you may run across one that isn’t afraid of humans.  An alligator that has lost his fear of humans is one to stay away from.  Find another place to fish. 

Buy the way during the shad season the St. Johns River is at its lowest.  The alligators will be all over the banks sunning themselves.  Not to worry though, when you approach they will flee into the water, however if you approach slowly you can get some great camera shots. 

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