A bright orange sun slowly rose over Fredericksburg as I entered the cold, clear waters of the Rappahannock River. The air was chilly, but a thick Icelandic wool sweater and neoprene waders kept me warm. Dragging carefully through the white water, I carefully made my way to the head of a favorite pool.
Like many other anglers, every spring I am taken on a special trip to the Rappahannock River at the edge of Fredericksburg for a special fish – hickory shad.
The hickory is an anadromous fish that swims up many rivers on the east coast of the Atlantic Ocean each spring when it spawns. As fish enter a number of rivers in Virginia, the Rappahannock sees some of the highest concentrations, with shad present from late March through May.
To make this angling opportunity even more appealing, the river is open in many areas for public fishing around Fredericksburg. Some anglers launch from the shore, others wade, and still others launch from boats, all concentrating their efforts just above and below where Route 17/US 1 crosses the river. Boat fishing takes place below the bridge, while most wading and shore fishing takes place just above the bridge.
The fact that shad are only available in the spring makes this a particularly intriguing quarry. For many, it’s an annual tradition they wouldn’t miss, with some making the pilgrimage regularly for decades.
While the 1-2 pound hickory is the most common species of shad that forges the Rappahannock each spring, smaller numbers of larger white or American shad also surge into the river and sometimes seize offerings intended for the hickories. Whites can run from 3 to 6 pounds and are a welcome bonus and strong opponent on the lightweight tackle most anglers use for hickory shad. Keep in mind that harvesting or possession is prohibited for American shad, so they are catch and release only. As of April 2023, there are no restrictions on the possession of shad.
Fortunately, the same tactics work for both anadromous species, and casting and fly fishing are both effective techniques.
Very often for this sport I use a simple ultralight spinning outfit and a 4 or 6 pound line. This is by far the most common type of tackle you will see on the Rappahannock. But on the morning described above, I took the line off a seven-weight fly-fishing outfit and began to work my offering towards the middle of the pool with a 9-foot graphite rod.
At the end of the tapered leader was a compact streamer I designed with a chartreuse body, a big red head, and a short white marabou wing. To get it down to the mid water column levels where the shad like to lie down, I had wrapped a small amount of lead around the shank of the hook before dressing the fly. I also used a sinking tip line.
Casting across the creek, I let the offering flow, then began a pumping retrieve, pulling in about a foot of line with every third contraction of the rod tip. The tension was almost unbearable as I waited. Then, suddenly, it was there – the hard, clean strike of the first shad of the season.
Savagely thrashing and thrashing, the hickory jumped four times before I worked it and released the hook. I watched with satisfaction as he returned to the water, healthy and ready to continue his mating mission in the Rappahannock Rapids.
This trip was one of hundreds I’ve made in 30 years in search of this migratory gamefish from the sea. The Rappahannock is especially appealing to those who like to fish without the hassle of boats or lots of gear and decoys. Pack some streamers or shad darts in a small tackle box, make a pair of chest waders, and get to the quarry!
The river is mighty, however, and some pools are deep and require careful paddling. Always use a stick and wear a flotation device. If the river is high and full from spring rains, be sure not to challenge the deep, fast currents by going too far halfway. If you prefer to stay dry, many good pools can be surveyed from the shore.
Hickory shad fishing is a particularly intriguing outdoor recreation opportunity because you can do it yourself, without guides or expensive equipment. Just a spinning rig or fly outfit with weighted streamers or shad darts is all you need.
Some anglers fish under the Hwy 17 bridge, from the shore, and more often from boats, but I prefer the waters upriver from there. The north and south banks of the river are productive.
Morning is the best time to catch shad, although fishing can be good all day if it is raining or raining and the light level remains low.
Be aware that shad tend to bite in gusts. If you don’t get any warnings for a while, be patient. Soon they will go into feeding mode and you can catch two or three of them before the action slows down again.
White and red are a popular color combination for darts and streamers, but many local experts prefer chartreuse bodies with a dark green or red head. Usually one dart will work, but if fish prefer smaller darts, it may be beneficial to rig two in tandem, one 18 to 24 inches ahead of the second. Fishing two streamers at once on a fly rod can also be productive. A 5 to 7 weight outfit with a 9 foot rod is perfect for this fishing.
The best places to try are the deep pools, the bigger ones containing the most fish. Some shad can be caught in the upper sections of the tanks, but the lower third of the tank usually contains the greatest number of fish.
Position yourself directly in front of this privileged area or slightly upstream of it and launch yourself across it. Let the fly or dart sink a few feet, then begin a slow to moderate pumping recovery.
A few anglers are lucky with a steady reel motion, but I like to jig or fly. I feel like I get more strikes this way and appreciate the livelier approach.
The shad arrive in March, but they stay in the river hitting darts and flies for another six to eight weeks. In May the action gets a bit slower, but if you cut down to smaller flies and darts you can still enjoy a good, albeit slightly slower sport until the middle of that month.
Besides shad, this stretch of the river also has many small stubby mouths, catfish and red sunfish, as well as migrating herring and white perch in the spring.
• Be careful when wading. Wearing a life jacket and using a pole is recommended if you enter more than knee deep. The rocks are slippery and the currents fast.
• Avoid wading through dangerous waters just to get to a hard-to-reach place. Lots of shad can be caught without taking unnecessary risks.