Shad Fishing on the James

Shad Fishing on the James

Living in Richmond gives me the opportunity to work with some great people. The guys at Current Culture Fly Shop are a good example. They were interested in carrying our Bird and Trout model and I was interested in learning new fishing techniques. It always feels great to work out a service trade because that indicates that you have aligned interests and values with the other party. One of Current Culture’s owners and boat Captains took us out on the James River in downtown Richmond during the early part of the spring shad run. Shad are often known as bait fish but they grow to a few pounds when mature and give a good fight. They run up coastal rivers to spawn in the early spring and while there, they bite at anything fast moving in order to protect their eggs. I’ve caught them from the riverside before but never from a boat or fly fishing. In fact I’ve done very little fly fishing.

The late March morning was overcast with low sullen clouds the color of lead. Shad are more influenced by tide than daylight so we were out there about an hour after sunrise. The first of the downtown high rise crowd were making their way over the bridges into the business district and ospreys were busy fortifying their huge nests along the waterway. We were bundled up against the breeze and threat of rain but excited to be fishing on a weekday. I brought along my shop foreman Tim Rock and my friend Scott Einsmann who is an avid outdoorsman, writer and photographer. Capt. Simón had an optimistic welcome for us and we got right out on the water. As we headed up river to the fall line and the wind picked up, our eyes began to water and a bit of a shiver set in but in truth it was more exhilarating than anything.

The James river has a fall line in downtown Richmond. This is where the bed of the river transitions abruptly from shallow and rocky to deep and navigable. Ships have been sailing up from the Atlantic for hundreds of years and this feature is clearly why the city grew where it did. This same fall line is the furthest inland that ocean species of fish can travel to spawn in the calm, warmer waters and all kinds of follower fish and waterfowl accompany them. As we pulled up to the first hole, I was surprised to realize that there were really no secret spots. A boat just allows more mobility around the same spots people fish from shore. As we anchored, instead of actually fishing, we had to learn a new technique of fishing first. 

Many words have been written about fly fishing and I won’t be able to add anything that hasn’t been said. Fly fishing culture seems to be a much more structured outdoors pursuit with a high degree of philosophical and technical dogma. In fact, the insular culture around the sport keeps many people from participating. The mission at Current Culture is clearly to break those walls down and introduce more people to the thrill of handling a fish with a light rod and one hand on the line. As Simón guided us through the basics of fly casting, I was surprised to be able to actually get the line out in the water reasonably quickly. I should mention that Scott brought his own gear and needed no help, but Tim and I were beginners. We had a great teacher though and were fishing in no time. Fly casting seems like the kind of skill that takes hours to learn the basics and a lifetime to master. To illustrate the importance of not only the cast but experience in stripping line (pulling the line back in by hand) Scott immediately started catching Shad while Tim and I just got more and more practice casting and stripping. 

Truthfully, it’s almost as exciting when someone you are fishing with catches one...almost. But, at least we all got to help land and handle these beautiful fish. As the morning went on, Tim and I caught Perch and were relieved not to get skunked that day. I really like to eat what I catch but many fly fishermen prefer a catch and release ethic. Catching several perch helped Tim and I feel satisfied by taking meat home and the Shad were all put back. Honestly I tried to eat shad before and it was a disaster. People that enjoy them have very complicated ways of preparing them, otherwise they are inedible. 

As the morning wore on, the sun began to throw rays between the clouds. The tide began to recede,  and we headed down river to check out the Heron rookery nearby. At this point it started to lightly rain–being in a boat on plane made it feel like a storm. We were thankful to reach the rookery and enjoy dozens of huge birds doing their thing. It was on the way back from watching the Herons that things got exciting. We decided to stop at one last hole to try and catch Shad coming downriver with the falling tide.

Scott hooked up the first Striper of the season and unbelievably I caught a very nice flathead catfish. We thought I had hooked into a big Striper at first but I could tell it was different thanks to the sensitivity of the rod. Instead of the furious fighting I was expecting, there was just a very strong and steady pull. As you may imagine, the fly rods are very flexible and cannot be used to fight the fish. Also, the reel is not used during the fight. Instead I had to learn on “the fly” to carefully strip line in when I could while keeping tension on the line to keep from losing the fish. I really had no idea that catching a catfish could be that exciting!

All in all the day was everything I had hoped and I can’t speak highly enough of Captain Simón. His skill, knowledge and demeanor made the trip the best it could have been. Later we had a fish fry at the knife shop to share those perch with the crew. I'm already looking forward to our next adventure.

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