The lowly Shad is a species I often refer to as the Rodney Dangerfield of anadromous fish since they get absolutely no regard. And why should they? A fresh Shad smells like a week dead Salmon that’s been rotting in the sun. They also happen to be covered in a layer of industrial strength slime that no amount of power washing could ever remove. But what they lack in aesthetic value, they make up for in heart voraciousness.
Shad are beginning to show up now and will be around through the end of June. The Oregon City area is pretty much the only known place to fish the main stem Willamette however there are a few places on the Multnomah Channel to catch them as well. Oregon City also tends to see better catches than Columbia early in the season. By early June the big river will be in full swing as areas around Washougal up to Bonneville Dam produce good catches with the area aptly known as the ‘Shad Rack’ being one of, if not the best spot on the river on any given day.
Shad are primarily fished on anchor and even in a low water year such as this our rivers are subject to ever changing flow levels. This combined with the fact that the areas that tend to be the most productive often have very loose gravel bottoms that can make it difficult to keep your anchor stuck. Use a heavy ‘Columbia River’, or ‘Kedge’ style anchor with at least 4’ of log chain to keep your anchor stuck. The Coast Guard recommends a 7/1 ratio of anchor rope to safely anchor your boat, i.e. you would need 105’ of rope out to anchor in 15 feet of water.
A wide range of gear can be used when fishing from a boat. From a $30 trout combo with a spinning reel to high-end Steelhead rods with casting reels and everything in between. However, there is a case to be made for using at the very least, a quality reel with a fine-tuned drag system. Not only will these slimy critters test your gear, but if you fish for Shad long enough, it’s only a matter of time until you hook a Spring Chinook. When that happens, you want to have a set up that will give you a good chance to land your prize. I prefer a 7 foot 6 inch Steelhead plug rod rated at 8-17 pounds with a moderate action. These offer a very soft tip with enough backbone able to handle anything you might hook into.
For terminal gear, most people use 12 to 15 pound monofilament mainline tied to a standard dropper rig on a spreader, or slider. Dropper lines vary from as little as 24 inches in shallow water to 36 inches or more for deep water. Shad do tend to be a bit leader shy, so I like to use 8# Ultragreen or P-line CXX. This line is strong enough to handle a Chinook on light gear, and it also allows your lures to have more action in the water, eliciting more strikes.
Shad are plankton feeders so in regards to lures, the only rule is small and colorful. These can range from the classic Dick Knight, or Triple-Teaser lures, to a small chrome barrel swivel with a Siwash hook clipped to end and a couple red or green 6mm beads stacked on top. My most consistent producer is the mini-Dick Knight in chrome/chartreuse, or chrome/red, however there are times, especially on the Willamette that they find a small green jig head (1/32, or 1/64 ounce) with a pink or green jelly grub to be irresistible.
Shad are generally fished in water of less than 20 feet of water. Just like when anchor fishing for Salmon, current breaks, shelves and ledges that funnel fish toward your gear are always good areas to target. Like any type of fishing, things can get slow at times. Shad often travel in narrow lanes and will go on and off the bite with changing light conditions. Don’t hesitate to change locations if other boats are hooking up and you aren’t. Another trick to keep the bite going is to pick up your rod and bounce the weight up and down off the bottom. It’s amazing how often this will trigger a bite.
This fishery offers a wonderful balance of challenge and steady action which makes it perfect for getting the whole family involved. In my opinion there’s no better species to get your kids excited about fishing. Good luck!