NCC-TU Shad Reports from the Man who knows Shad
NCC-TU Vice President Mark Binsted has been fishing the Potomac River for its many resident and migratory species for the better part of six decades. In that time he has developed an astounding knowledge of America's "Founding Fish", the American and Hickory Shad. These amazing migratory fish return to the Potomac River each spring to spawn and with their arrival comes the beginning of fishing season.
For almost a decade, Mark has shared his first-hand knowledge of this amazing fishery with NCC-TU members and subscribers to the "Shad Report". A collection of in-depth reports on the status of the shad run, various musings about the beauty of the wildest urban river in America, and a whole lot of information on how to catch these wild anadramous fish. Interested in shad fishing in the Potomac, or shad fishing in general? The Shad Report is something no angler in the DC area should miss.
For the most recent Shad Report, please see below. In order to view previous shad reports, please visit our Shad Report Archives Page.
The Shad Report
Worth the Wait
May 25, 2020
There has been a remarkable American shad run down at Fletcher’s Cove over the last twelve days. As soon as the Potomac settled down and water temperatures finally reached and remained in the sixties, shad became active again. Better make that hyperactive, much like we normally see a month earlier. For anglers on the river, the shad’s urgency to spawn has been palpable, as if the fish seek to catch up with their normal schedule and ocean routes. Each day brings more good fishing but many of the shad observed this weekend were at least partially spawned.
Some of our readers will recall from this year's NCC-TU Shad Night event, back in the blissful, pre-covid days of February, an attention-grabbing prediction from our featured speaker. Danny Ryan, DC’s Fisheries Research Branch Chief, pointed to the outstanding spawning year of 2015 and noted that this year was the first chance for repeat spawners from that class to return to the Potomac. Older fish means bigger fish and fatter roe shad. Fast forward three months and that’s what appeared at the end of my fly line on May 15 – a female with much greater than normal girth and bulging roe, my best catch in years. I released the shad gently at the side of the boat with a tinge of regret about missing out on a photo. Not to worry, a few days later Josh Cohn landed a similar, saucer shaped shad, also on a fly rod. This time we have a vivid photo record in the portrait shot taken by Alex Binsted (below). Congratulations to Cohn, both for the spectacular catch and his daily effort to get out on the river in that pint-sized, squeaky john boat.
Sunday, May 17 will go down as a legendary day of shad fishing on the Potomac. John Kuriawa picked that day to drive over from Severna Park and drag his canoe down the closed entrance drive at Fletcher’s Cove. He paddled down to his favorite hole in the Walker’s Point area and would soon experience the greatest several bursts of American shad striking he has seen over many spring seasons on the river. Indeed, his sixty-two American shad were about as many as he would normally catch in a couple of seasons. Two of them measured 22 inches. As a preview, his friend Phil Kerchner caught forty-nine the day before from a kayak. Hickory shad were absent but numerous small stripers and perch “hitched rides on the American shad train,” as John would later write in his email report.
I think you will enjoy part of Kuriawa’s larger message after a great day on the river: “With the parking lot still barricaded shut, the iconic boathouse still silent, and the chilling coronavirus still permeating our collective psyches, the shad season is just not the same, or is it? Maybe the most important facets of the season live on, our sense of the place, our appreciation for the people, the fisheries, the friendships and the diversity of the camaraderies. Our need to escape to the wild while still in the city...While we are hurting as individuals and as a nation, the nation’s river is healthy, it’s a beacon in the fog of uncertainty and anxiety, flowing ever onward with a purpose best understood when one learns to appreciate the hearts that beat beneath the surface."
Just up the river at Gordon’s Rock on that same Sunday, Lois Boland experienced the same massive push of shad from the shore. When we last left Boland she was fending off an osprey during one of her daily quests for shad. Persistence through this strange season certainly paid off for her in the end, as she was present and accounted for at the peak: “Last Saturday and Sunday [5/16-17] were awesome. I was not there on Saturday but was there all day Sunday. Andy Zelno was there both days and he said they were just about the best days he ever had shad fishing. Oodles of Americans both days. On Sunday, he and I were both using a tandem set up with a chartreuse shad killer and a 1/3 ounce Nungesser on the heavy. We were landing big, fat Americans like crazy, some times one after another. On Sunday, I lost count at around 15 but probably ended up in the low 20’s for Americans. I measured one of the big Americans – around 21 inches...I’d have to say Sunday was about one of the best outings I've ever had, certainly from the shore. From a size perspective, it was probably the best day I have ever had. The Americans were so big I marveled at each one as I was landing them.”
Even better for those of you latecomers, Bolond caught ten nice American shad from the shore just two evenings ago. While the action there had begun to wane when the river dropped below normal flow, a fresh charge of runoff has now arrived from the headwaters to keep things interesting. The Potomac is back over four feet at the Little Falls gauge – plenty of flow for Gordon’s Rock. I suggest checking it out before the hot weather arrives. The crowds of shad anglers always diminish by Memorial Day, regardless of the state of the American shad run. Instant gratification leaves with the hickory shad.
If you are still thinking about getting your own boat down to Fletcher’s, try to do it. (The parking lots are still closed.) Yesterday I fished with Kuriawa for the first time and we had plenty of excitement throughout the falling tide. The weather was perfectly overcast and the water temperature still under 70 degrees. At one point three rods were engaged simultaneously by four powerful shad in strong current. Our contorted bodies and rod switching must have looked comical to young Cohn anchored nearby. Hey, that’s shad fishing! All colors were working with a slight preference for orange or chartreuse. A 250 grain sinking line was good enough for the fly rod. We fished out at the deeper main seam because shad had abandoned the shallow areas when the river was dropping. It will probably be easier to locate shad over the next few days with the influx of new water. The river will crest tonight and turbidity should remain reasonable.
The hickory shad run peaked just before the high water at the end of April, but a final flourish took place in the narrow stretch below Chain Bridge right after the river cleared. This seems to happen every year in May regardless of weather or river flow. Much bigger hickory shad news arrived from Rock Creek on Sunday, May 17. Yes, that Rock Creek. For years a few diehards have tried to locate and catch hickory shad on this small water in the heart of the city. (The herring runs there are well known.) Now, Sam Cohen has done it and documented it in the photo above. He was fishing along the shoreline for bass and sunfish with a curly-tail grub when he spotted a school of shad. Two of the fish took his bait, much to his dad’s amazement. Brian Cohen later wrote on the TPFR Forum: “I was starting to believe that the Elusive Rock Creek Shad did not exist!”
Be sure to get down to the river for more amazing feats, only continue to do it safely and with proper social distance. The Fletcher’s rowboats remain unavailable but there may be news regarding a Boathouse opening after Mayor Bowser addresses the public tomorrow. The National Park Service is finalizing a contract for a cleaning service to sanitize the restrooms at Fletcher’s Cove every half-hour. It is expected that the parking lots will not be open until safe restrooms can be provided. Also, stay tuned for news from Friends of Fletcher’s Cove about a much needed cleanup requiring plenty of volunteers. There has been great disregard for our beautiful Potomac shoreline during the pandemic.
We will be keeping up with the shad run into the first week of June, if not longer. A fresh school of river herring arrived last week, much to the delight of cormorants and ospreys, and I expect a final school of American shad to follow suit. Other species best pursued by boat are also starting to get attention. A big push of schoolie stripers from Fletcher’s to Little Falls is happening right now. The normal May-June walleye bite has begun and promises to be excellent this year. Alec Hicks sent in a photo (bottom) of a surprise catch. Finally, a huge gar was spotted cruising past the boat yesterday – somebody tell Chris Wood!