The American shad is the largest member of the herring family and ranges on the Atlantic coast from Newfoundland to the St. John’s River in Florida. Shad spend three to six years in the ocean and then return to freshwater in the spring to spawn. Adults usually weigh from four to eight pounds, but the New Jersey State and International Game Fish Association‘s eight-pound test line record is 11lb. 1oz. Known for their strength and fighting ability, shad are often the first fish species anglers pursue as the water warms in the spring.
Where and When
American shad fishing is almost synonymous with the Delaware River in New Jersey. Angling for shad on the Delaware usually begins around the end of March. As the water warms to 50° F, and the population migrates upstream, shad will be caught all the way up river to the New York state line and beyond through the end of May and into June.
In June, 2017, American Shad were documented in the Musconetcong River in Hunterdon and Warren counties after an absence of at least a century. The return was made possible by the removal of dams on the lower Musconetcong River several years ago, followed by the removal of the Hughesville Dam in Warren County last year. The dam removals were made possible by a partnership of state, federal, nonprofit and private entities and opened nearly six miles of the Musconetcong to migratory fish, such as shad, eels and striped bass. For more information, see the June 15, 2017 DEP news release and retired biologist Pat Hamilton’s article, Restoring Free-Flowing Rivers (pdf, 585kb).
Productive boat and shoreline fishing spots, moving from down to upriver, include the Yardley/Scudders Falls area, Lambertville, Bulls Island Recreation Area, Byram, Phillipsburg/Easton, and finally within the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Early morning and dusk are the most productive times.
American shad are caught with shad darts, flutter spoons, soft plastic grubs on jigheads, and flies. From shore, cast a lure slightly upstream and retrieved as it bounces along or near the bottom. From an anchored boat, a lure should be “dead sticked” out of the stern with added weights or on down-riggers. Trolling can also be effective. The main channel is productive when the Delaware River is at normal or below normal levels.
When the river is above normal, angling is best near the shoreline. Extremely high river flows may stop the migration and the shad will hold in calmer water behind in-river structures. The subsiding flow will often trigger this holding school of shad to migrate, en masse, upstream. American shad must see the lure. Therefore, muddy or debris filled water make for poor fishing conditions. To reduce hooking mortality, American shad that are to be released should be retrieved as quickly as possible, guided into a rubberized net (shad are easily de-scaled) and released, having never been removed from the water.
Keep in mind the numbers and timing of the “shad run” vary year to year depending on water temperature and conditions. Having accurate, up-to-date information on the run can greatly impact on angling success and enjoyment. Fortunately, there are resources anglers can use to get this information.
Other helpful websites for shad fishing include:
American Shad Fact Sheet (pdf)
return to Fantastic Fishing in New Jersey