Thursday, March 29, 2012

Springtime Shad

Fletcher's Cove
Washington DC

Springtime in the DC area means cherry blossoms, flash rain storms, and the beginning of tourist season.  For the outdoorsy it also means shad spawning in the Potomac.  Probably one of the best kept local secrets is the AMAZING shad fishing that hits the Potomac River every spring.  There are three types of shad that spawn in the Potomac river; Amercian shad, gizzard shad and hickory shad.  They are a protected species in the Potomac watershed with tight restrictions on creel limits but they are awesome to catch.  On a fly rod they are nicknamed 'freshwater tarpon' for their ability to fight and leap out of the water.

Hickory shad caught on a 9 wt fly rod using a chartreuse Clouser minnow and shad fly trailer.
One of the best spots on the Potomac to target these fish is near Fletcher's Cove Boathouse.  Aside from the fleet of rowboats that are for rent there are plenty of spots on the shore that allow anglers access to this norrow portion of the Potomac to target the spawning shad.  The challenge with shad fishing is many.  Water flow, sunlight and water clarity all play major factors.  Ideally you want overcast skies and low water so you can access the running shad who hold bottom of the river.  The payoff, aside from the great fight is that there are a variety of other fish attracted to the spawn that are just as fun to catch; namely stripped bass, catfish and snakeheads.

Fletcher's Cove Boathouse: right off the Potomac River, 1 mile from work and a 10 minute drive from the White House.  (Photo courtesy of Google Maps)
The shad run lasts about 3-4 weeks.  If the weather is right it can last a bit longer.  One of the issues of the Potomac is that right around the time of the year of the spawn this are receives a lot of rain which can put the kibosh on fishing.  The area around Fletchers is greatly affected as the rather large Potomac river passes through a very narrow gorge (some areas around 150 feet wide) so the water flow at times can be massive.  Add flotsam from upstream and the rough uneven bottom makes trying to hold anchor in a boat or fly fish the depths from shore all but impossible.
View of Abner Cloud House off of Canal Road which marks the entrance to Fletcher's Cove.  The upper parking lot is to the left of the house.  In the foreground is the C&O Canal and bike path.
Downstream view of the C&O Canal.  If you follow this it will take you to Georgetown and Washington DC.  To my left is the Abner House and upper parking lot.  To my right is the lower parking lot, Fletcher's Boat House and the Potomac River.
The Boat Rental, tackle shop and Bike rental buildings.  You can purchase a DC fishing license here for $13.00
View of the cove and boat launch.  During dry spells and low tide that area is one giant mud pit.
For fly fishing, just about any weight fly rod will do.  Shad flies are typically small with lots of color.  Gold hooks and eyes work well.  The challenge is that you need a sinking tip line and some extra weight as you need to get bottom quickly where most of the fish are at.  I typically use two rods.  I use a 5 wt rod with sinking, weight forward line with a variety of shad flies.  I also carry the big gun 9wt salt rod that I rig with a Clouser minnow and shad fly trailer.   What's interesting about shad is that their hankering for flies changes daily.  Once day they'll only hit pink flies, other days its white.  It varies literally from day to day.  When they hit a fly its not out of a desire to eat - you are just triggering their aggression and curiosity so you're really not trying to imitate anything natural or 'matching the hatch.'
Variety of shad flies I use.  Most of the local fly shops in the area carry all of the above; others you can purchase on site at Fletcher's Boat House.
As for casting from the shore - its tough.  There is a lot of vegetation and overhanging trees. This is why low water levels are best as you can scramble onto boulders along the shoreline and get farther out to the river.  If you can manage a good roll cast you'll have an advantage.  Usually I cast out and let the fly sink and float down-stream.  Right when it can't go any further in the swing I retrieve using quick and erratic motions.  No need for indicators because when a Shad hits fly you'll absolutely know it.
Trail that tracks upstream, north of the boathouse.  This will take you to several great spots along the Eastern bank where you can cast from shore.
Hard to believe you're in the city.
Lots of wild flowers along the river and path.
Here you can see the low water levels and exposed rocks.  Gives you a little more room for back casts.
Downstream view from one of my secret spots.  Notice the cloud cover - this is ideal for good fishing as bright sunlight slows down the bite.
Caught this guy on the 9wt using a double rig.  Notice the Clouser above the shad.  I use this when I see snakeheads tearing up the water.  You never know!
Bring a hand towel as these guys are slimy and smelly.
This fishery is amazing and lots of fun.  There is a boat launch if you bring your own canoe or kayak or you can rent a row boat from Fletcher's.  Make sure to snag a few small rocks to use as make-shift anchors as holding bottom is key to successfully fishing this area of swift water.  Do not use store-bought anchors as they will be guaranteed to get wedged in the rough bottom causing you to cut off and loose $$$.  Be careful and DO NOT wade this area of the river as the current is very swift.  I would also not bring children here to fish from the shore (boats are OK).  The current is super strong and there is a lot of underwater structure that can trap people who fall into the river.  If you use a boat, absolutely wear a life preserver.

Directions can be found here.  Make sure to read carefully about Canal Road as it turns into a one way street for the morning and evening commutes.  GOOD LUCK!


  1. The river was great, fit for fishing. Familiarize the areas to prevent accident while fishing. Great for kayak,row boat and canoe.

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