Shad Fishing in Washington
How and where to catch shad in the state of Washington, and
what to do with them after you've caught them.
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What's so great about Shad?

You might call shad the lottery fish of Washington. When you're talking shad, you're talking big numbers. But there's one major difference--shad are a lot easier to come by than those million-dollar lottery payoffs. Hit the Columbia River below Bonneville Dam from late May through June and you're likely to hook into a million-count shad jackpot.

You might also think of shad as the piscatorial Rodney Dangerfield--they don't get nearly the respect they deserve. The word is slowly getting out, though, that shad fishing is great sport. These stout battlers don't give up easily, and often put on a flashy aerial battle. Couple their strong fight with a tender mouth, and landing half of the shad you hook can be an accomplishment.

Add to this the fact that there is an abundance of this largest member of the herring family. The estimated size of the shad run, based on fish passage counts at Bonneville and The Dalles dams, first topped 1 million fish in 1978, and has stayed above that figure ever since. The peak was 1990, when over 3 million shad passed through.

A Little Shad Biology

Usually called just "shad" on the west coast, the correct common name for this introduced species is American shad. The scientific name is Alosa sapidissima, from the Saxon word allis (an old name for European shad) and the Latin word sapidissima (most delicious).

American shad are the only anadromous shad on the west coast. On their native Atlantic coast, they share the southern part of their range with hickory shad. Another close Atlantic relative is the alewife. Two other, mostly freshwater, shad species native to the eastern U.S. are gizzard and threadfin shad. Threadfin shad have been widely introduced in western lakes and reservoirs (but not in Washington) as a forage species. Native west coast members of this family (Clupeidae) include Pacific herring and Pacific sardines.

On the east coast, American shad reportedly grow to 30 inches and more than 10 pounds. Maximum size in the Columbia River is about 24 inches and 8 pounds. (As of the date of this publication, no state sport-caught record has been established or even applied for in Washington.) Average size here is 17 to 19 inches and three to four pounds. Females run an inch or two longer than males, and are correspondingly heavier.

The back is metallic-blue to greenish, shading through white to silvery on the belly. A row or rows of dark spots decreases in size toward the tail. These spots are not always visible, but show up when the fish are scaled. A very distinctive characteristic is the saw-like serrated edge along the midline of the belly.

Like salmon and steelhead, shad are anadromous. They enter freshwater rivers in the spring to spawn. Unlike Pacific salmon, they do not necessarily die after spawning. Many shad continue to spawn annually.

Spawning takes place at water temperatures between 50 and 60 F, primarily at night, with the eggs being extruded in small numbers near the surface. The average female bears more than 50,000 eggs, sometimes as many as several hundred thousand.

After fertilization, the eggs slowly sink as they drift downstream, finally becoming lodged in crevices or on aquatic vegetation. After the fry hatch in five to 10 days, they gradually work their way downstream, usually spending their first summer of life in the river. Males usually mature at three years of age, females at four.

Shad History

Shad have a colorful history. Long before being imported to the Pacific side of the country, they were getting a name for themselves. As far back as the Revolutionary War they helped the cause of the future United States. After suffering through a tough winter, General Washington's undernourished troops at Valley Forge welcomed the bounty of a large shad run on the Delaware River. The volunteers filled out their diet with smoked shad.

Another shad tale dates back to the early days of our country. One Pennsylvania town had lost most of its men in battle. After that, the first net throw of the shad season was donated to the bereaved families. It is still known there as the "widow's haul."

Then, there were some Civil War military men who enjoyed their shad too--but probably to the detriment of their cause. As the story goes, Confederate General George E. Pickett and all of his senior officers missed the last battle of the Civil War on April 1, 1865 at FiveForks, Virginia. Two weeks before the Appomattox Courthouse surrender. The officers reportedly missed this fray because they had accepted an invitation to dinner--a shad bake.

The historic story of interest to Washington anglers, however, could be called the "shad shuffle." No less than the gentleman who is considered "the Father of Fish Culture in the United States," Seth Green of Rochester, New York, personally escorted the first shad as they came to the west coast.

California fish commissioners, who recognized the value of shad as a food fish and must have been especially alert to the fact that Easterners enjoyed shad roe as a gourmet delicacy, wrote the man who had become an internationally-known fish culturist. Seth Green responded to the commissioner's request and decided to try bringing the initial Pacific shad across the continent via railroad.

The challenging, seven-day journey began on June 19, 1871 at 6 a.m., when Mr. Green loaded "12,000 young shad that had been hatched the night before" into four eight-gallon milk cans.

The escort's memoirs report that he deposited the first shad at 10 p.m. on June 26, 1871, in the Sacramento River. His records also indicate that "about 10,000 (were transplanted) in good order."

The transplanted shad thrived! As a 1986 American Fisheries Society paper describes it, "The American shad population exploded ... American shad were sold in San Francisco markets by 1879, only eight years after being introduced.

Liked Washington

Shad soon found that they liked more northerly waters too. Even before shad fry were deliberately planted in the Columbia River drainage system in 1885, some of the original immigrant population strayed north from California and homed in on the Columbia River. Shad may have been caught as early as 1876, and U.S. Fish Commissioner records document that mature shad were taken from the Columbia in 1880.

Columbia River dams appear to have played a contributing role in the current large shad populations. For the first 23 years counting was done, starting in 1938 after the completion of Bonneville Dam, total estimated shad counts at Bonneville Dam averaged about 136,600 a year. (Minimum run size based on fish ladder counts plus commercial and sport catch.) But when The Dalles Dam was completed in 1956, its fish ladders removed the upstream barrier created by Celilo Falls. Shad moved up into the Snake River, and their numbers really started to climb.

For the next 18 years (1961-1978), an estimated average of 475,900 shad entered the river. In 1978, the first 1 million shad run was recorded. Average estimated run size 1979 through 1993 was 1,597,000 shad, topped by 3,253,000 in 1990. The last run below 2 million was 1989. Factor in that the average commercial catch for 1990 through 1993 was less than 125,000 fish, and you have lots of shad available for sports anglers.

The first popular fishing spot that shad reach in Washington is in Camas Slough, about 25 miles downstream from Bonneville Dam, and in nearby areas of the mainstem Columbia (particularly at the upper end of Lady Island). Fishing may be good here as early as mid-May. Lots of river is available between the mouth of the Columbia and Camas-Washougal, and a few shad fisheries may be developing in this 120 miles stretch. One recently-reported shad fishing concentration is at the mouth of the Lewis River.

The best fishing, though, is usually just below Bonneville Dam, and takes place in the first few weeks of June. In late June the run moves up through the Dalles and John Day Dam areas. By the second week of July, most of the fish will probably have taken their turn into the Snake River and be in the Ice Harbor Dam area.

Water temperature and river level can affect the run timing. A high runoff from large snowpack, or increased water levels from flushing salmonid smolts downstream, can slow the run down a week or two. A low, clear river might bring them in earlier. The best way to gauge the run is to watch the sports section of most Columbia River-area newspapers for fish ladder counts at the dams.

Where to Fish?

Although shad have shown up on occasion in the Chehalis and Snohomish Rivers, no regular, significant spawning runs can be counted on in these rivers. If you want to catch shad in Washington, the place to fish is the Columbia River. And if you're fishing from shore, the only sure-fire location is below Bonneville Dam. The popular fishery at Camas Slough is mostly a boat show, although some shad are taken from the steamboat landing dock in Washougal.

To find good shoreline access, travel east on Highway 14 about two miles past the town of North Bonneville. Look for a set of transmission towers. At this point there is a cutoff to the right that puts you on an access road. Using this road you can go either upstream toward the dam or downstream, with better than three miles of river to explore. Parking is ample. Here are four specific sites to try in the Bonneville area:

  • Cascade Island: The best side of the island is the Spillway Dam side. This area is usually open for access before the shad season opens on May 16.
  • The northside shoreline below Second Powerhouse Dam: Start at the deadline and work the shoreline a few hundred yards downstream. (Note--fishing is allowed no closer than 600 feet below the dam. The deadline is marked by a very visible yellow line painted along the shoreline rocks. Also note that this area will be closed to fishing due to construction in 1998.)
  • Transmission towers: A good spot to try when the water is high. (See note above regarding closure.)
  • Boat ramp area: Downstream from the Hamilton Island boat ramp to the end of the access road, try any little point or eddy. Walking upstream from the boat ramp, there is about a three-block piece of shoreline with good spots all along.
  • Below John Day Dam: Some shore access is available between Maryhill Park and John Day Dam. Access is primitive, however.

Where to Cast?

Once you've picked your fishing site, here are some tips for deciding where to cast:

  • Look for fast current. A spot where the current forces the fish up close to shore. Shad will come inside the current to swim upstream.
  • One good place to find that current is where the river narrows, or there is a bend. The water will pick up speed going around the corner. The high velocity current can act like a funnel, putting the shad right in front of you.
  • Find the right depth. The best places to cast are where the water is between four and 10 feet deep, no more.
  • Fish the right distance from shore. You'll take most of your shad within 30 feet of the bank. Casting beyond that is generally a waste of time and effort.
  • A note of caution: The Bonneville Dam area has slippery rocks and strong currents, so care is advised. Boots with felt soles can be helpful.

Equipment

Shad fishing equipment requirements are simple compared to other popular types of sport fishing. Only a few items are needed:

  • Rod: The best choice is usually a lightweight spinning or fly rod with a soft action. Fiberglass may actually be better than graphite because the softer action helps keep the hook from pulling out of the shad's tender mouth. A longer rod can help too, both in cushioning against the shad's runs, and in allowing a more effective presentation when casting from shore.
  • Line: Follow the general rule of fishing and use the lightest line you can get away with. Lighter line lets your lure swim better in the water, and gets more strikes. Six-pound test is a good all-around size.
  • Hooks: Use a silver or gold, size 1 or 2 hook, with no barb. The barbless hook is more efficient, and makes it easier to release non-targeted species (such as juvenile salmon) that you may accidentally catch.
  • Plunking gear: "Plunking" means to throw your lure out and, anchored by a relatively heavy weight, let it stay in one place and work in the current. For this technique, use about a three-foot leader with a one- to two-inch cork ball. Place the cork about 18 inches above your lure. Lightweight wobbling spoons are commonly used for this method.
  • Nets: A net with a three- or four-foot handle will be a great aid in landing your shad from either the rocks or boat.
Lures
  • Beads: Inexpensive, but effective, beads are one of the popular choices for a shad lure. Use two or three beads of various colors (red, coral, metallic, etc.) on the line, in front of the hook.
  • Flies: Artificial flies on a size 4 hook, with a sparse white body and red or yellow tail, work well.
  • Shad darts: This lure is the same general color, pattern and shape as the shad fly. It usually needs no added weight. Small "crappie" jigs in similar colors will also catch shad.
  • Spoons: A lightweight, wobbling spoon about one and one-half inches long can be effective, especially from a boat. The spoon is more expensive than beads and darts, though.
  • Spinners: Small silver-finish weighted spinners will take a share of fish, especially from shore where they can be cast and drifted with the current. As with spoons, the biggest disadvantage is the expense when you lose them in the rocks.
Fishing for Shad
Casting: If the current is strong, cast upstream at about a 45-degree angle, approximately 30 feet out. Let your lure sink and follow it downstream with the rod tip until it is opposite you. Then, let the current start to pull it.

If the water is relatively shallow and your lure starts going into the rocks too fast, raise your rod tip and slowly reel in. This helps the lure swim up the slope of the rocks. Longer rods will prove their worth here.

The Bite: An important point to remember is that shad do not have teeth. They also do not usually strike the lure hard--more like a short "bump" that a lot of anglers might miss. When you do feel the bump, make a very sharp, quick hook set with the rod--not a strong jerk that will haul your lure out of the water. Not only is the powerful hook set not needed for the shad's soft mouth, it takes the lure out of the strike zone. Since shad are a schooling fish, you might get two or three strikes on the same cast. The short, sharp hook set leaves the lure where they can see it if no hookup occurs.
Time of Day: As with other types of fishing, the best time to fish for shad is whenever you can go. Early morning, though -- between 6 and 9 a.m. -- usually produces the best bite.
The Catch: What kind of catch can you look forward to? Experienced shad anglers expect to catch 30 to 40 fish on a good day, maybe as few as a dozen on a bad day.

Protecting the Resource

Even though there is an abundance of shad, and the odds are that the individual catch may be ample, anglers are reminded that it is always important not to waste, but to protect the resource.

  • Catch-and-Release: Decide beforehand how many shad you really want and can use. Thereafter, practice catch-and-release.
  • If you prefer the roe: If you are concentrating on getting a supply of the famous shad roe during your expedition, do not discard the meat. Offer it to another angler or back-home neighbor, or keep it for sturgeon or crab bait.

Preparing Your Catch

Some anglers seem intimidated by the prospect of cleaning shad, which is a bony fish. Although you may not do it well the first time, do not be discouraged if the fish looks a bit ragged when you are done. It will taste just as good.

The photos and descriptions here are not a complete guide to filleting, but should help you get started.

Also bear in mind that there are ways of enjoying shad on your dinner table that do not require traditional filleting first. See the recipes later in this booklet for ideas.

Step 1:

First, place the fish on a board. Have a good, sharp fillet knife.

Photo
Step 2:

Holding the fish firmly, remove scales by scraping from the head toward the tail. Shad have sharp scales on the belly, so take care not to cut yourself. If you are going to cook the fish whole, such as baking, it is not necessary to scale it.

Next, cut off the head and tail, take the innards out, and cut out the fins, bones and all.

The shad is now ready for baking. For other methods of preparation, proceed with the filleting process.

Photo
Step 3:

For filleting, the next step is to cut off the lower belly wall (the piece shown in the bottom of the photo).

Photo
Step 4:

Split the shad open and take out the backbone.

Photo
Step 5:

If boneless shad strips are desired, the next thing to do is cut away the ribs.

Photo
Step 6:

You can now feel for the rows of bones in the flesh and carefully cut the meat away from the bones and skin. Shown far right in the photo is your final shad filet strip.

Photo

Recipes

Long ago, shad became the delight of gourmets because of the tastiness of shad roe, prepared in a variety of dishes. Perhaps the focus on the roe and the boniness of shad has caused cooks to overlook the good possibilities of shad meat recipes. A varied sampling of recipes is offered here--both for shad meat and roe.

And, don't forget -- Shad can also be smoked, canned (plain or smoked) and pickled.

Slow-baked shad

This recipe softens the bones (as in canned salmon), making it an easy-to-prepare, as well as delicious, dish.

1 shad (3-5 lbs)
1 tsp. salt
dash of pepper
2 Tbsp. melted butter, OR 2 bacon strips
1 can canned soup (tomato, mushroom, etc.)

Clean shad and split open. Season inside and out with salt and pepper. Brush with melted butter or place the bacon strips over the fish. Pour soup over the fish. Take heavy-duty aluminum foil or several layers of regular foil and wrap the shad. Fold over twice on top, then ends, so the fish is tightly sealed. Bake slowly at 275o F for 5 hours.

Crusty baked shad

If you like your fish a nice, crusty brown, with the bones softened, try this:

  1. Clean the fish as previously described in Steps 1 and 2, but leave the head and tail on. They can be discarded once the fish is cooked. They are left on because they help hold in the stuffing used in this recipe.
  2. Take a brown paper bag (not foil) and grease it well, inside and out, with vegetable oil or shortening. Season the fish lightly with salt on the outside. To make the stuffing, chop an onion and a few stalks of celery and season the combination with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon of pepper. Place stuffing in shad cavity and secure the opening with small cooking skewers.
  3. Carefully place the fish inside the brown bag and secure bag with pins or staples. Put the bag on a cookie sheet. Bake in a very slow oven (225o F) for 5 hours. The slow cooking softens the bones so that they are edible, and the shad is a nice, crusty brown.

Fried shad

Adopting some of the ideas of good southern cooks, here is a method of frying shad that makes a savory dish.

Shad fillets
1 or 2 cups flour
pepper (to taste)
2 eggs
2 Tbsp. water
2 or 3 cups cornmeal or dried bread crumbs
Shortening, bacon drippings or vegetable spray

Put the flour and cornmeal (or bread crumbs) in separate pie pans or in wide bowls. First, roll fillets in flour to coat. Next, beat eggs, water, and desired amount of pepper until well-blended and dip the floured fillets into the egg mixture. Quickly lay dampened fillets in cornmeal or bread crumbs and turn them over to coat both sides well. Allow fillets to air dry for about five minutes, to set the coating. This method seals the meat and keeps it moist. Fry fillets in melted shortening, drippings or sprayed pan.

Broiled shad

A simple marinade and oven broiling produce another tasty shad entree.

1 shad (3-4 lbs)
1 lemon
1 cup wine of your choice
4-6 bacon strips
salt (to taste)

Clean and split the shad and place the two halves skin side down in a shallow glass baking dish. Squeeze juice from the lemon and add wine. Lightly salt the fish, then brush the lemon juice/wine mixture onto the meat. Place 2-3 bacon strips lengthwise on each side of fish. Slowly pour the remaining wine mixture over the fish and allow it to marinate for at least 1 hour. Place dish about 2 inches below oven broiler for about 15 minutes, but check meat at 10 minutes for doneness. Do not turn fish.

Shad roe

The roe (eggs) from shad is considered choice, on the same culinary plane as caviar, although used somewhat differently. In addition to being used for hors d'oeuvres and garnishes, shad roe can be sauteed, baked in sauce, broiled and fried.

Basic preparation

Before parboiling shad roe to prepare it for recipe use, prick the membrane containing the eggs with a needle to prevent the sac from bursting and splattering the tiny eggs. Always cook shad roe gently, with very low heat, to avoid overcooking and ending up with roe that is dry and tasteless.

Parboiling

Shad roe
2 Tbsp. lemon juice, or
2 Tbsp. dry white wine

Place pricked membrane(s) in saucepan and cover with boiling water plus lemon juice or wine. Simmer from 3 to 12 minutes, depending on size. Drain and cool. Remove the membrane for baking; membrane can be left for sauteeing and frying. Add salt if desired. The roe is now ready for recipe use.

Sauteed roe

Parboiled roe, still in the membrane, can be sauteed in a few tablespoons of butter, with the addition of seasonings of your choice (chopped chives, parsley, minced shallots, tarragon, basil, etc.). It can also be dipped in beaten egg, rolled in flour or cornmeal, and pan fried in shortening or bacon drippings.

Baked roe

Place parboiled roe, with membrane removed, in a buttered dish and cover with sauce of your choice (creole, mushroom, etc.). Bake in 375o F oven for 15 to 20 minutes. Stir every five minutes.

Shad fishing regulations

The regulations listed here are current as of the date of publication. Be sure to check the latest regulations pamphlet for up-to-date information.

For adults (over the age of 14), a Food Fish license is required to fish for shad in Washington. Resident juveniles can fish for shad without a license, and a reduced-fee license is available for seniors ages 70 and over. There is currently no catch or possession limit on shad (as of the publication date on the front of this pamphlet) in Washington. The state of Oregon does currently have a limit on shad, so you must follow their regulations if you land your fish on the Oregon side of the Columbia.

Seasons

The Columbia River downstream from Bonneville Dam is open May 16 through March 31. The spring closure is designed to protect salmon runs when shad abundance is low. The river upstream from Bonneville Dam is open year-round to shad fishing.

For more information

To determine shad fishing conditions, please refer to local (Columbia River region) newspapers, or call the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Vancouver regional office at: (360) 696-6211.