How To Catch Boatloads Of Shad This Winter (Florida Edition)

By: Joseph Simonds on January 26, 2019
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how to catch shad

Do you want to catch more shad this year?

If you’ve never caught one of these fish before, you are missing out!

When you see how the male shad leaps through the air, you’ll understand why they called these fish, “freshwater tarpon.”

And for the next couple of months, you can catch the heck out of these fun fish in places like the St. John’s River (and many other rivers in and around Florida).

So we wanted to do a fun how-to post so you can maximize your time catching shad this year.

Below, you’ll see that we brought on Mark Blythe to share his shad fishing tips.

If Mark’s name sounds familiar, he was the head fishing columnist and fishing report guru for the Orlando Sentinel for 30+ years.

Enjoy.

Shad Fishing Tips (St. John’s River)

By Mark Blythe

how to catch shad

Every year, usually beginning in mid-December till early March, the St. Johns River comes alive with shad.

Anglers from all over the United States come to test their skill and battle these small, but feisty fish.

The best approach is to have an ultralight setup, jig heads, small jigs or tube baits, darts or swimbaits.

Many fly fishermen prefer a 4-weight or 6-weight setup and use pink, chartreuse and white flies, and Clouser Minnows.

The shad move into the river to spawn and look for areas with current to do their thing.

Some years the fishing is good enough that 100-fish days are not out of the question (note: the average during a good shad run is usually 30-50 fish per trip).

Finding them is somewhat easy, watch the surface of the water and you’ll see fish jump or roll, they don’t make explosions like bass hitting on the surface, but if you see a great deal of surface activity, and there is current, you’ve found a good spot.

Shad Alley, near Lemon Bluff, is a good starting point for beginners.

A quick way to find fish is to deploy a couple of lines and slow-troll jigs until you get a strike, once you get a hit, make sure to make a few casts in that area as shad usually move in schools. Once hooked the shad usually make two or three good runs and jump. It’s very similar to catching small tarpon.

C.S. Lee Park on the Volusia/Seminole County line is another good area, and the Jolly Gator is a good place to eat following a trip.

Head south from the boat ramp and work the area around the mouth of the Little Econ river.

Here are some great “Where and How” tips on fishing for shad in the St. John’s River (courtesy of John Walters)

Shad Fishing – Where & How

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Dwight Black, 86, of Winter Springs, has fished for shad for 74 years including his younger days on the Potomac River in Maryland.

“I remember the day when we could catch two five-pound fish at the same time,” Black said. “That sure was a good fight on ultralight tackle. I haven’t seen a five-pound fish caught in the St. Johns in years now.”

I joined Black on a trip on Jan. 18, and we managed to boat 32 fish. Every fish caught was an American shad. There are smaller hickory shad and blueback-herring that also spawn in the river.

Most of the fish we caught while trolling small tube baits, pink and white was the best color during a cloudless, warm day. There have been times when chartreuse and dark green are the colors the fish are dialed into, each day will provide that challenge and switch things up until you find a pattern that is working.

“The thing I love about shad, is they jump,” Black said. “And when they get close to the boat, they jump even more, many times getting off the hook so you don’t have to fool around with the release.”

shad fishing

An American shad about to make a jump

For anglers wanting to give the St. Johns a try, I would suggest hiring a guide or going with a buddy who knows the area first. There are a lot of sandbars and shallow waters throughout the winding river and you could end up having a bad day quickly if you don’t know your way around.

Two guides I have fished with and are excellent at their craft are Mark Benson (Markbensonoutdoors.com) and Tom Van Horn (IRL-fishing.com).

Both know the river very well and can accommodate anglers who want to fly fish or use spinning reels.

“The shad is a mystery fish that lives off the coast of the United States, dodging sharks and being eaten, then comes into, basically a cow pasture, to spawn,” Benson said.

“Most people target them from December to March, but you can catch them from November to April.”

There are all kinds of baits available for shad, one of the most common is a tandem-rig with small jig heads and tube baits, the tube baits can be switched quickly and work best when the fishing is fast and furious.

shad fishing baits

Some popular lures for catching shad

Road Runner lures are very popular also. The Road Runner Pro 2.0 Head jig heads, with a small spoon attached, are excellent.

Use them with a Blakemore Road Runner Bang Shad Buffet Rig and you will be successful. Small swimbaits, like a Storm Wild-Eyed Shad, work well also.

One of the best things about the lures being used is that a variety of other fish will hit them also.

Largemouth bass, striped (hybrid) bass, crappie, bluegills, shellcrackers, catfish, bowfin and gar are all possible. Stripers are active near the tail end of the shad run and can provide some awesome battles on ultralight tackle.

Quite a few fly fisherman line the banks of the river and make casts in areas where fish normally stage in good numbers.

“I get to feel like a trout fisherman for a while,” Benson said. “The technique used is called swinging, letting the current do the work. I use a size 4 fly and a variety of colors like pink, orange and green.”

So, pack your light gear and prepare for some tremendous action on the St. Johns.

Any questions on catching shad?

Let me know by leaving a comment below.

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Angel N
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Angel N

Very good article! Would like to plan a fishing trip for American Shad and would appreciate if you can offer locations to fish for them from land. What kind of lures would you recommend from land? Also what is the latest in the year you recommend I visit to have a good chance at caching them?

Charles
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Charles

You can catch shad anywhere along the Saint Johns river area that is known as shad alley. Use the lures mentioned above and you should do alright. Let me know if you need any more info. Have fun!

Anonymous
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Anonymous

I am fairly new to Tampa fishing and I have fished the bypass canal between Interstate 75 and US301 next to the airport in my twin troller. I see what I assume to be shad busting the water all the time, I have not been able to get one yet. Now I see that maybe I just wasn’t taking the right approach… I do well with the sunshine bass and crappie (bluegill?) and a couple of largemouth.. I am sure that the bypass canal is alive with activity and I really enjoy the quick hops out there… has anyone fished this waterway?

Anonymous
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Anonymous

I believe shad only can be caught in the St. John’s River. What I bet you are seeing is armored catfish. If you are seeing lots of surface activity and not getting a bite that’s probably it.

Ed M.
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Ed M.

Great article and video. SaltStrong gets it right.
I have no boat and would love some shad fishing info for those of us on foot.
Again, great job.

Mark Blythe
Member

You can fish from shore at CS Lee Park, when the water is low, go under the bridge and make casts about 20 yards down. There was a time when the air boat tours from the Jolly Gator would take you down to to the mouth of the little Econ River, drop you off, then pick you up 4 hours laters, I do not know if they still do that.

Michael Thomas
Member

For you guys who don’t know Mark, he is solid. Knows his fishing, be it searching out lunker bass in retention ponds, or tarpon in the nooks and crannies of Mosquito Lagoon. Great if he’s joining the Salt Strong team!

Mark Blythe
Member

Thanks Mike!

Alan Whitworth
Member

Interesting Florida fishing opportunity. Once again – Salt Strong shares the information. Thanks guys!