Shad: Harbingers of spring - Carolina Country
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Shad: Harbingers of Spring

Warmer weather brings shad up coastal rivers

By Mike Zlotnicki

Shad: Harbingers of Spring

Guide Mitchell Blake lands a hickory shad for a client on the Roanoke River. Photo by Mike Zlotnicki.

One of the many blessings of living in the Tar Heel State are the myriad fishing opportunities. From the mountain streams to the Gulf Stream, there is something for any angler.

Two species that “ring in” the start of spring fishing are the American shad and the hickory shad. Starting in February and lasting into early April, these shad species start spawning runs up coastal rivers like the Roanoke, Tar, Neuse and Cape Fear. (The fish, like striped bass, are anadromous, meaning they live in salt water and spawn in fresh water.)

hickory shad

Hickory shad. Photo by Mike Zlotnicki.

The American (or white) shad are larger than the more common hickory shad. American shad average 2–4 pounds, while hickories grow 1–2 pounds. When they’re thick it’s not hard to catch 50 to 100 “hicks” in a day’s fishing. To identify shad, look at their jaw. Hickory shad have a protruding jaw that looks pouty. The American shad does not have this feature and their lips are even when their jaw is closed.

Equipping for the catch

Tackle is pretty straightforward. For conventional tackle, a light or ultralight spinning rod with 6- to 8-pound test is fine. Lures for shad include shad “darts” (a type of jig) and small spoons, sometimes in tandem with the spoon at the bottom and a dart and foot or two above on a short leader tied to a swivel. Rick Goines of Tarboro is a veteran shad angler and outdoor writer, and his favorite shad rig is the Custom Jimmy-D Shad Rig, hand-tied by Jimmy Dupree, Jr. of Tarboro. It is a tandem rig consisting of a one-eighth ounce green jig head, a green curly grub, and a 1½-inch green Nungesser spoon.

shad lures

Jigs, flies and spoons are embedded in foam for quick handling if needed. Photo by Mike Zlotnicki.

You can certainly just use small crappie jigs, marabou or plastic bodied, in green, chartreuse and pearl. Fly-anglers use 4- to 6-weight outfits and sinking lines. Many use Clouser minnows in Crazy Charlie style in hot pink/chartreuse and red/gold. Green seems to be a common color in jig bodies.

For shad fishing, casting from a boat is best, and on the Roanoke you will see everything from canoes to cabin cruisers. There is some limited bank fishing spots available, as well. Goines identified these locations as shad hot spots (originally published in Wildlife in North Carolina magazine):

The Shad Hole 35.894168, -77.531993, 103 E. River Road, Tarboro
The Pipe 35.976956, -77.724044, NC Highway 97 East, Rocky Mount
Battle Park 35.959824, -77.794831, Falls Road @ US 64 E, Rocky Mount
Weldon 36.4267323,-77.5906955, Rockfish Park, Rockfish Drive, Weldon


Daily creel limits for American and hickory shad vary by river and species combination, so consult an NC Wildlife Resources Commission regulations digest before fishing (available online). Creel limits by species can also be found online.

About the Author

Mike Zlotnicki is associate editor at Wildlife in North Carolina magazine. He lives in Garner with his wife, three daughters and two German shorthaired pointers.

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