Shad Fishing on the Columbia River

istory : The following was taken off the PSFMC website. American Shad from the east coast were introduced into the Sacramento River in the late 1800s. They have expanded into the Columbia River & and by 2005 the population of shad entering the Columbia River was at a record of 6 million fish a year.

 SCIENTIFIC NAME: Alosa sapidissima, alosa is an old name for European shad and sapidissima meaning most delicious.

COMMON NAMES: Atlantic shad, Potomac shad, white shad, common shad, North river shad, and Connecticut river shad.

DESCRIPTION: They are the largest of the herring family. Average sized shad are 12-25 inches in length and 2.5 to 5 pounds.

LIFECYCLE: The American shad is a highly migratory anadromous species that returns to its freshwater natal (birth) areas to spawn. Shad spawn in estuaries, streams, and rivers in the spring and early summer months. Spawning usually takes place over gently sloping areas with fine gravels or sandy bottoms. In small groups; males and females disperse eggs and sperm together and fertilization takes place in the water column. Males and females may return to spawn more than once, and female shad can produce 30,000 to 600,000 eggs. The fertilized eggs float downstream and hatch in 3 to 10 days. Juvenile shad tend to survive best in the slow waters of reservoirs. They migrate downstream towards the ocean during late summer and fall, with most migrating to the open ocean before winter. Some shad will reside in rivers and estuaries up to one year before entering the ocean. Shad normally spend 3-4 years at sea before returning to spawn.

RANGE: Along the Pacific coast from California to Alaska.

HABITAT AND ECOLOGY: The construction of dams on the Columbia river basin has contributed to the decline of almost all species of anadromous fish except the shad. Since the completion of the lower Columbia river dams, shad populations have been on the rise. The slow moving waters of reservoirs apparently provide ideal conditions for juvenile shad.

The shad is a plankton feeder who’s diet varies depending upon the geographical region. Throughout its life a shad consume copepods, amiphipods, shrimp, zooplankton, and other small fishes. In freshwater the shad itself falls prey to white sturgeon, juvenile salmonids, harbor seals, and other predators, while in the ocean phase of life a shad is preyed upon by sharks, tuna, sea lions, and others.

The American shad is very temperature sensitive and any changes in the temperature of its habitat may result in negative impacts. Reservoirs often act as ideal rearing habitat for juveniles; however, fish ladders, and dam bypass systems are necessary to assist in migration past dams. Water irrigation projects may also negatively impact shad populations.

ECONOMIC VALUE: Sport fisheries for shad have been building for years in the Pacific Northwest. Shad are used as bait for other fisheries and it is considered a good fighting sportfish that is rich in flavor and is known for its excellent roe. Commercial fisheries have existed in the Columbia River since the 1930’s. Due to poor market demand and incidental catches of protected salmon runs, significant commercial fisheries do not exist in the Pacific Northwest.

Bank Fishing : The normal time these fish return to the Columbia River is late May and clear thru the month of June. Water temperature may have some bearing as to when these fish move into the river. A water temperature approaching 60 degrees sure excites them into moving upstream.

One of the first criteria for Shad fishing from the bank is you must be able to see your fish line, so the brighter colored line is a plus here. The second criteria for the average fisherperson is a good casting reel with the standard being a open faced spinning reel. Type of fishing rod and reel is personal preference. A standard 8 1/2′ medium steelhead rod works quite well, although a shorter fairly stiff rod (7 1/2′) seemed to make it easier to set the hook when a Shad does bite.



Here is an account of one fishing trip: “Saturday June 4th, 2005 – We arrived on the Washington side just below Bonneville Dam at 8:30 AM. There were plenty of people but we found a space along the bank. The Shad weren’t biting when we first got there. Very few fish were being caught. About 9:30 the water level started to rise and the fish started biting. Our first fish of the day was hooked with a Hot Pink lure. Then they were hitting the brass swivel without any color on it. If you make 6-8 casts without a hit, then switch lure colors. The two best producing colors we had were green and a Yellowish Orange. The green lure caught more than 75% of the fish this day.

Several times fish hit the lure as soon as it hit the water. But none of these fish were caught. The angle of the line must have been wrong for setting the hook. A heavy leader isn’t necessary because the Shad very seldom swallow the jig. A light leader is very nice for breaking when you do get hung up in the rocks.

Most bank fishermen here seem to place the weight as close to the swivel as possible. We were rigged up with 10# main line, ½ oz sinker at the swivel, a 8# 24″ leader to a Jig. Some fishermen will use a leader about 3 feet long. You may want to experiment here or watch how the others do it. The sinker could also be attached with a small sturgeon slider, or a Steelhead type sliding pencil lead attachment on the mainline.”





Cast straight out in front of you, lock the reel and let it sink. When the line gets at about a 30-degree angle downstream start very slowly reeling in line. This ensures that your line is tight. The majority of the fish hit when the line got at about a 40 to 60 degree angle. After the line swings thru this zone it should be reeled in because any closer to the bank and you will hang up on the rocks. Try casting at various distances until you locate a distance that will bring your lure into the strike zone at the correct depth every time. Further isn’t always better. If the water flow is high like in 2006, the fish tend to stay closer to the shore to stay out of the heavy faster flow. Once you get the catching distance figured out and get the correct color lure a bite with every cast is not unthinkable.

Try to keep your lure on the bottom and bouncing off of the many of rocks. These fish seem to hug the bottom, so you want the offering just of the rocks and right in front of them. And since you don’t want snag up you need to find the right lead weight to strike a happy balance. There are different ways to adjust this; for example, if you do not have enough weight to reach the bottom, you always cast farther upriver and then you will give the lure more time to reach the fishing zone. Remember that each time you go for these fish, the river level, flow, and your location may be different so you have to experiment each time you go.

You will have to learn to identify the difference when you are fishing between bottom bouncing, snagging on someone’s rig who in the past had a snag and broke off, and a fish bite.

Shad normally bite with a very soft tap and if the hook isn’t set immediately they will let go. A net isn’t normally necessary because the fish can be guided into the rocks and cornered there. Shad seem to be straight up fighters and don’t do a lot of twisting.

Something to carry the fish in is a must. Anything from a 5 gallon bucket, ice chest or even a large clam net seems to work. A stringer is nice to keep the fish fresh but it is awkward to carry a large stringer of fish up to the road while trying to keep your balance on the rocks.

At first you will loose a lot of tackle by letting it get to close to the bank. Watch the angle of your line and you will soon learn how close you can let it come in without hanging up.

Off of the Washougal fishing pier (15th off of highway 14) they plunk small Dick Nite spoons. Stack two Dick Nites using three way swivels. Rig one so it fishes around a foot off of the bottom, and rig the other so it fishes about 3-4 feet off of the bottom. Keep the droppers short, about a foot. There is so much current there that you use 4-5 ounces of lead to hold. Use the smallest Dick Nites you can find with a preference for silver/red or pearl white/red. Here the preferable reel would be a star drag steelhead size casting reel filled with 12 to 15# test line. You have a very definite chance to pick up a steelhead or even a Spring Chinook if using a small spoon here. Even smallmouth bass can be taken on occasion.

Shad can also be caught on a 2″ Mister Twister Teeny grub in chartreuse on a 1/16th ounce jig head.

Below are pictures of fish that are migrating through the ladder at Bonneville Dam’s Oregon Shore counting station


Boat Fishing : Boat fishing here will normally be by anchoring. Look for a seam between the fast and slower current, where the current pushes the fish closer to shore. You might look for a spot where the river narrows or at a bend where they can find a migration seam. Some of the depths may be from 5 to 12′ depending on the flow. Your job is to read the water and be there.

The normal locations can become concentrated on week-ends with nice days. For information on anchoring in this river CLICK HERE. You do not really need the anchor buoy retrieval system here because the water is not that deep and simply motoring upstream while pulling in the anchor rope, then lifting the anchor up from 15′ is no major chore for the average fisherperson. If the boats are clustered, this method is also beneficial in that you do not have to worry about tangling another boat’s anchor rope when you retrieve your anchor.

Most of the boat fishing will be from Portland upriver to the boat deadline below Bonneville Dam. Also the water flow may effect just where you may want to fish as if there is a lot of run-off from snow pack and when the dams are releasing lots of water, the normal fishing locations downriver may not be that productive, so closer to the dam becomes a better alternative.

And as you get closer to the dam, the water current increases, so many will launch downriver on the Washington side at either the launch near the Water Works in Vancouver and fish near Government Island launch or upstream at Camas then fish the river within a few hundred yards up or down river of the launch/marina.

Apparently the fish tend to run in narrow bands or schools as they make their way upriver. Where you found them yesterday, may well be barren tomorrow. With 150,000 to 250,000 fish going over the dam a day, you would think anywhere in the river would be just fine, not so. For a look at the Bonneville dam fish count CLICK HERE. There are known places that people seem to consistently catch fish year after year, so probably the best bet is to try to go with someone who has done it before to learn where and how to fish this fishery or do a heck of a lot of observing and question asking. They are not deep, and seem to be taken in from 10′ to 20″ of water. It also makes a difference if there is a lot of snow pack run off that particular summer where the dams are full and spilling, making the river up to 6′ higher than normal.

When using a boat, the techniques are changed considerably over bank fishing. The gear is quite similar, with a couple of exceptions. The weight may be more ( 2 to 4 oz) depending on the current and river flow. The weight dropper may be longer (18″ to 30″) with many fishermen using a slider to attach the weight. The leader to the lure can also be longer, (up to 4′) and a 12# test mainline. Since you will be anchored, the weight needs to be enough to hold on the bottom where the lure needs to be just above the bottom.

Most of the boats will tend to be somewhat clustered together. Keep an eye out for catches on boats near you. If a boat that is taking fish more often than you are, move to where you may be in a line either above or below him. To the side is not usually the place to be if it happens to be outside of the travel path of the fish. Use binoculars to try then try to decipher his lure or color. It would amaze you how fast other boats will home in to a location when someone will consistently start catching a few fish.

You need not cast out to the side very far as the current and weight will bring it in behind the boat. Just let the line out then when it hits the bottom, pick the rod tip up allowing the current to walk it back a bit until you are comfortable that the sinker is on the bottom but that there is no belly in the line. Put the rod in a rod holder, sit back and drink a can of soda.

Here you may have the light tap when a fish hits, but normally it is a dramatic hit and they are on. Since you are anchored and the lure is working in the current, you really need not set the hook, just lift the rod out of the rod holder, hold it high, start reeling in.

You may need a longer handled landing net than just a normal large trout net, where if you have more than 2 fisherpersons in the boat and with the current running, you may not be able to net the fish at the easiest location so have to reach for it as shown in the pictures below.

Lures again will be your choice, or shall I say the fishes choice. About anything bright will do. Colored beads like shown in the upper photo are quite effective and at a reasonable price. Also the Dick Nite in size #2, Canadian Wonders in a size #1 or Triple Teasers. The best colors will be gold on a sunny day and silver for a cloudy day. Others a red tip on a gold or silver or Chartreuse with a white back and a red with a white back for darker water. Other colors from pink/white, green, 1/2 and 1/2 chrome/brass or what ever you may find that they have a liking to that day. I do not see why even a small Colorado or Rooster Tail spinner would not work also. If you use a lure that is too small with a corresponding small hook, the fish tend to not stay hooked. Change lures until you find one that works. It helps if there are more fisherpersons on the boat, then all use a different lure until the hot one is found for that hour or day.

These fish have a soft mouth, so don’t set the hook or horse them to the boat or you will tear lips off.

Another method of boat fishing would be “Back Bouncing”. This consists of basically the same as anchoring but without anchoring. The boat is pointing upriver, a trolling motor is run slow enough to allow the boat to drift slowly downstream. The fishermen will need to lift the rod frequently then allow it to drop again. This tends to allow the lure to walk downstream and not hang up. This would be one method of in a non-crowded area to search out prospective water for a school of fish.

A shad in the net Dan with a nice average  fish

Eating Them :  The WDFW website  has a few recipes to try as listed below.  These fish are oily and have many small bones.  The normal secret is to soften the bones so that they can be consumed without a problem, very similar to canned salmon. 

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 low 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.


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


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The following was copied off WDFW website.



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.


  • 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.
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