Central Florida's St. Johns River site of Florida's 'salmon' run


C.S. Lee Park, 4600 East SR 46 near Geneva, is a good place to launch kayak, canoe or powerboat to hunt for American shad. If you don’t have a boat, Central Florida Airboat Tours will shuttle you to the riverbank and pick you up for about $20. You can also book a shad fishing charter with captain Tom Van Horn by calling 407-416-1187. IMPORTANT: Anglers must have a valid Florida saltwater fishing license to fish for shad in the St. Johns even though it is a freshwater river.


Midmorning Sunday and a gaggle of men line the river bank wearing chest waders and casting fly rods. Soon one of them hooks a silver, jumping fish that looks to be about three pounds.

“Nice one!” fellow anglers yell to Scott Brown as he unhooks it and drops it back into the river.

If you think this particular scene unfolded during last summer’s salmon run on Alaska’s crowded Kenai, you couldn’t be more wrong. It happened about two weeks ago on Central Florida’s St. Johns River. The angler hailed from Jacksonville and the fish in question was an American shad — a feisty sportster on light tackle that most people catch and release.

“It’s the closest you’re going to get to a salmon run in the south,” said Central Florida light-tackle guide captain Tom Van Horn. “Anyone who loves stream fishing can come here. They jump. They pull hard. It’s good for kids.”

The American shad is Florida’s only anadromous fish; it spends most of its life in the Atlantic but migrates inland in the fresh St. Johns in wintertime to spawn.

The silver jumper with dots along its side is found all the way up the eastern seaboard to Canada’s Bay of Fundy, spawning in river systems in every state north of here from spring into midsummer. Like salmon, the shad returns to its native river to reproduce. In its southern range, scientists say, it dies after spawning, but further north shad can live to be ten years old.

The largest American shad caught in Florida weighed five pounds, three ounces, taken by Bud Dankert in February 1990. An average size here is about three pounds. Elsewhere, the species grows much larger: the IGFA world record is 11 pounds, four ounces caught by Bob Thibodo in Massachusetts’ Connecticut River in 1986.

The shad season on the St. Johns is peaking right now, with some anglers releasing as many as 50 in a day. About the most popular fishing grounds is the section known as “Shad Alley” between Lake Monroe and Lake Harney near the tiny berg of Geneva. But fish also are caught near the mouth of the river at Mayport and as far south as the headwaters near Melbourne. Anglers may keep 10 shad per person, per day, but not many take a limit: the shad’s food value — compared with Florida’s other fish species — is not all that, and those who do keep them say they mostly just eat the roe.

There are several methods for catching shad and all involve light tackle, because that is the most fun.

For anglers who like trolling or casting spinning rods, Van Horn recommends the Nurgesser Shad Rig, which consists of a brightly colored shad dart, or tiny jig, with a red bead and a small squid spoon trailer. The guide also likes Road Runners small jigs with chartreuse or hot pink plastic or feather tails. Some anglers troll a small keel weight, trailed by a shad dart and spoon. Van Horn said he also has had good luck with D.O.A.Tiny Terror-Eyz lures and small minnow jigs.

“I’ve cleaned shad and found minnows in their stomach,” he said.

Fly-fishing for shad is mostly rewarding because anglers can be successful using an inexpensive 5-weight outfit and long, precise casts are not required. Shad sometimes roil the surface, but if they’re hitting deep, Van Horn attaches a sinking “Trout Versileader” head to his floating line. A 12-pound fluorocarbon tippet is tied to small, brightly colored Crazy Charlie or Clouser Minnow flies with lead or bead chain eyes.

Although Florida has enjoyed some epic shad runs the past few years — generating well-attended tournaments and seminars — the overall stock is not doing too well, according to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which is in charge of managing the species. Overfishing, blockage of spawning rivers by dams and other obstructions, and habitat degradation have depleted shad numbers.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission characterizes the stock abundance as low but stable. Shad have not been fished commercially in the Sunshine State for more than a decade, but there is still some commercial harvest in the fish’s northern range.

The feisty fish won’t be sticking around here too much longer, so cast to them while you can.

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