Capture essence of Pacific salmon fishing by catching Florida’s shad

Captain Mark Benson of Orlando holds up an American shad estimated at 3 pounds caught on light spinning tackle in the St. Johns River near Christmas.
Captain Mark Benson of Orlando holds up an American shad estimated at 3 pounds caught on light spinning tackle in the St. Johns River near Christmas. Miami Herald Staff

There is no recreational fishery in Florida like the American shad. With its smaller cousins the blueback herring and hickory shad, these greenish-backed, silver sportsters are the Sunshine State’s only anadromous species. That means they spend most of their lives in saltwater but enter north Florida’s St. Johns River at Mayport in winter and early spring to spawn — like salmon in the Pacific Northwest.

“It’s as close to salmon or trout fishing you can do in Florida,” Orlando fishing guide captain Mark Benson said. “One day, they’re evading sharks and dolphins and the next, they’re in a cattle pasture with alligators.”

Benson wasn’t kidding. American shad are found all along the U.S. eastern seaboard from Canada’s Bay of Fundy south to Florida, spawning — like salmon — in their native river systems beginning with the St. Johns. Depending on factors such as water temperature, salinity and current, they could push upstream against the river’s northerly flow as far inland as Melbourne to deposit and fertilize their eggs. The young remain in fresh water until they reach two to four inches, then move out to sea. Benson has found shad in the St. Johns as early as mid-November and as late as mid June. But the historical peak of shad fishing there is January through March between Lake Washington and Lake Monroe, with the epicenter around State Road 46 near Geneva.

Historically, American shad have been overfished throughout their range, according to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which is in charge of managing the species. Still considered depleted, they also have taken a hit from dams that block their entry to spawning areas and degradation of their habitats. Even though there’s no directed commercial fishery for the species in Florida and most sport anglers practice catch and release, the St. Johns fishery sees ups and downs each year. It’s typical for anglers to enjoy 100-fish days, followed by sparse catches.

Benson, who has been shad fishing for decades, said this has been an unusual winter season so far because of high water in the St. Johns. With water levels running about 1 1/2 feet above normal, the river has spread out over the adjacent marsh in many areas, posing challenges for both navigation and locating the fish. Just south of SR 50, for example, the river looks like a huge shallow lake with cattle grazing in the water — very disconcerting for anyone who doesn’t know his or her way around.

Benson said he has had to run further upstream than ever looking for areas where the river stays within its banks to locate shad.

“Downstream, it’s more like a lake,” he said. “That’s made the fish run upstream to find current and depth. They want the fastest velocity water flow they can find. This is like a big outgoing tide.”

Shad typically spawn from late afternoon into the evening when they are found splashing on the surface. To fortify themselves for reproduction, they eat small minnows and grass shrimp during daytime. With high water this season, they’re feeding deeper.

Benson likes to use ultra-light spinning gear or a 5-weight fly rod to target shad.

Jigs need to be heavy enough to touch bottom and a sinking tip or heavy fly is needed on the 5-weight. On spinning rigs, the guide favors small crappie jigs with curly tails and D.O.A. Tiny Terror-Eyz lures in silver and gold. Flies are typically brightly-colored with lead or bead-chain eyes.

“Anything that looks like a minnow or a little shrimp,” he said. “Use a slow and low steady retrieve.”

Shad don’t show up huge in Florida; the average is around 3 pounds. The state record is 5 pounds 3 ounces caught in the St. Johns in 1990. However, fairly big fish are found further north. The IGFA all-tackle world record is 11 pounds 4 ounces caught in Massachusetts’ Connecticut River in 1986.

But what shad lack in size, they make up for with sheer feistiness, fast dashes and valiant leaps when hooked.

By law, Florida anglers are allowed to keep 10 fish per person per day in an aggregate of American and hickory shad. But it’s not exactly a gourmet treat. Those who do harvest shad today usually just consume the roe.

Fortunately for those who insist upon eating what they catch, there are plenty of good-tasting crappie swimming alongside shad in the current rips of the St. Johns. But you’ll need two fishing licenses: freshwater to target crappie and saltwater to go after shad.

If you go

To book a fishing charter for American shad, call captain Mark Benson at 407-257-5750 or visit www.markbensonoutdoors.com/.

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