White River

Catching the shad kill

Posted by John Berry on February 23rd, 2012
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Conventional wisdom requires for us to have extremely cold temperatures and high levels of generation in order to have a substantial shad kill. We had those exact conditions for the last two years but the shad kill was disappointing at best. This year we have had an extremely mild winter and the shad kill has been the best we have had in a long time. I do not know the scientific explanation for what has happened this year and I don’t know if I really care. I am too busy enjoying some of the best winter fishing I have had in a long time.

When I was fishing with my wife, Lori, on opening day I noticed a bit of gull activity below the power house at Bull Shoals Dam and I knew that some shad were coming through. The brown spawn had just ended and the trout were keying in on egg patterns. That was working well and there was no need to try shad patterns. Over the next few days, the shad continued to dribble through and then began coming through at a heavier rate. Before we knew it, we had a full blown shad kill with a lot of big hungry trout keying in on shad patterns.

During a shad kill there is an ebb and flow. There may be more shad coming through on certain days than on others. There are also days when the trout are so stuffed from feeding on the previous day that they will hardly touch a shad pattern, when the shad are coming through. On days like this, the shad drift far downstream and are spread throughout the river.

Almost all of the fishing pressure has been on the upper river, specifically in the Catch and Release section below Bull Shoals Dam. This year’s shad kill has not been a well kept secret. There were more boats fishing in the Catch and Release section than there were on opening day. It was not just local boats or local guides. It was what I called an anything that floats day. Interspersed among the river boats were an occasional bass boat or lake boat. The section was basically packed with anglers. Of course, everyone was in a hurry to get back upstream to start the next drift. In doing so, they generated a substantial wake. As a result there is a pretty heavy chop on the water and you feel like you are on the ocean.

On Saturday, I had a guide trip with my regular customers Barry and Susan. The trip was a Christmas present for Susan, a doctor and an avid fly fisher. I didn’t think that they were interested in participating in the carnival atmosphere at the Catch and Release section below Bull Shoals Dam. The same thing was occurring on the Norfork. I took a calculated risk, that the shad were drifting far downstream and the trout were keying in on them. I opted to fish at Rim Shoals.

I picked them up at the cabin at 7:30AM. Lori followed me in another car as she was going to guide a couple of their friends for the day. I drove over to Rim, with my river boat in tow. I took a couple of minutes to don my waders and prepare the boat for launching. I then rigged their fly rods. On two rods I put on a hot pink San Juan worm with a white marabou jig as a dropper eighteen inches below the worm. I also put on an AAA split shot and a strike indicator. I used 4X tippet and set the depth at about seven feet. On another, I rigged a big white articulated streamer on a heavy sink tip line.

The skies were cloudy and the winds were ten to fifteen miles per hour. The temperature was in the high forties, which is pretty mild for mid- February. The water flows were constant all day at around 5,500 cubic feet per second or almost two full generators. There were several trailers in the parking lot but there was only one other boat fishing in the area. They pretty much stayed out of our way for the day. I launched my river boat and we began fishing.

We had only drifted about fifty yards before Barry hooked up and landed a nice fat rainbow. We went a hundred yards further and Susan landed one. We continued the drift and picked four more. I generally consider a drift to be successful, if my clients pick up one or two fish. Six is really good. On the next drift, we picked up six more. The trout were feeding heavily and definitely keying in on the shad patterns. Though we fished a double fly rig (hot pink San Juan worm and white marabou jig) all day, we only took one fish on the worm, which is usually my best producer.

The fish were all nice and fat. They have definitely been feeding well. We caught mostly rainbows but Susan managed to land three nice browns the biggest, of which, was eighteen inches. I have no idea just how many we landed. We did not count and the action was near constant. At one point, Susan commented that it had been at least five minutes since she had landed a fish. At that moment a nice rainbow hit her fly with a bit of attitude. It jumped high in the air and landed on the other side of Barry’s fly line. The rainbow took a long run tangling the two lines in the process. We netted the trout but it took a few minutes to untangle the lines. Susan tried fishing the streamer for a while but had no success. She was eager to return to the constant action on the shad patterns.

We fished late, caught a lot of fish and had a great time. We did it without having to deal with a bunch of other anglers. Life is good!

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