Late to the Game. When I get that 30 foot Grady White center console, I’ll probably name it Late to the Game. That’s my typical approach to the outdoors, and especially with shad fishing. The past 4 years, I’ve been trying my hand at shad fishing in the Potomac River, and every year, it seems to play out with the same lesson- late to the game.
Shad are an anadromous fish that swim into the Potomac every year for a month or so. They swim up small, clean tributaries in numbers that are a fraction of the tonnage once caught by George Washington. But they still ball up in the schools that are left in these thin bodies of water, and once you find a school, the action can be steady. Supposedly.
Over the past few years, I’ve found more frustration than fish, however. Either I missed the run entirely, or more often than not, I show up late. As in, I didn’t get my act together the night before and now at midmorning the fish aren’t hungry kind of late.
If you’re not careful, it can also be a lose more lures than catch fish kind of fishing as well. The schools are often found in and around a lot of structure, and I tend to lose a lot of small shad darts on the hidden branches below the surface (or overhead for that matter).
On a whim this March, I got my act together the night before. I showed up to the stream early in the morning, only one other pickup in the small parking lot. I realized I hadn’t set up my rig yet as I walked down to the river, but there’d be plenty of time for that once I found a place on the open bank.
Most people here are shad fishing at this point in the year, a few yellow perch might be lingering for anglers looking to throw a simple minnow on a bobber. But shad will be the main target for the next month. So when I reached the bank and saw the owner of the other truck nearby, it wasn’t hard to tell that he was shad fishing as well. The shad rig isn’t complex and is easy to spot- a tandem rig with two small lures, one trailing slightly behind the other to mimic wounded bait fish.
“Are they biting?”
“Yeah, I’ve got 15 or 20 so far- right here and right up there.” He pointed upstream to where he had left his tackle and bag.
15 or 20? This early? This was going to be my day.
We made the kind of brief small talk two strangers would make when you’re at an awkwardly middle distance away from each other which prevents a normal conversation. Not too in-depth about anything other than this one thing we knew we had in common. I had started to open my tackle to switch out for the shad rig, but the drag on his reel started cranking in the minute we spoke, proving that the fish were in fact hungry.
Not wanting to miss out on a potential frenzy, I opted to throw the small spinner bait that was already rigged up- most likely from last fall if I had to guess. 5-10 casts with no bite. Neighbor pulled in a second fish already. Evidence enough that I should set up a proper rig. So I paused to sit and to tie off the necessary knots.
In the five minutes it took me to set up my rig, he pulled in 3 more fish. I was so eager, I clipped the wrong end of the extra line. Reset. Slow down, they’re not going anywhere. He was landing fish by the minute. By the time I got set up, he’d probably pulled in close to 10 fish. At least one double.
As I tightened the last ends of my rig, he snagged a branch and had to walk back downstream to his tackle to reset as well.
“Enjoy the spot. They’re on both sides it seems like.”
“Thanks! I think you might’ve caught the last one though.”
A few more awkward words as he headed back downstream, still in sight, but not within any kind of conversational range. As I made the first few casts, I made sure to position myself in ever so slight an angle to keep a watchful eye on his incredible success. It didn’t take long for me either.
A fish. This is it. This is only the beginning of my rapid fire, shad slinging story to rival Hemingway himself. I reeled her in. Not overly impressive, but enough to admire the iridescent colors for a few moments, then carefully slide her back into the water. Lets go.
A few more casts would land me a 2nd similar sized fish.
And then, nothing. 10 casts became 10 minutes. Nothing but a snagged line or two. Downstream? The fish were still biting what he was presenting. And from the corner of my eye, it didn’t look like they were letting up for him. Another 10 minutes went by with no luck for me and loads for neighbor. I switched my lures. Switched my retrieve. Nadda.
I couldn’t take it. I turned the other direction- out of sight out mind. A little holler in my direction turned me back. He was holding up a sizeable hen on one lure with a seond fish on the trailer. I offered up genuine and enthusiastic kudos, at the same time thinking let’s get out of here. I headed further upstream to try my luck.
There’s an agony in knowing that something isn’t quite right, and that one something is probably a very small something. I’m not an expert, but I know more than the basics. I can pick out a seam or a pocket likely to hold fish, and I know enough about patterns to know what’s biting when and where. But it’s a most bitter tasting pill when you can literally see the fish, yet can’t figure out what you’re doing wrong.
After another 20-30 minutes I’d landed nothing but a small male perch. He was as lost as me it would seem. Time to end this. Walking back to the truck, I decided to chat up my neighbor before heading out.
On a public landing like this one, I’ve found that you’ll encounter two types of anglers. There’s the anglers that want to talk, and there’s the anglers that just want to be left alone. My circumstantial evidence would indicate that it’s typically the guys landing fish that like to talk. One can only swallow so many bitter pills after all. I can speak from experience here.
Knowing that he was the kind who didn’t mind sharing, I came by and asked to see what he was tossing. Wouldn’t you know it, the same size and colors as me. He showed me the other darts he’d been picking through, and said they weren’t too picky today.
Courteously cussing at myself, I lamented to him as I offered up my identical setup in comparison. He seemed genuinely surprised and sympathetic to my misery. So likewise, despite my poor performance, I was pumped for him and wished him more tight lines as I headed out.
It's a strange feeling to leave a riverbank thinking, yes, I’d caught a few fish, but I still feel defeated. Should I make this the last time? With this stream not being particularly close to home, I told maybe I should cut my losses. Just wait for more familiar fare to return to the Chesapeake in the coming months.
That decision lasted about a week. One more chance. This time, I’d end up being late to the game once again. But on a whim, I decided to give it one last shot.