Fly Fishing The Florida Shad Run

I lived in Philadelphia for 35 years, and outside of one aborted attempt, I never tried to go shad fishing. Not once. Many do, and look forward to the annual event, to the point that there is even a Shadfest in not-too-distant New Hope (PA) & Lambertville (NJ) that celebrates the rite of spring.

When I moved to Florida, I learned that shad also run all the way down here...who'd a thunk it? Not me at least. I thought Florida was redfish, speckled trout, and snook. I also discovered that the same guide that took me out for flood tide redfish in kayaks last fall, Captain Rich Santos of First Coast Fly Fishing Unlimited, also ran guided trips to go and catch them...well, that was an immediate no-brainer that I decided to address come the new year.

Unfortunately, due to whatever Mother Nature had up her sleeve (mostly high water levels) the shad decided to run a little later this year, so our January trip turned into a February trip, which happened to be last Saturday.

mitzi skiff
Captain Rich & His 16' Mitzi Skiff

Being a total newbie to this type of fishing, I learned 4 things about shad.

1.  They are camera shy
American Shad don't like to be caught. It's not that they won't hit your fly once you find them, actually quite the opposite.  It's that they have no tolerance for being netted, nor do they like to be in your boat as you remove the hook. They are pretty much one solid muscle that freaks out nuts until you get them back in the water. At least if you don't exhaust them to death during the fight. Which leads to...

2.  They are sharp
Captain Rich warned me about their bellies being sharp.  He said bring gloves, but I didn't have any other than thin solar gloves. But we had to of course get at least one grip & grin photo to validate the trip...

florida fly fishing shad
Grip n' Grin
Photo by Rich Santos

I'm smiling through the pain in this picture, my left pinky finger is hamburger. (Actually, it's not that bad, nothing a quick band-aiding couldn't fix). Let's just say that I don't need another photo of a shad in hand and "keep 'em wet" will largely apply from now on.

3.  They are slimy
Like incredibly slimy. Like Ghostbusters slimy. Like imagine if your fish came out of the water drenched in an inch thick layer of KY jelly. I tried to hold the one above and it started going into convulsions so I tried to brace it against my chest instead of having it flop around the deck of the skiff. Um, yeah...not the best idea.

Cleaning up after the "money shot"  :)
Photo by Rich Santos

4.  They are also darn good fighters on a 6-weight fly rod
What a blast!  The biggest one of the day was just above 19 inches long, and very thick.  Awesome fight, complete with acrobatics! Shad like to run, jump, all that fun stuff.

bent rod fly fishing shad florida
Fish On!
Photo by Rich Santos

Shad are pretty awesome, and I'll be back for more. Even though I'm kinda mad because I now know what I was missing up in Pennsylvania all these years...

But enough about the shad. The experience of fishing is always about more than the fish you're chasing.

The area of Central Florida that Captain Rich took me to was very interesting. It's the headwaters of the St. Johns River, so the waterway is far more narrow than up north where I live just outside of Jacksonville. It also happens to run through some fields, pastures, whatever you want to call them, that houses an incredible amount of animal life.

Livestock such as cows and horses graze the banks (under the shade of palm trees of all things...which is kind of a foreign concept to a Yankee), while flocks and flocks of different bird species are everywhere. We even saw a camera-shy bald eagle. White pelicans were in especially high concentration while we were out...because, they like to eat shad...and they're not stupid. While they winter in the South, there's no better place to be than "Shad Alley."

A Bunch Of Pelicans Standing On A Flooded Bank
Photo by Rich Santos

Oh, and did I mention the's Florida after all, right? We saw two on the day, this one was somewhat cooperative when it came to taking pictures, although it really didn't care for us bothering its sunning.

The Tolerant Gator
Photo by Rich Santos

And I won't even get into the local "wildlife" piloting the multiple airboats and gyrocopter (yes, gyrocopter) zooming all around and about all over the place. Let's just say it was an amazing display.

Overall, the day was a huge success.  I scored my first 4.5 shad on the fly (the .5 is for the long distance release on the final one of the day), explored a very new and unique area to me which I'd recommend to anyone, and got to learn some new tricks from one of the best guides in Northeast Florida. Oh, and it was 70 degrees with beautiful blue skies the first weekend of February. It'd be real hard to top that again if I tried!

If you happen to be in the Jacksonville area and want to get a rod bent, a full list of Captain Rich's guide services (as well as many other resources) are available on his website


  1. Lived in FL all my life and ever done this. Michael, what's your opinion on the ability to fish Shad Tenkara style?

    1. I don't know... I don't want to be the one that says "it can't be done"...because I'm sure it can. People catch hard fighting fish like carp on tenkara. Here are 3 things that might go against tenkara.

      1) Weighted flies - Shad seem to feed deep. Tenkara rods don't really cast weighted flies well, they lob them.

      2) Tippet - We were using 10-lb test. Most manufacturers suggest using 5x tippet (which is about 3 or 4 lb test? I'd think you'd be pushing your rod tip's limit.

      3) The fish just fight hard. The put a nice bend in the 6 weight Sage I was using, and Rich also had a 6 foot UL spinning rod on board that he was using to "prospect" the water to find them. He caught a few on that rod and it near bent in half down to the cork.

      I do think you could catch shad without too much issue on other beefier fixed line fishing systems. I'd probably not use my tenkara rod though, not the most efficient tool for the job IMO. Again, doesn't mean you can't...or that somebody won't.

  2. If I may put my 2 sense in... the water levels are much higher this year putting the Shad down deeper. Intermediate sink tip lines with small dumbell eyes on Crazy Charlie Bonefish flies worked best in getting down to them on our trip. Over the past several years the water levels have been lower which is the norm and were catching plenty of Shad on floating lines with tiny bead chain eyes or no weight at all on the flies. Last year we saw schools of them on the surface swimming and pushing a wakes. Also a lot of the other fly fishers are using 5wt. fly rods and sometimes a 4 wt. We caught some of the bigger American Shad(19"-20) on our trip and suggest a 5 or 6wt. fly rod but most are around 15"-16". Hickory Shad are in the mix to which are smaller. Here's a video I did of a trip last year that will give you a good idea of what it's like there.. (a video of Mike's trip is next :-)..)

    1. That's why he's the guide. ^^^

      I still wouldn't use tenkara as a primary tool to pursue them though...well, unless I brought an extra rod tip. :)

  3. That is awesome man and I love it that you used Rich as your guide. I used him a few years back when I spent a week in Jacksonville. Very courteous and great guide. Thanks for sharing and I am jealous, I too would have never thought there was a shad run in Florida.

    1. Very cool, had no idea. Rich is definitely the man.

  4. Great report and review of the shad run in sunny FL, Mike! I have a few tips on how to target them in New England and definitely want to give it a shot this year. Like most anadromous fish, it's all about the timing and being in the right place at the right time. Sounds like Captain Rich has that dial-in for the FL runs. Congrats on the new fly rod species!

    1. Sounds good Dean. I hope you get into some this year, they are a blast!

  5. The past 2 years, I have become familiar with the "Shad Run" from a few people I follow on social media, but they never elaborated on it like you have. Sounds like a blast!! It's good to know that Illinois shad are no different than the shad in other states...slimy! I don't think there is a better anology for them than the one you used. I have always thought of them as slimer from Ghostbusters. ha....and the ones around here smell. Ugh!

    One of my friends was intentionally trying to catch a big one last year, and he did. "That was the worst decision of my life. I completely regret that!" - because of how slimy and smelly they are. Haha I'll never forget the look on his face. It was priceless.

    1. Some things are better left untouched. Shad are probably one of them. But so damn fun to catch!

  6. Great report Mike. Next time try a tenkara rod also. For a couple of weeks every spring alewives run here on the island (very close cousins to shad) and they are a blast to catch. I usually catch them in the 12-15" range on #12 Killer Bugs and a yamame.

    1. Ugh guys are going to make me buy a Yamame, aren't you?


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