American Fly Fishing

By Pete Elkin

Dorosoma petenense. Can we be honest here—yet another dusty Latinate pretension for a common baitfish? Just as I reached for the mental snooze button, part of the genus tag nudged an old memory of summer and a lovely creature named Dora. She and I were a perfect blend of fevered hormones. The romance didn’t survive autumn. But during summer evenings with honeysuckle fragrance rich in the Shenandoah Valley hills, Dora was a young man’s movable feast.
   For warm-water species and even some salmonids, threadfin shad are an equally tempting feast. Taxonomically, threadfins swim in the Clupeidae, or herring, family. They also swim with lots of company in near-surface schools. These large, compact masses of fish food attract everything from freshwater striped bass to piggish rainbow trout, all eager for a high-protein diet. Threadfins share lakes and river systems with close relatives like gizzard shad (Dorosoma cepedianum) and blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis). Unlike threadfins and gizzards, blueback herring prey on fish eggs and fry of many game fish. Consequently, many state fish and game agencies place bluebacks on their no-fly list. Some low-information anglers still resort to “bait bucket” stocking, with unfortunate results.
   Unlike deeper-dwelling bluebacks and gizzards, threadfin shad live at or near the surface. Fly anglers, rejoice: threadfins rarely grow longer than 6 inches. Most range from 2 to 4 inches, a perfect size to imitate with a fly that isn’t a
casting challenge.
   At times, especially after spring or even autumn spawns, matching the hatch for threadfins demands attention to fly size. Newly hatched, inch-long threadfins frustrate striper and bass anglers who insist on sticking with larger flies. Georgia fly angler and striper expert Henry Cowen solves the Lilliputian-prey problem with his tiny Somethin’ Else pattern, a dead ringer for a
baby threadfin.
   Threadfins are prolific and frequent spawners. From the East to the West, they swarm into shoreline vegetation, rocks, or woody cover when the water temperature reaches 70 degrees. Their adhesive eggs stick to cover, and hatch within two to four days. Spawning threadfins attract feeding fish. In fact, the “shad hatch” is a fish-food event for striper and bass anglers. Savvy fly anglers note that the spawning action intensifies during the two-hour window after sunrise. Spawning peaks in spring, but continues into summer and fall. I like to fish these “hatches” with size 2/0 Bush Pigs or Whistlers about 4 to 5 inches long. A floating shooting line with a clear intermediate sinking-tip seals the presentation deal for anything feeding in the spawning shallows. Fish mauling food in skinny water are not selective.
   However, color can make a difference, especially in transparent waters like lakes in the Ozarks or California. A threadfin shad’s palette would be white, iridescent gray, or green, with generous brushstrokes of yellow. Of all Clupeidae family members, only threadfins display yellow fins. Many Southern anglers call them yellowtails. Only the dorsal fin lacks yellow. Threadfins also sport a large black or purplish dot just behind the gill cover. Astute fly tiers love to include conspicuous three-dimensional eyes on their shad patterns. Predators key on the large eyes, and may even mistake them for the trademark dark spots. Threadfin shad dominate conventional-gear bass lure shapes and colors. “Sexy shad” is a particularly hot combination, featuring a dorsal of gray, yellow flanks, and white belly. Fly tiers shouldn’t forget that color option. I’ve had great days with a sexy-shad-imitating Whistler.
   Unweighted Whistlers, Bush Pigs, and similar patterns are killers when presented on integrated sinking-tip lines during fall and winter. As water temps drop into the 50s, threadfin shad react in predictable ways. Threadfins are happy in warm water; not so much when things turn chilly. They stop feeding at 50 degrees. Colder than that, they become inactive and often die. This molasses-like response to cold water creates wonderful fly fishing. The key is a slow retrieve, with frequent “drops,” or pauses, along the way. The colder the water, the longer the pause. Sinking-tip lines get the fly down to fish feasting on the hapless shad, where an unweighted fly mimics cold-stricken fish food. Winter shad kills create fly-fishing excitement below trout-rich Missouri and Arkansas dams. February marks peak action, especially if heavy water generation follows a long period without any generation. Anglers seek porcine browns gobbling dazed or dead threadfins sucked through the dam. Heavy sinking-tip lines with white Zonkers or other shad look-alikes draw thudding strikes. 
   The threadfin shad’s fatal aversion to cold water limits their distribution. However, once introduced, their spawning frequency and efficiency can quickly rebuild even a severely cold-depleted population. Threadfins are native to the Mississippi and Ohio River systems. Throughout the Southeast, threadfins support warm-water game fish like striped bass, white bass, largemouth bass and all its cousins, crappies, walleyes, and tailwater trout. This almost perfect forage species has been introduced throughout the United States and Puerto Rico, even extending through Mexico into Central America. Trout and salmon thrive on threadfins in many California lakes. Some of the California transplants have spread into Oregon, where threadfins are viewed as unwelcome invasive species. Still, most western states welcome the high-protein guest as an ideal fish food. Threadfins top the menu on many Southwest impoundments, including Lakes Mead, Powell, Havasu, and Elephant Butte.
   Once established, threadfins tend to feed and travel in massed schools, making them easy to find both visually and with electronics. Yet, the sheer volume of forage magnifies chances that your fly can become lost in the crowd. Sometimes it pays to try something that stands out from other Dorosoma: a larger fly, a brighter color, a different retrieve or sink rate. Lefty Kreh’s original Deceivers sported a red Krystal Flash throat. Whether it was designed to simulate gills or a wound, it seems to draw strikes. I add a hot pink Fluoro Fibre throat to most of my shad-imitating flies. Threadfin-gorged bass and stripers
like it.
   Threadfin shad are indeed a movable feast of fish food, from California to Virginia.


The full version of this article is available in print, PDF, and through our free APP.