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Fly-Fishing Ecstasy

Catching hickory shad Is pure sport, even if you’ve got to put them all back

My small streamer was swimming deep, dipping and undulating through a current that flowed smartly toward the tail of the pool. I had tied that fly myself the night before with a small, gold, weighted head, a shiny, tightly wrapped tinsel body and a long, soft wing of red-over-yellow marabou feathers.

As the streamer swung unseen down and across the bottom of the broad and sparkling creek, I lifted my rod to keep my fly from snagging on the rock-strewn streambed. When the line finally straightened out down current, I raised the tip again — but not too much. If you don’t fish your lure right close to the bottom, you’ll not catch hickory shad.

I needn’t have worried. After a few short seconds, my long, light fly rod bent down hard as I struck against a sudden bump. The battle began. The loose line immediately flew up off of the water through my lightly tensed fingers and chased after the departing fish.

Fish Are Biting

The hickory shad run is on. Early fish are showing at tributaries at the head of the Bay, but over on the middle Eastern shore, commercial perch nets are said to be hindering the once promising shad recovery there. Shad is a catch-and-release fishery in Maryland; no fish may be kept.

The yellow perch spawn is pretty much over, but the white perch should be coming on strong now — though I haven’t been able to repeat earlier successes. Early season catch-and-release trollers in the mid-Bay are enjoying a great spring, and anglers frequenting Sandy Point State Park are still having some incredible days hooking and releasing big rockfish on bloodworms. The Susqehanna Flats water temps are hitting the magic 50-degree mark and should start producing some super top-water bites. The striped bass trophy season opens in just three short weeks. Tidewater springtime is really blooming fishwise.

As the outbound line came tight to the reel, the pawl drag started up a lovely mechanical chatter and the reel spool became a blur, spraying a fine, delicate mist into the air. The fish turned, and the line cut across the current, vibrating from the force of the run. This was fly-fishing ecstasy.

Downstream, at a middle distance, came a splash as the hooked, silvery shad catapulted out of the water, arcing and reentering so gracefully that I wasn’t sure that I had really seen it.

But a hallucinatory feeling is not unusual on a Tidewater stream in the spring. When you chance upon an earnest run of these fine fish, it really does seem too wonderful to be true.

After a spirited brawl, I released the frisky buck to go about its business and quickly recast my line, hoping there were more shad holding down at the tail of the pool. It took another 10 minutes or so to hook up again, but when I did, this one put on a particularly fine display. Thrashing, broaching, grayhounding and somersaulting across the water like a demon, it seemed more determined to fly away than to swim.

When I finally got that tiger in hand, I was surprised to see it a hen fish, full of roe. Gravid females rarely leap like this one. I released her as quickly as possible, never lifting her from the water. As I watched my fish flit back into the shadowy depths, I silently thanked her for the dance, and wished her many offspring.

Repeating this experience another half dozen times or so before evening descended made my whole body hum from exhilaration. When at last the light and the bite had failed and I stumbled back along the darkened streambed toward my pickup, I felt virtually intoxicated. It took almost the full extent of the long walk for my senses to clear.

At the same time I knew my experience that afternoon paled against some runs of these fish. Fifty-fish afternoons are not uncommon for regular devotees of the sport.

But I was fully satisfied with my afternoon. And besides, I was planning on having many more opportunities for more waltzes during the season’s run. The hickories had just started up, and I felt that the best, perhaps, was yet to come.

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