Potomac River Shad and Gunpowder River Brown Trout

Early morning at Fletchers Cove.

Back from a work trip to Michigan, I set the alarm for a far too early wake-up on Saturday: 4:00AM.  I quickly packed my gear, changed, and drove down 16th Street and into Georgetown, looking for the hidden side road that leads to Fletchers Boathouse.  After missing the exit once, I made it into the parking lot.  My fishing partner for the day was already there (I was a solid half hour late) and had secured the third spot in line to get a boat for the day.  We said our hellos, and chatted briefly with another fisherman in the line.  He claimed he had caught 350 shad the day before, and my jaw dropped.

A few thoughts on catching 350 shad:  First, congratulations.  Certainly an incredible day.

Second, who the hell needs to catch (and release) 350 fish?  What is the difference between 30 fish in a day, and 350?  If I caught 30 fish, I’m not going home bitter – that too is a great day.

Third, how many of those caught and released fish died?  I’ll take a wild (and somewhat educated) guess that it’s somewhere between 3% and 15%, or 11 and 53 shad.  For a fishery that allows no recreational harvest, that’s a decent amount of mortality you’ve just introduced.

I thought about all these things as I rigged my gear by my car, and my buddy got the boat secured.  Within minutes, we were rowing out into the Potomac River, thick black fog surrounding us.  Shad swirled on the surface, occasionally splashing loudly, and large cormorants covered the rocks and trees, fat from oily shad meat.

First cast in the early morning.

I rigged up a large half and half to start, hunting for striped bass in the dark and as the sun rose.  My fishing partner went straight to shad fishing, catching a few hickory shad to start the day, and I managed a large American shad on my equally large half and half.

A morning Hickory Shad from the Potomac River.

I kept trying for striped bass for another 20 minutes, but eventually changed flies to a size 6 shad dart with heavy dumbbell eyes, iridescent green in hue.  With the sun now up, the fishing turned on, and we caught fish almost every cast for the next two hours.  Herring, hickories, and lots of American Shad came to the boat.  We posed with a few early fish for photos, but eventually debarbed our hooks and began releasing the fish in the water.

A nice American Shad comes into the boat.  Most of these fish leapt from the water during the fight, reminding me of the juvenile tarpon I caught in Key West last fall.

Shad are powerful fighters for their size, but their jaws and bodies are delicate, and while I enjoy fishing for them once a year, I can’t help but think about mortality rates for each released fish (especially after shad-fishing’s Lebron James made his comments about 350 fish in a day).

Releasing an American Shad back into the cove.

All told, in three hours of fishing we probably caught around 70 fish.  The fishing did slow down around 9:30AM as the sun burned up the morning fog and the day became bright, but casting into the slack water closer to shore continued to produce.

We left the water around 10AM and headed back to my place.  A few short hours later (and after some steak and pasta), we made the drive up the road to Gunpowder Falls, attempting to catch both shad and brown trout in the same day.

We arrived at the Bunker Hill Road parking lot in time to see the ending of an ultra-trail run (30 miles or 15 miles – the competitors picked their poison).  We left them behind, and wandered down to a section of the river that usually has good dry fly action in April.  Arriving at the river, it looked like throwing dries to trout was not in the cards.  The water level and flow was high, and no hatches were occuring.

High, fast water on the Gunpowder.

We tried anyways, throwing parachute adams to slower water.  I had one take, but was distracted and missed the eat.  Disappointed, we briefly tried indicator nymphing (something we both hate) and both of us quickly had our rigs tangled in knots.

Failing at both dries and nymphing, I went to an old standby on the Gunpowder:  Very small olive woolly buggers.  With our 2wt and 3 wt 7′ rods (not ideal for fishing fast water on a wider river) we slung our offerings into current seams, and quickly both began to get bites.  Soon we were both hooked up, and golden colored brown trout came to our hands.  To say we were ecstatic would be an understatement:  We felt as though we had cracked some universal mystery.

Gorgeous and wild Gunpowder Falls brown trout.

We continued to fish, and get frequent eats, with most happening when we cast directly to the river banks.  I momentarily hooked up to a very large brown trout as I waded downstream, seeing its head and back come out of the water.  While it was likely only 14″-15″, that is a huge trout by Gunpowder Falls standards.  The fish, as often happens, came unbuttoned (trout setting with my 3wt likely the culprit).  Another long distance release.

We fished for a few more minutes before calling it quits, returning to DC early to recover from our early morning.  It was a very unique day, and one where we sampled two of the regions greatest (and very different) fisheries.



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