Everyone seems to have their own theories about the first signs of spring and, more specifically, when the cold of winter is finally over.
For some, it's the flock of robins that all of sudden appear on their lawn. For others, it might be the dreaded pollen that nearly blocks out the sun as waves of the yellow stuff swirl around in the air. But for me, it's all about a secretive fish called the American shad.
You would have thought with the relatively mild winter, that spring would have come early. I, too, was in that mind-set as I headed to the Ogeechee River around Valentine's Day, just knowing the shad migration had begun. After two hours of fishing, it became quite evident there wasn't a shad to be had and, quite frankly, I was mystified by their absence. As warm as it was, those fish should have been there. So what did they know that I didn't?
Winter finally arrived with a vengeance around the third week in February, and it got downright cold. I know I'll probably never know the answer to this question, but how does a fish like a shad know what's going to happen with the weather while we humans can only guess?
Little is known about the American shad. Like salmon, they spend their lives in the ocean, but around this time of the year there is mass migration in which they come up certain rivers just so they can spawn. I can't even tell you if they die like a salmon after spawning or whether they head back to sea. I have asked a number of people this question, and nobody seems to know the answer. Another shad mystery that gets to me, is where do they come from? You would think that as much as I am out in the ocean and in our creeks that I would have inadvertently come across a shad, but I never have. Even throwing cast nets off the beach for menhaden should catch one of these fish at some time, but I have never heard of anyone who has.
For all I know, they might spend their lives hundreds of miles out at sea before making their journey to spawn. I guess they just don't rate high enough to have studies done on their life and habits.
So what is the draw? Their flesh isn't all that great to eat, and they are loaded with tiny bones, making filleting one an art known only by a handful of folks I have known. But give me a big fat female, and I am all over it, because inside is a pair of roe sacks that are considered a delicacy.
As if the roe isn't enough, shad are great fighters, especially on light tackle. A member of the tarpon family, they jump, and because you are fishing in a swift current, when hooked they put their broad sides to the current, making them a challenge to land. Their mouths are paper-thin and because the lures I generally use are tiny, too much pressure will lose one of these fighters in a second.
I know that around Delaware there is a lot of interest by anglers when the shad run is on, but down here, just finding someone to go with me is a challenge. There are only two locals on whom I can count: Jimmy McIntire and Neil Lax.
After being hoodwinked by the late winter surge, I decided to give it another go and asked Neil if he wanted to accompany me. Remember what I said about everybody having his or her own idea about the first sign of spring? Neil's indicator is the goldfish that live in his outdoor cement pond. If they come out from under the lily pads and quickly eat the food he has thrown in, spring is here -- and the shad with it. With that prediction in mind, we loaded my boat and off we went.
Arriving at the Ogeechee River, we were the only people at the landing. It was an ominous sign but having driven that far we decided to give it a go anyway. We trolled for nearly an hour, without as much as a tap, and then, as if a light switch had been flipped, one rod bent double followed closely by another.
They were here! Spring is here!
For the next couple of hours we landed 13 shad, five of which were big females busting with roe.
As I sat down for a shad roe dinner that night, I wore a smile with every bite. You can have your robins, daffodils and pollen because my sign of spring is, simply put, delicious.
God does not subtract from the allotted span of a man's life the hours spent in fishing. Columnist Collins Doughtie, a graphic designer by trade and fishing guide by choice, sure hopes that's true.