TARBORO — The conditions were almost perfect for intercepting hickory shad at Tarboro's Riverfront Park last Thursday afternoon.
But sometimes there's little that separates perfect and bad conditions, and though the Tar River was dropping, it was still too muddy. Few fishermen were moved to fight the conditions.
The fish were there, even if they couldn't make out the widely used rigs featuring a brightly colored 1/8-ounce jig and a small spoon.
Every spring, these anadromous fish spawn up rivers such as the Tar, Roanoke, Neuse, Cashie and Chowan in eastern North Carolina. The running shad aren't hungry, but they strike out of anger or reaction, just like spawning salmon.
The peak of the shad run on the Tar River is typically the second or third week in March.
Also in this stream are American shad, colloquially called white shad. They grow bigger than hickory shad. Both are in the herring family.
As with many types of fishing, the difference between success and failure can be dictated by the color of the water. If it's too muddy, the fish have trouble seeing anything.
When they can see, the shad are likely to hit steadily for extended periods.
David Mears, a member of the Tarboro Association of Saltwater Sports men, didn't seem enthused. He fished earlier that day with little luck.
And later in the day, there were no signs that the bite had improved. The only fishermen around were trying to head off the beginning of the striped bass run, which hadn't really started.
Mears wasn't overly hopeful of our prospects, but he agreed to dabble.
"We can," he said, after chatting along the banks of the park along with fellow club member John Dupree.
Dupree had a better idea. He called his brother, Jimmy Dupree Jr., who already was out on the river fishing with his son, Daniel.
Within minutes, I was picked up at the Bell's Bridge, in Dupree's 17-foot aluminum flat-bottom john boat, which buzzed around the Tar's bends and twists, past sunken logs and sand bars, through Edgecombe County's hardwood bottomlands, several miles to the mouth of a creek with clearer water, stained the color of tea.
"We've got a good hour of light left," Dupree Jr. said.
The Dupree brothers are co-owners of Roberson-Dupree Shoe Store in Tarboro, a place where shoes are just as welcome as the latest catch. TASS had a shad tournament going on through Saturday, and the shoe store was the official weigh-in station. The brothers are both avid fishermen, and it shows by the mounts on the walls of the store, trophy striped bass and king mackerel.
"We have our own ice machine," Dupree Jr. said.
When we arrived at the favorite Dupree fishing hole, there was Lee Cannady, a former mate on an offshore charter on Hatteras Island, fishing alone out of a sit-on-top kayak.
Cannady, who moved recently to Tarboro, chatted with the Duprees, who he didn't know. He had been dropped off upstream by his wife.
Dupree Jr. was curious to know how far Cannady planned to go before darkness set in.
"I really don't know," Cannady said. "I looked at it on Google Maps."
Cannady figured it was maybe a couple of miles down to where he was taking out.
"You're about seven miles from the bridge," Dupree Jr. said.
"Oh, I'm going to leave then," Cannady replied quickly, saying farewell and reeling in his last cast before untying his boat from an overhanging bush and muscling down the Tar.
We had the spot to ourselves, and the father-and-son duo picked off several shad, which tested their light fishing tackle with a bit of saltwater spunk.
With a little light left under a softly pink, overcast sky, I was handed one of the rods, and I casted to the bank and retrieved steadily. I missed the first strike.
When Dupree Jr. hooked into one, I agreed to take the rod, just so I would know how a hickory shad tug feels like.
But soon, as the Duprees had done earlier, we started picking off shad frequently, as a wave of fish seemed to move in. It took a few bites to get the hang of it, but with a quick flick of the wrist, hooks are easily set when the shad hit.
"They hammer it," Dupree, Jr., said.
More visitors arrived minutes before we headed back for the bridge, with only faint light left from a sun that had long dipped below the horizon.
A couple of fishermen felt inclined to make use of whatever light was left to catch a few shad.
"It's about time to run," Dupree Jr. said.
The night before, the pair didn't get home from fishing until well past 8 p.m. We were only a few minutes ahead of that schedule.
"Your mom was freaking out last night," Dupree Jr. told his son on the ride back as he slowed down the boat to get around a large fallen tree that was in the river.
He knew the river well but was still cautious, especially with the poor visibility.
"I keep thinking we're going to see a kayak around the next bend," Dupree Jr. said.
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