NEW BERN — Like so many other days this spring, battleship gray clouds skidded across the sky, driven by a relentless wind. The air temperature was within 10 degrees of freezing, not the perfect weather for fishing. Nevertheless, a handful of anglers plied the backwaters off the Neuse River, hoping to take a final shot at a silvery, migrating fish.
“Everyone dislikes fishing in the cold and wind,” said Capt. Gary Dubiel, who operates Spec Fever Guide Service out of Oriental. “But all of the cold, rainy weather has kept the shad downstream. They should be farther upriver, but they are still right here.”
“Here” is the lower Neuse River, at Pitchkettle Creek, one of the most popular places where anglers catch two species of shad. Dubiel said the initial runs consisted almost entirely of hickory shad.
“We don’t catch nearly as many American shad,” he said. “They always come up the river later, at the end of April, after the hickory shad run tapers off.”
Dubiel cast a tandem rig, consisting of a spoon and a jig with a white plastic curly tailed trailer. He said double hookups sometimes occurred.
“A double hookup with hickory shad or a hickory and an American shad are not uncommon,” he said. “But hooking up two American shad at the same time is rare. When you hook two shad the same time, it is quite a fight.”
American shad are the larger fish and can top 3 pounds, while hickory shad typically weigh 1 to 2 pounds. Both species put up a strong fight when hooked on tackle like the 6 ½-foot spinning rod Dubiel used to cast his rigs beneath the overhanging limbs of cypress trees. He began by using a steady retrieve. However, success did not occur until he started giving a twitch to the rod with every other turn of the reel handle.
“There he is!” he said. “Look at that fish jump. Any fishermen will get excited when he sees that.”
Bennett Wynne is the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s Anadromous Fisheries Coordinator. Anadromous fish are those, such as shad, that return to freshwater to spawn after spending part of their lives in the ocean.
“In the Neuse River, hickory shad have been more abundant,” he said. “Last week, we picked up a few around Goldsboro, along with some American shad.”
A shad migration is a called a “run,” and these runs once heralded spring with such incredible numbers of fish that they are unimaginable today. The strengths of these runs diminished when dams constructed for various purposes blocked access to upstream spawning habitat. Wynne cited the removal of a dam on the Neuse River at Quaker Neck and three dams on the Little River in the late 1990s as one reason for increasing shad numbers.
“I am cautiously optimistic about shad numbers,” he said. “Removing dams is important to both species but more so for American shad because they prefer spawning on the rockier substrate above the fall line,” he said. “Most of the hickory shad population is found from Kinston downstream, where Pitchkettle is the historical place where fishermen catch them. Last year we had strong flows in the river and we saw a good turnout of anglers at Milburnie Dam in Wake County. It is great that we can have a fishery for shad that far inland.”
Different rivers have different ratios of hickory shad to American shad and therefore have different creel limits. Along the Neuse River, the limit is 10 fish, but only one of them can be an American shad. The former bag limit was 10 fish in aggregate for both species.
To supplement the numbers of fish, the Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been stocking shad fry in the river for two years. Fishery managers are hoping this will boost spawning success.
Dubiel described the jumping shad at the end of his line as a “poor man’s tarpon.” After catching several on spinning tackle, he emphasized the point by switching to pint-sized fly-fishing tackle, consisting of a 6-weight rod with a sink tip line.
“Shad are a lot of fun to catch on fly tackle because the strike and the fight are so visual,” he said. “Sometimes, I can see six or seven shad in a school following the fly before one strikes it. The trick is to keep the fly coming, even if the fish misses.”
It wasn’t long before a hickory shad was leaping at the end of the leader, attempting to dislodge the fly. Dubiel landed the fish with a net then grabbed it with fingerless gloves that protected his hands from the sharp belly scales as well as the cold.
After removing the fly, he returned the fish to the water to continue on its run, driven upstream by biological imperative to its home waters to spawn. Rain began to fall, signaling that it was also time for the angler to fire his engine and turn the bow toward home.