The rainy spring had swollen the Cape Fear River to flood level several times, leaving anglers to wonder whether fishing was productive. Rainwater creates runoff that carries sediments from farming and land-clearing operations downriver and muddy water was starkly evident, flowing several feet deep as it cascaded over Lock and Dam No. 1 then down the rock arch rapid built several years ago to help migrating fish swim upstream to spawn.
In the whitewater below the dam and in eddies swirling near the boat-passage lock on west side and exposed boulders on the east side, several boats were at anchor. Anglers inside them were casting small lures. Fishing from a 16-foot Sea Ark aluminum johnboat, two anglers were having better luck than most, reeling in a fish every half-dozen casts.
“I’ve been fishing for shad for five years,” said Chris Phillips, a 41-year-old nuclear distribution worker from Clinton. “I love any kind of fishing so we came last week to check it out. We caught some bass and crappie from the bank and saw anglers in boats catching shad. So we decided to come back to try for shad.”
The shad fishing on the Cape Fear River is some of the best in the state. Two species of the shiny fish occur in the river – hickory shad and American or white shad. American shad are much more abundant here. American shad are typically larger, with a big female full of eggs, sometimes weighing more than 3 pounds, heavy enough to earn a North Carolina Angler Recognition Program Award for an outstanding catch. (Visit www.ncwildlife.org for information on applications for NCARP awards for shad and other freshwater game fish.)
“This is my first time shad fishing,” said Bobby Phillips, a 32-year-old nuclear distribution worker who lives with Chris Phillips, who is his uncle. “I grew up fishing and hunting with my uncle on this river. I always wanted to catch shad, but never had the chance. I was always too busy with other things.”
The anglers were using light spinning rods to cast 1/8-ounce curly-tailed chartreuse crappie jigs. They had anchored their boat in an eddy just outside a pair of red signs on either side of the river warning boaters against getting any closer to the dam. The signs mark the toe of the rock arch rapid, which poses a danger to propellers and boats.
“We haven’t had any trouble with our anchor holding in the current,” Chris Phillips said. “But we have been having trouble with logs and trees. They are stuck in the eddy and keep going, round-and-round. Sometimes you have to push them away.”
The anglers kept casting while keeping a wary eye behind them to prevent one of the huge logs from banging against the boat. They eventually tired of the floating raft of debris, hauled up their anchor and fired up their outboard motor to maneuver downriver.
Many anglers eat buck shad and roe shad, preparing the meat and cooking it by several methods. However, some anglers do not eat the meat, which is full of small, hard-to-remove Y-bones, instead saving the meat for catfish bait or other purposes. After scaling the fish and gutting them, shad aficionados bake shad whole or cut them into steaks about 1/4-inch thick across the body through the backbone. Baking dissolves the Y-bones. Some dredge the steaks in batter and frying them so they can chew the bones.
“What we like most is eating the roe,” Chris Phillips said. “It is easy to cook. I just mix the roe with hen eggs and scramble it in a frying pan.”
A big female might produce nearly a pound of roe, which occurs in two sacs that stick together during the cleaning process. The spawning run lasts about six weeks, making shad roe a fleeting delicacy.
The creel limit is 10 shad in any combination. The anglers caught 17 fish and lost several more before tiring of watching out for the floating logjam.
“I think we will try another spot for awhile,” Bobby Phillips said. “If we don’t have any luck, we may come back here, later on.”