NCC-TU Presents

The 2021

Shad Report

No. 7

Back on Track

May 8, 2021

On April 26, the day our last report was released, the Potomac water temperature finally climbed back to sixty degrees. Over the next few days American shad fishing began to meet our expectations for late April. The fish had waited long enough for ideal spawning conditions and eagerly resumed their Potomac ritual. We will see if recent rains and predicted cool weather keep shad, and shad anglers, around for another few weeks.

Fishing had been fine since the restart except for a lull last weekend when extremely low Potomac flow made finding fish difficult. Then, murky water from the upper watershed arrived here on Thursday without much notice. The river level remains quite manageable and those amazing hickory shad are still nailing your darts if they can find them. Having larger eyes than their American shad cousins helps hickory shad see better when turbidity is high. This presumption has been backed up convincingly since the river greeted us with its new look. The water got even browner today so it's time to pull out the black darts. That’s what John Kuriawa did on Friday morning and it worked for three American shad, too. Try anything in your box with with high contrast such as the old favorite, orange and black. The river has crested at the Little Falls gauge and conditions will improve soon. Be sure to check out the turbidity graph from time to time, shown below.


Before water conditions declined, good shad catches from shore were reported from the Gordon’s Rock area. American shad moved in close while the river was rising on Wednesday and were landed by several anglers. This should keep up for as long as the Potomac maintains strong flow. However, hickory shad are still the dominant force at Gordon’s. After eight weeks they seem unwilling to leave town, but we’re not hearing any complaints about these houseguests. Jim Malone, a Boathouse season pass holder, is a fixture in that section of the river and usually anchors his rowboat on the seam a little further upstream near Sunken Island. On Wednesday he was very pleased to find a rejuvenated bite and told me his hickory shad  count for the season has now reached one thousand. The most amazing aspect of this milestone is how utterly believable it is.


Lois Boland, aka the “shad queen,” is another person we see every day and no stranger to readers here. We finally have a good picture of her (above) after a few mishaps while posing with shad this season. The former patent attorney is very approachable so strike up a conversation with her to get the latest news. The pictured American shad roe was caught on April 29 not far from the dock. Note the missing scales (they’re deciduous) and reduced bulge in the belly, signs of spawning activity. Many more spent or partially spent fish were observed around this time, causing some concern about a quick end to the American shad run. Not to worry, most of the shad caught from boats this week were pre-spawn fish taken from schools that are keeping busy in the currents until the time is right. Here’s an example below in a beautiful photo recently posted on Instagram by Chris Campo. Note the still clear water.


Looking back to the great fishing last week, Wednesday, April 28 was special. Chris Wood and Chuck Dinkel arrived at dawn as planned and headed straight downstream to the Walker’s Point area where just the day before Wood had slaughtered American shad on the fly. This time the tide wasn’t right and a short text exchange prompted Wood and Dinkel to row back upstream and set up near my boat. There’s no time to waste when the bite is on, so I will confess to barking out anchoring instructions when the two arrived. It didn’t take long for Wood to connect (photo below), while Dinkel endured a period of adjustment.


Chris Wood needs no introduction but let me tell you about the TU royalty next to him. Chuck Dinkel and the late Jim Greene were Potomac Patuxent Chapter pioneers in the Trout In The Classroom (TIC) program where they developed a strong friendship. Over the years, thousands of children have learned about the life cycle of trout, the nature of cold water environments and the joy of the outdoors from Dinkel and Greene. Dinkel continues on the mission and has recently written books on aquatic macroinvertebrates and the nitrogen cycle in trout tanks aimed at 4th-9th graders. His guidance will also help bring a thrill to young children visiting the Glen Echo Aquarium’s new trout tank when the facility soon re-opens. TIC enters its busy season now with a month-long string of trout releases. Dinkel expects his wife to soon comment on the back of his van — it always looks like a stocking truck in May.


Karma is a beautiful thing: Dinkel’s visit that day at Fletcher’s Cove turned out to be thoroughly enjoyable. When the bite slowed, we gave Wood a lift back to the dock while Dinkel stayed for the long haul to pull in more hickories, at the very least. The bend in his fly rod and look on his face while we were still within shouting distance said this next fish was different. We rowed back to get a snapshot of the very stubborn American shad, not knowing it would take a team team effort to land the fish (photo above). Many more would come for Dinkel in the heat of the day after the tide turned. This is what he wrote in an email that night: “Here's an estimate of today's fishing: 10-12 Americans; 15 plus hickories; 1 small mouth bass - that was a surprise; and countless white perch. I didn't include hooking the guide - sorry about that. I finally called it a day around 1:30 when my hand began to cramp up from pulling in fish. I'd guess that it took me 10 minutes to get one of the Americans to the net. Every time I thought the fish was about to come in, it would make another run. Having Mark's net was a God-send. All told my best day ever fishing shad."

This is a good time to offer the photograph below. I recently hooked a spent roe shad and thought it would be helpful to share a picture of its condition. I prefer not to take shad out of the water, so I attempted a one-handed shot while still fighting the fish. The incredibly clear water at the time would make this possible. Well, it didn’t work, but instead I found an image in my photo library which, after cropping, demonstrated the tireless pull of an American shad and its reluctance to surface. That’s what Dinkel was contending with for those ten minutes.


John Kuriawa, the speaker at our well received virtual Shad Night in February, was also on the river that Wednesday afternoon enjoying the preferred outgoing tide near Walker’s Point. He sent a text while I was running the Boathouse shop that declared a hot bite and began with “Shhh.” He was joking, of course, but I cried a little. The haul of both shad species to his Fletcher’s rowboat would make your head spin. It prompted a fly angler in chest waders to do the unthinkable: He waded along a dangerous and circuitous route from shore to a boulder exposed by low tide some forty feet out, wasted the remainder of the tide cycle doing it, and still couldn’t reach the seam from his tenuous perch. Kuriawa later remarked on the many finned followers behind the American shad he caught, an experience shared by other anglers all week long. These are almost always opportunistic gizzard shad scooping up eggs released in the fight. That’s what I saw on the water and in a video sent to us by Tom Akins. Kuriawa insists that many eager, or confused, American bucks were also in the mix, perhaps engaged in impromptu foreplay.

Our old friend, retired fisheries biologist Jim Cummins, has once again helped harvest American shad for the Shad in Schools program organized by the Anacostia Watershed Society. He says it’s his final year running the net but let’s wait and see. Microscopic lenses and online videos will connect the students with the emerging fry this year. Sandy Burk joined Cummins last Sunday for the second of two outings south of the District near the mouth of Dogue Creek. She reported a large haul in the gill net after just one drift. Thanks to warming water temperatures during the prior week, many of the roes were finally ripe and ready to strip. There were also plenty of “green” fish not ready for prime time. As I understand it, shad must spawn in waves over the full course of the run in order to better the odds for the survival of their offspring. Just consider that hickory shad are still going strong near Fletcher’s Cove since mid-March.


There wasn’t much to celebrate on May Day at Fletcher’s Cove. Persistent strong winds out of the north combined with river flow well below normal to nearly shut down the Boathouse. The view in the photo above greeted Alex Binsted soon after he opened up at 6:00. The Friday windstorm had pushed the receding tide to a level well below that of the Cove by Saturday morning. Water entering from the C&O Canal spillway and Maddox Branch supplied the basin at the far end of the dock before plunging through the narrow cut to the river. Binsted says “the Cove is non-tidal” when this happens, an apt description of the condition tinged with appropriate frustration. The earliest arriving anglers barely made it out to the river by riding the whitewater. Returning a rowboat during the evening tide cycle proved to be impossible.

The dire condition of the Cove caught some new attention last week in a story reported by local Fox5 News. In the video​, the newly installed leader of Friends of Fletcher’s Cove (FFC), Rob Catalanotto, does a great job explaining the problem and the consequences of inaction. The judicious use of supporting material from the FFC website enhances the piece. As a bonus, you can watch me battle a pesky white perch while delivering a few lines in support of the cause.


Potomac shad fishing at Fletcher’s is also receiving media attention, now available online by subscription, from a far more interesting source with an international reach. I had the pleasure of meeting and conversing with James Astill of The Economist magazine this season, helping in any way I could with research for an article he just posted about our shad run. Astill and his three young sons have only recently discovered our great springtime fishing after coming over from the UK five years ago. Much of Astill’s experience with the fish and people who fish came from observing and joining the goings-on along the Gordon’s Rock shoreline over the past many weeks, but he wanted more. Of course, I spoke of our long NCC-TU interest in the run and directed him to Jim Cummins and the Shad Run documentary for information about the American shad restoration. When Astill asked me quite directly for the best person to guide him from a rowboat with spinning tackle, I turned him over to my oldest son Alex Binsted. Without a doubt, Alex is an expert. What’s more, he’s the first Boathouse manager not named Fletcher to understand the river so completely.

The brief outing on Saturday afternoon went extremely well as my youngest son Keith and I watched within earshot. The group managed five American shad where others failed during that day’s second round of extremely low tide and altered current. Ten-year-old Tommy Astill caught his first and also witnessed some memorable drama. A large fish slammed a set-line and took Binsted upriver in strong current before retreating, holding deep, and finally sprinting toward shallow water on the other side. Then it shook the hook and the game was over. This was behavior consistent with very large roe shad and Binsted is certain it wasn’t a striper or catfish. Meanwhile, Keith and I were put to shame, catching only several herring and one hickory shad.

So it was with great trepidation that I guided Astill and his oldest son Francis, age twelve, on Monday evening after work. This time he wanted to see it done with a fly rod. Cloud cover had been welcome that day but now it was a threat to the remaining twilight as we shoved off from the dock. The Potomac was serene, with nothing but our craft disturbing the patterns of current and reflection. A particularly majestic bald eagle glided near and dropped effortlessly to pluck a wounded fish off the surface before retreating to the Virginia side. Spectacular, all well and good, but I needed one American shad. Fortunately, that fish came after just a few casts and several more followed, mostly the larger and stronger females we seek. A perfect conclusion was within grasp when Francis’s light spinning rod doubled over. I was elated, just as I was with my own young sons many years ago. Suddenly, the line snapped, and disappointment settled in with the darkness. The last several minutes were devoted to getting Francis back on another shad. You know the rest; that’s not how these stories end.

Mark Binsted


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