Tag Archives: american river

American River Shad, More fish than Blisters

Attempting to map a large waterway during the brief ten weeks fish are resident is a mighty slow task – especially when doing it solo.

Most of your erstwhile fishing pals don’t care for an “oversized Herring”, and would rather do chores than help in your quest to learn a river. In most cases you’re at the mercy of the locals, often friends of friends and coworkers, who rattle off all the river accesses where they drank themselves silly during High School, and then relay gossip about the places mentioned by the neighborhood kid who fishes – and where he said to go.

I then dutifully follow up each lead, sometimes finding a nice stretch of Shad water – sometimes it’s something too swift or too deep, and only suitable for fellows tossing gear. That nuance in tackle is never possible from helpful bystanders, given they have seen fish caught but don’t understand any of the physics involved.

Many of the holes simply aren’t productive for fly fisherman, the river can be a bit too fast and you can’t get to the fish, or you can’t separate far enough from the bank to avoid the broom trees in your back cast, or worse, the crush of “friendlies”; pets and small children, means you have to keep your head on a swivel.

As half of Shad season is gone, and I’ve spent most of it wandering bike paths looking for river access, one eye cocked for speeding cyclists intent on impaling themselves on my rod, and the other mindful of the river and the occasional homeless campsite, I was actually exploring plenty and fishing very little.

… not quite the balance I had in mind. The solution was obvious – drop a little cash for a guided trip with an eye towards knowledge transfer, someone to point out all the holes and parking areas of the remaining section of river I’d not seen.

Having been a guide myself and knowing I can tailor the excursion towards knowledge versus fishing, I knew it would prove invaluable as regards the fish, their favorite holes, how to access them safely via wading, and where were the closest access points.

The notion of doing so while reclining on the silken pillows of  “Cleopatra’s barge” while sipping chilled Gatorade and nibbling room temperature Granola bars – being the rest of the attraction. I’m never sure how many oiled Nubian oarsmen it takes to propel a McKenzie river drift boat, but I was aiming to find out.


The granola bars were room temperature but their were damn few Nubians, just one good natured fellow oiled with a mixture of bug juice and sunscreen. This is Andy Guibord of Kiene’s fly shop in Sacramento, widely thought to be one of the best shad guides in the watershed.

As I had fished at Nimbus Dam, the access known as Sailor Bar, and had fished a lot of the middle stretches of the river as they ran through the suburb of Rancho Cordova, Andy drifted me from Sailor Bar down to Sunrise Ave, a couple miles of what’s considered the  “upper” river.

I figured to be a “low maintenance” client, given how I wouldn’t need to be taught how to cast prior to fishing, my only concern was not getting clever and imbedding a “bead chain special” in his forehead. I think we both feeling each other out until I made that first cast – then it was a steady patter of “lay a cast in at six-o’clock”, “again”, “now one at twelve o’clock.”

We tried striped bass in the upper reaches of Sailor Bar, I managed to land four schoolies in the  14” range, before sliding down through the holes at Upper Sunrise and coming face to face with my implacable foe, the American Shad.


The rig we used was new to me. All of the same brightly colored hues were displayed in the top fly,  including the time tested favorites in red, orange, and pink. What was new was  Andy added a second smaller Olive Caddis Pupa #12, as a trailer.

Shad flies have been getting smaller for several decades,  the most common sizes these days is a standard length #8.  Adding the smaller #12 was explained to me as the fish get more selective as the run progresses, the smaller fly being insurance as it swings through the school – presenting both radiant and somber to the fish, allowing them to be finicky or no …

I landed a couple dozen fish that evening and all but one ate the Olive Caddis.

That bit of wisdom was worth the entire trip, as I would use this same rig in the weeks following and it proved just as deadly when wading.  After that first outing I had a couple dozen “somber” caddis in my Shad box, and quickly handed out most to the fellows around me.

As I’m equipped with a half dozen new holes to explore and as many parking areas, the remainder of Shad season is proving far more fruitful. I’m fishing most of the morning and exploring only a bit, which is yielding far more fish than blisters.


… and this is why I find this game fish so absolutely compelling. It’s the only fish  you can see Dawn or Sunset painted on its side.

I wasn’t the only turkey in the parking lot, just the most photogenic

american_turkey300Once fully immersed I remembered how I’d sworn to replace my neoprene waders last season.

The tiny holes I’d been unable to track down being the causal agent. That irritating hole right in the billfold area that ensured your wallet and its contents were soaked, the right foot seam that had decayed to instability and was now dampening my sock, and the mid calf fabric leak that ensured everything between wallet and sock was similarly cooled.

Those being “character” leaks, bearable yet adding just enough suffering as to be retold at the campfire each evening, and ensures the patched and weathered exterior of now-porous waders continues to grant “parking lot cred”, that which separates the seasoned angler from the novice …

… yet, it was the Unforgivable Leak that had sprung last season that had sealed this pair’s fate … that mid groin hole that soaks the crotch and extends down the left leg, ensuring you are unfit for public exhibition.

Having skipped the Trout Opener in favor of working, and this being the first wader-clad scout of the year, I was prepared to work the kinks out of my gear, my cast, and my physique, but had forgotten the all-important Vow of Newness from the prior season.

Muscle memory neatly draped the running line over the fingers of the left hand, the shooting head sang out of the guides with only two roll casts and a single back cast, and what little rust that accumulated from seven months of enforced Shad idleness was quickly dispelled. I was feeling the kind of optimism that only a new fish and a new season can bring – unseemingly effervescent yet rooted to Earth by the spreading chill in my pants leg.

My optimism rewarded by the sudden tightening of the line on the swing, and the rod dipped abruptly and reel started its siren’s wail I figured this might be one of those rare nexuses of good fortune I’d alluded to with my earlier karma of bruised ribs and torn waders.

The unyielding mass suggested otherwise, however. Rather than dozens of voracious Shad skewered on a single hook – it was the beginning of my “American River Around the World”, wherein the aspiring angler attempts to catch one of each of the sodden clothing categories; Shirt, Pants, Hat, Swim trunks, or Other (unidentifiable).


This trophy was a 39 inch length of Other, possibly of the picnic tablecloth genus. It fought well, yet was not overly acrobatic. I added hat and tee shirt shortly thereafter, but of Shad there were none.

… but Iron Crosses grew everywhere … and as the next swing tightened it snagged something heavy by the arse, and as the reel started giving line it’s telltale screech drew a gaggle of morning dog walkers to the bank to witness my struggle with one of the American River’s Golden Salmon.


“Golden Salmon” being the brown water label for Sacramento Sucker, and this fellow was about seven or eight pounds and most welcome. It was considerably more festive than the earlier struggle with the Tablecloth, and granted enormous “street cred” with the crowd behind.

They couldn’t see the shad fly buried in the fish’s arse that lent it “wings” (the reddish object in the belly shown above).

Naturally, I did my best to explain to the crowd of well wishers that it was both toothy and venomous, and how I’d saved the neighborhood – or at least its pets and small children …

But the best was yet to come …

Now that I’m a cause celebre’ I’m accompanied back to the parking lot by a vigorous crowd, and was stunned that my sedate little parking area had mushroomed into the headquarters for a “family 5K run.”

… which means I have to disrobe in front of a cast of thousands, and my newfound compatriots are suddenly arm’s distant as it appears I’ve peed myself …

I was acrobatic in my flight from the area … much to the giggles of the kiddies.

I am a known whiner and slayer of Rose Bushes

I figure the Fishing Gods ignore whiners even when they’ve paid their earlier dues without complaint. I suppose lucky and unlucky have a minor role, as does Karma, but there must be more than simply the number of times you go fishless that turns their gaze benevolent, rather it’s in the degree of suffering endured and having made amends for being so full of yourself on your last successful foray.

… then again The Gods could simply grow weary of your constant swearing.

I swore my mightiest oath in the face of a pending three day weekend. If by mid morning the fish corpses weren’t piled deeply at my feet, then I’d put that mighty arm to work clearing brush from the backyard, turn that wrist flaccid in the face of a quarter acre of lawn mowing, trimming rose bushes, and the sweaty eternity that is stump removal.

And as each dawn broke I was waist deep in the American throwing heavy and monotone, extra heavy and gaudy, tiny and bright, big and drab, or beaded and eye searing.

… and each noon found me with a pitchfork and a growing pile of organic debris by the curb.

I endured the catcalls from the bankside revelers, stalled traffic from the hordes fleeing civilization, the mounds of sweltering garbage stacked around stuffed trash receptacles, and the stick throwing dog walkers, each intent on exercising “Cujo” – the wet and overtly hostile quadruped ignoring his stick and intent on taking a bite out of my ass.

I managed to land one pair of medium purple thong underwear and a brace of Orange soda, whose misfortune it was to tangle plastic holder with my weighted shad fly.

As I made the lonely walk back to the car each morning I resolved to try it again in a different spot, knowing that eventually my suffering would begat some form of divine intervention …

… which I gratefully used up when that drunk careened out of the ditch and across a couple lanes of traffic attempting to knock me into the center divider. Suddenly it was okay that I hadn’t been bit and my afternoon would be a symphony of pitchforks and dry grass. The welcome boost of acceleration squeezing me between guard rail and  oncoming SUV, just prior to his impacting the rail before caroming back into the ditch from whence he came.

I watched the thick dust cloud from his end over end grow smaller in my rear view, knowing that the Holy Blessed Mother of Acceleration had not failed me in my moment of need, and the matched pair of Orange Soda was the opening benediction of whatever grace was my fate.

I pulled out of the driveway the following morning not sure whether to simply admire the big pile of debris, rub all the aching body parts involved and opt for a donut, instead of making the pilgrimage to the river.

I opted for more piscatorial pummeling, enduring the clammy waders and pin prick hole on the right arse cheek at mid-wallet. Yesterday’s leak now a chill reminder that eventually my luck would meet Karma, and both arrows might eventually point skyward …


… which occurred about 90 seconds after wading in at the new spot, and the initial tangle of chilled Amnesia was undone in time to set hook on a shad intent on surveyor’s tape …

It’s that rare moment when a strip of brightly marked tape fluttering on a surveyor’s stake makes a light bulb flash in the mind of the onlooker, which isn’t genius by any stretch given his propensities for fly tying and hoarding.

… but the shellback on a Czech nymph tied for Shad?

Divine Intervention making anyone look good, no matter how weak of mind, or strained of idea …


This is tied on a blued 3XS (short), 2XS (strong), kirbed hook, giving the impression of a smaller fly but with a bit of extra hooking ability given the offset point. It certainly proved to be effective as even the spin fishermen on the far side started to mutter at my good fortune.

It’ll be their turn next week and I’ll pay for any immediate successes in Spades …


I spent the morning swearing off all forms of tool usage as the blisters they raised interfered with my double haul, especially so given the corpses of “dried grass” accumulated at my feet.

A couple of four pound hens will do that to you.