The shad kill often produces some of the best fishing of the year for those who are prepared.
Many people are not even aware of this phenomena nor of the great fishing it provides. Before learning how to fish the shad kill, it is important to understand what a shad kill is.
Most fishermen know what shad are. As an important forage species, shad provide protein-filled meals for larger fish. There are several different species that most fisherman just lump into the category of shad. However, it should be recognized that each species varies in size.
This is important when you are considering appropriate lures, flies or baits to match the shad in your waters. On average, most shad in these shad kill scenarios are in the two- to three-inch range.
The most important parts of this equation are locating and timing the shad kill.
The location is below any reservoir that is created by a hydroelectric dam that has shad in the lake above the dam but preferably a bottom draw reservoir. Bottom draw means the generators in the dam take water from deep in the lake.
Most lakes were originally stocked with shad to provide forage for larger game fish like bass, stripers, walleye, and trout. The actual shad kill generally occurs when surface water temperatures in lakes drop into the low ’40s. Shad do not tolerate cold temperatures very well and either go into shock or head deeper looking for warmer water, either of which is good for fishermen.
When the shad head deeper, they risk being pulled into the current from the generators at the dam and swept through into the river below. Usually the fish become disoriented, stunned, or even outright killed by this process. The result is lots of helpless shad floating downstream on the tailwater below the lake. Any and all fish living in the tailwater will begin feeding on these dead and dying shad.
During a large shad kill, dead shad may be found many miles downstream of the lake they used to call home. The largest predatory fish in the river will be eating the shad which is why you should be out there fishing during the shad kill.
With the recent cold weather in the eastern United States, shad kills are likely across the Southeast and into the mid-South. From the famed trout tailwaters in Arkansas like the White River, to the Tennessee River tailwaters, to the Cumberland River in Kentucky, this is one of the best times to catch a trophy.
On rivers like the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, Tennessee below Chickamauga dam, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, stripers, white bass, hybrids, and many other species will be feasting on the bonanza. Food can be harder to find in the cold months so the fish eat with the urgency that comes from not knowing where the next meal will come from.
To fish the shad kill, you want to match the natural shad that are in the water. If you prefer to use live bait, during a good shad kill you can just lean over the side of your boat and scoop up bait as you need it. Soft plastic shad imitations are especially effective during the shad kill. You will need to experiment with how much weight to use because sometimes the fish will want them floating on or near the surface, while other times they will only eat lures or imitations fished very deep.
If you are fly fishing, you can fish basic white Wooly Buggers, Clouser Minnows, and other patterns that are designed specifically to match the shad hatch. You should be prepared with both floating and sinking lines for different scenarios you may find on the water and preferably floating and sinking versions of your flies.
Regardless of whether you are spin or bait casting or fly fishing, remember that the natural shad are mostly just floating helplessly downstream. Sometimes they might be twitching or even trying to swim a bit, but for the most part you will want to achieve a dead drift. Try to get your lure, bait or fly drifting naturally at the same speed as the current to have the best luck. Cast upstream into the current and then bounce the lure or bait with your rod tip just enough to keep it moving downstream and off the bottom if you have a lot of weight on. The action imparted with your rod tip will imitate the twitches that the natural shad often have.
During a shad kill, you may run into the problem of fish gorging too much on the abundant food. If this happens, try moving downstream away from the dam. Eventually you will get far enough downstream that the fish have not see enough shad yet to get full.
Finally, if you do not live near a tailwater that has a good shad kill, you might want to consider traveling to somewhere that does. The shad kill is that good. If you hit it right, you may have the best fishing of your life.