Even with a relatively mild winter this year there were enough chilly mornings to make the combination of recent warm temperatures and the burst of color from Bartlett Pears a welcome sign of spring. Spring means different things to different people here in the Fredericksburg area, but there's one crowd keeping an eye on dogwood buds and blossoms that is not your typical backyard gardeners or high end horticulturalists; they are fishermen. What do dogwoods have in common with fishing? Only one of the best spring traditions on the Rappahannock: The Shad Run!
Shad are the migratory fish returning to spawn each spring as they swim up the Rappahannock as they have for thousands of years. Following nature's clock and an instinctive drive to swim upstream and lay thousands of eggs for future generations, a myriad of fish seem to converge on the Rappahannock from Old Mill Park to the I-95 bridge in late March/early April...just about the same time we start to see the beautiful pink and white dogwood blossoms. The combination of quantity and the aggressive nature of these migratory "munchers" makes for a great opportunity to introduce fishing to younger anglers who might otherwise become bored or tired waiting for a cork to bob or a line to pull tight. When the shad run is on, your youngsters are more likely to grow tired of 'catching' than of 'waiting' for a nibble; and for a relatively small fish, they put up an exciting fight! One rule I like to encourage is when the line goes tight and your child feels that tug, they have to yell "FISH ON!!!" at the top of their lungs. You will be amazed by the smiles!
While you may see some anglers with expensive fly rods and accessories, shad fishing really does not require any fancy gear. A standard rod and reel combo (spincasters by Zebco or Shakespeare are inexpensive and generally easy for kids) and small lures called "shad darts" are all you need. Local stores like Ken's Bait and Tackle or Gander Mountain have both the gear and helpful staff to make sure you get what you need for a fun day from the bank, a mid-stream rock, or wading (once the water warms up.) Shad fishing is "catch and release," so you will also be introducing conservation to your children, as well.
Of course any activities near the Rappahannock require a watchful eye and a sense of caution. Swift currents can be dangerous, especially quickly rising water levels following spring storms. However, with a healthy respect for the river, a sense of awe about nature's migratory magic, and a chance to spend some quality time with your kids introducing a tradition as old as the Rappahannock itself, you will find yourself looking twice each spring for Bartlett Pears and dogwood buds just knowing the shad run is not far behind. Take the time to give the shad run a try. Do not let this chance with your kids be "the one that got away!"
Dave is a Stafford dad of 2 boys