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Above, a real American Shad from Florida's St. John's River. 

Skipjack comes to hand on the Ohio.

Typical Ohio River Skipjack.  Note the family resemblance to the American Shad!

Freshly minted, shining silver!  Does it get better than this?

A School of Skippies; these are destined to tempt big catfish during the warm months.

A beautiful handful of nervous energy!

The McKinley Shad

 

Originally Published in Country Anglin' Outdoor Guide
January/February 2006

By Joe Cornwall

In a letter to John Banister written on April 9, 1778, George Washington said; “No history now extant can furnish an instance of an army’s suffering such uncommon hardships as ours has done… without clothes… without blankets… without shoes… without provisions… marching through the frost and  snow.”  The Revolutionary Army was on its last threads.  Only a miracle could send history reeling off in a direction that would permit a nation where “… all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” 

In part, that miracle arrived in mid April in the form of the seasonal migration of the American Shad. Writing in The Philadelphia Campaign: June 1777 – July 1778, David Marin said; “The meat shortage did not begin to ease up until spring, and was not eliminated until the local shad run on the Shuylkill came as a godsend in April.”
 
To this day, all along the east coast from Maine to Florida, the spawning migration of the American and Hickory shads brings diehard fisherman to cold, windswept shores.  Since colonial times American shad have been valued both for their succulent flesh and delicious roe. From the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, the American shad fishery was the largest fishery in the Chesapeake Bay, with annual catches that exceeded 22,000 metric tons. The fishery has been in decline over the past 75 years, primarily the result of over fishing and habitat degradation in spawning areas.  With such a prominent place in history, it is almost certain that early settlers on the Ohio River found their own riches in the seasonal runs of our local shad, the skipjack herring (Alosa chrysochloris). 
 
Originally a New Englander, I am no stranger to the spring shad runs.  For many years I waited impatiently for first word that the shad were “in”.  Light spinning rods armed with colorful shad darts (a type of bucktail jig) were rigged and ready in the corner of my room from the first warm days March!  My fascination with this fish didn’t diminish when I moved to Ohio.  I’ve made trips to Delaware, Massachusetts and Florida to fish for both Hickory and American shad.  Perhaps I will again, but I’ve found an opportunity right here that is every bit as fast, exciting and productive as the famous east coast fisheries.  And, with few exceptions, it is one of Ohio fishing’s best kept secrets!
 
The skipjack is abundant on the Ohio River.  It migrates up the larger tributaries, but seldom roams very far from the powerful, clear waters of the main river.  As a sport fish, skipjack have a long history.  Dr. James Henshall, Cincinnati icon and author of the Book of the Black Bass, wrote about this fine fish as early as 1888.  Milton Trautman wrote in The Fishes of Ohio; “The species was universally known as the ‘skipjack’ because of its frequent leapings into the air to capture the jumping minnows.  It readily took natural and artificial baits, leaping spectacularly in the air and dashing about with great speed when hooked.  When taken with the aid of a fly rod and light tackle it ranked among the finest of Ohio game fishes.”

The skipjack herring is known regionally as the McKinley Shad, a moniker that was most prominent nearly half a century ago.  This name was used primarily in a region including Pike, Scioto and Hamilton counties in Ohio.  A spring spawner, the skipjack will average 2 to 4 inches in length by August, and may grow as large as 8 inches during its first year.  It is an important forage species as a juvenile, and continues to be a major source of food to large predators such as wipers, striped bass and catfish as an adult.
 
Skipjack are most available to fishermen when they move into the mouths of Ohio River tributaries and in the races below any of the lock and dam systems on the entire Mississippi River basin.  While its population has suffered in some areas (the skipjack is nearly extirpated from Wisconsin), this little silver tarpon is doing quite nicely in the Buckeye state.  In the fall, and again in the spring, regional anglers have wonderful fishing with 100+ fish days not only possible, but common.  And, while the skipjack is well known to serious catfish fanatics as excellent bait and is avidly sought by that group, it is almost unknown to the local fly fishing community.  If you give this silver bullet a try I’m sure you’ll be as flummoxed as I as to why this is so.
 
The skipjack is not just an important fish to monster-hunting flathead addicts and thrill-seeking fly fishers.  Several species of mussels, including the endangered ebony shell (Fusconaia ebena) and elephant ear (Elliptio crassidens), depend on the skipjack as a host. The mussel larvae cling to the herring's gills until they mature.
 
The skipjack shad is a small fish with typical adults running from 12 to 16-inches in length and weighing from ¾ to 1 ½ pounds.  The IGFA recognized world record is a 3lb 12oz football of metallic energy, and I’m convinced skipjack larger than that are swimming within driving distance of Cincinnati right now.  They are perfectly matched to a light fly rod; a 4 weight is perfect if weather conditions cooperate.  Best of all, they often congregate in areas where the wading is easy and the bottom is firm. 

For whatever reason, neither the IGFA nor the state of Ohio keep fly rod records or state fish records for this exciting game fish.  Further, the skipjack is not protected as a game fish in the state of Ohio.  This, in my opinion, is a major oversight.  While this fish is abundant in our waters now, it is important that we realize the fabulous gift nature had given us to enjoy.  I firmly support the imposition of limits on the skipjack harvest (it's likely no damage is done when taking a dozen for bait, but let's not get greedy).  Beyond this, the skipjack is a delicate fish.  It doesn't survive excessive handling, so a quick catch and release without taking the fish from the water is the best technique for ensuring high release survival rates.
 
Skipjack herring are mostly piscivorous. This means they spend much of their time hunting and feeding on shiners, gizzard shad and other small minnows.  Skippies are most decidedly not fussy in the flies they demand.  Any small streamer will work when they are about.  My personal favorite is a gray-over-white Clouser minnow tied on a size 6 hook with prominent flash included.  Other flies to try include marabou streamers, flashy wooly buggers and 2 to 3-inch long feather wing streamers.  A simple cross current cast with a mend to let the fly sink, followed by a staccato stripping action is all it takes. 
 
The skipjack is a creature of deep and swift flows, it actively avoids muddy water.  In the spring they are known to stack up below river dams.  Skipjack will suspend from just below the surface to several feet deep.  When they do, a slow sinking or intermediate line is the best bet for consistent action.  On rare occasions you’ll find skipjack willing to hit top-water poppers, but my own experience is, while they’ll feed on or near the surface, they strongly prefer a presentation that is subsurface.  Skipjack shad are not leader shy, I often use 8lb or 10lb fluorocarbon in case I hook one of the hybrid striped bass that often accompany schools of marauding skipjack.
 
When skipjack hit they leave little to the imagination.  Your fly line will come tight in a sudden rush and the fish will just keep on moving despite your best efforts to control the game.  They love to jump.  The fight of a skipjack is characterized by strong, fast runs and sudden rushes to the surface.  If you land one out of every six you hook, you’re doing great.  Their flashy acrobatics, combined with a bony mouth and papery jaw, means chemically sharpened light wire hooks are a must.
 
Skipjack are available year-round in the many warm water discharges of the Ohio.  The peak fall season typically starts in mid October and lasts through December.  They will begin to move into the shallows and actively feed again in the spring when the water temperatures rise to the fifties.  The spring spawn sends schools of skipjack into the Great Miami, Little Miami and Scioto rivers, but we may want to keep that a secret.  There’s no sense in inviting a bunch of rabid shad fanatics to line up along our shores when we can keep this amazing fishery to ourselves!  One thing is certain and that is that my rod will remain rigged and ready to go until I hear the word that the shad are “in!”

 

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