American Kids take on American Shad at Bonneville Dam
By Gary Lewis
The American shad has a forked tail and a blue-green back with silvery sides and a soft, toothless mouth.
The American kid comes in all shapes, sizes and colors.
Shad feed mainly on microscopic creatures strained through their gill-rakers. In freshwater, they are prone to strike out of aggression or irritation. What better way to irritate them than to bring the kids?
When it's time to take a day off and go fishing, it's hard to think of a fish more willing to play hooky than a shad. And he'll bring a couple of million of his closest friends to the party.
"Shad fishing has got to be the best way I know to help kids catch a boatload of fish," Ed Iman told me at the O'Loughlin Sportsman's Show last March. To prove it, we picked a day in June. And then he stacked the deck against us. He invited Terry O'Loughlin.
Terry has been known to single-handedly put the skunk on some of the best fishing guides in the business. One guide had seen his clients limit-out on salmon every day for four weeks before he took Terry on the water. They went fishless on three straight trips before the guide had enough.
And Iman let O'Loughlin bring bananas. We would pit the fabled Terry O'Loughlin fishing blight and the skunking power of bananas against the combined fishy-ness of five year-old Garrett O'Loughlin, eight year-old Jarrad Acord and 14 year-old Jennifer Lewis. And Iman's secret weapon – chocolate doughnuts.
The most popular shad fishing spot on the Columbia is Bradford Island at Bonneville Dam. Elbow-to-elbow fishing is the norm and there is no limit on the number of shad you can bring home.
We fished downstream, anchored in about five feet of water near Beacon Rock. Iman handed a rod to Jennifer and pointed at the back of the boat. "How much line should I let out?" she asked.
"It doesn't matter. Just get it out there."
Iman's favorite shad rig is unconventional. To reach the fish, which are usually found mid-column in 10 to 15 feet of water, he uses a diving plug, in this case a Worden's Timber Tiger sans hooks, about four feet of leader and a tiny Dick Nite spoon at the business end.
"The Timber Tiger takes the lure down to where the fish are, without all the hassles of dealing with weight," Iman said. He was right about that. Not once did our lines snag up on the Columbia's rocky bottom.
In less than three minutes, the portside rod bounced then bounced again. Jennifer set the hook and put her muscle into it, but the fish threw the hook.
It wasn't long before the starboard rod started to shake, Garrett pried it out of the rod holder and cranked in a three-pound shad to start the day.
After several fish were in the boat, Garrett remembered his appetite. When he reached for the lunch sack, Terry peeled a banana for him.
It has been a long time since I saw a banana on a boat. You just don't bring bananas if you want to catch fish. Some say it's the scent that spooks the fish. Others think the curse runs much deeper. The legend of boats, bananas and bad luck can be traced all the way back to the Polynesians.
Being Scotch/Irish, I guess Terry didn't figure the curse applied to him, or by extension, to us. He handed his son the peeled fruit and applied a liberal coating of banana slime to a wee Dick Nite spoon. We fed the line out into deeper water and waited to see what would happen.
Four minutes later, the rod with the banana-baited spoon shook with a four-pound shad. Garrett cranked it in while Jarrad wielded the net.
When the action slowed, Iman asked for the doughnuts. "There's a direct correlation between chocolate doughnuts and shad," he said. That was good enough for the five year-old. He ripped open the carton, grabbed a fistful of fried fat and handed the box to Jen. That's when the fish hit.
Shad are a relative newcomer to the Northwest, but back East, they're considered a national treasure. Some say that without shad, the Revolutionary War would have been lost. George Washington's Army was rescued by a run of the silvery minnows when the troops were starving at Valley Forge.
The Vietnamese steam them with rice. Others smoke and can the meat. I've fried the roe with butter and bacon and used carcasses for crab bait and fertilizer.
Shad also make good sturgeon food. Cut into strips, you can target keeper-size fish, up to 60 inches. Rigged whole, it is the go-to bait for tackling oversize sturgeon which can reach up to 10 feet long.
Millions of American shad hit the Columbia every year about mid-May and make the spawning run to Bonneville and beyond. The fishing peaks in June and continues into July. For its size, the shad uses current to better advantage than any other fish. And at the surface, he takes to the air and may leap a half-dozen times. Best of all, he's a great adversary to pit against a young angler. A kid, armed with a spinning rod, can put something small and flashy in his way and it's an even bet he's going to grab it.
Want to tip the odds in your favor? I'm not sure about the bananas, but you'd better bring the kids and a box of chocolate doughnuts.