YAKIMA, Wash. -- This has been a tough couple of years for the runs of fish on the Columbia River. Spring salmon runs are down. Summer steelhead runs are forecast to be down. Coho runs aren’t looking good. And fall chinook salmon runs are predicted to be way down from a few years ago. The poor returns are being blamed on unfavorable river conditions and weird things happening out in the Pacific Ocean.

Those same conditions don’t seem to be bothering the run of shad that is currently blasting up the Columbia. As of Monday over 1.3 million of the feisty fish had migrated up the fish ladders at Bonneville Dam, and more are on the way. They’re climbing up over the dam by the tens of thousands.

For those of us dam count watchers it is amazing to think of that many fish moving up the river at one time. If they were salmon or steelhead, we would be overjoyed. Most anglers don’t get all that excited about the shad however.

Shad are not the biggest of all the migratory fish in the Columbia. And they certainly can’t compete with salmon or walleye in a “best eating fish” contest. But when you have well over a million fish to fish for, chances are pretty good you are going to catch one or two or twenty.

And, shad are definitely fun to catch. Built like mini-tunas, shad are not very thick, but they are deep. They are basically one big fin. They can slice through the water with incredible speed and when hooked they fight like crazy. They turn their wide, deep body into the river currents, which just adds to their ability to pull line off the reel. They look and act like little tarpon.

A big shad will run 20-inches long and weigh 4-pounds. Most run in the 16-inch range and weigh 2 to 3 pounds. Hooked on a light trout rod, they will put up a battle comparable to a steelhead.

There are several ways to catch a shad. You can fish for them from the river bank, or from a boat. They are known for hitting bright shiny lures, but many are also caught on a shad dart, which is basically little lead-headed jigs painted in red or green or chartreuse.

Anglers line the banks below Bonneville Dam and catch the shad by the bucket full. The secret is to get enough weight on your line, via a slinky or piece of pencil lead, and then let the shad dart drift along just off the bottom of the river where one of the thousands of shad swimming up river will grab it.

There are other spots along the Columbia where a bank angler can catch shad. Any place where the river is not too deep along the shore line and there is enough current to carry the dart downstream in a good drift will work. Spots below The Dalles, John Day and McNary Dams are all favorites of shad anglers.

Fishing from a boat will work too. The secret with boat fishing for shad is to position the boat close enough to the shoreline in water that is 8 to 15 feet deep and hold it there either by anchor or with a trolling motor. Then drop a small brass or nickel spoon such as a Dick Nite, Triple Teazer or a Hildebrandt out into the current with enough weight on it to get it down near the bottom.

Or, as we have done in the past below McNary Dam, another productive technique is to use a diving plug such as a 3.5 Mag Lip and tie a 36-inch leader off the center hook eye. Tie a shad dart on the other end of the leader and you are good to go. The plug takes the dart down where the migrating shad will hit it dancing in the current.

Some boat anglers will also use downriggers to help keep the small lures down where the shad can grab them.

When the shad are running and you are where they are moving upriver, it is not uncommon to catch dozens of the shiny fish in a matter of a couple hours. Because they are so numerous, and some are willing to bite, shad fishing is great for kids. Lots of action and plenty of fight will keep kids interested for a good amount of time.

Because of their bony build, shad have a reputation as being bad table fare. Don’t tell that to the hundreds of anglers working the shoreline down below Bonneville or some of the other spots along the river. Most will happily take their catch, and yours too, if you offer it to them, home to the smoker.

Smoked and canned, shad make an excellent appetizer on crackers with some cheese and your favorite glass of wine or IPA.

There are nearly a million and a half shad swimming up the Columbia River at this very moment. And more are on the way. Whether you want to eat a mess, or just have some fun, right now is the perfect time to get after them.


Rob Phillips is an award-winning freelance outdoor writer who has written the Northwest Sportsman column for over 25 years. He can be reached at rob1@spdandg.com