These fish provide no sport and virtually no food value to humans. Still, when knowing anglers hear the words "shad spawn," they start to salivate.
"When you get dialed in, it can get superproductive," says newly crowned Classic Champ Alton Jones, who rode the shad spawn bite to within a dead fish penalty of first place at the Bassmaster event on Lake Guntersville in 2006.
"It's a time when bass are really feeding and you can load the boat," says Tim Chandler, Lake Guntersville guide. "The bait shops can't keep spinnerbaits on the shelf this time of year."
It takes place in southern and central states when the water reaches temperatures in the 60s and low 70s. For bass, the concentration of spawning shad in main lake shallows and on weedy flats makes for an easy early morning meal.
"The shad spawn is a time when fish are starting to gorge themselves for summer," noted ESPN analyst Mark Zona during last year's Southern Challenge on Lake Guntersville, during which shad spawn patterns factored heavily.
"The shad spawn often coincides with the end of the bass spawn. It keeps the bass shallow and extends that shallow water bite a few weeks," says Jones. "It's a great cure for the postspawn bass fishing doldrums."
What are the telltale signs?
"When I start seeing blackbirds hanging around the riprap here at home around the first of May, ... that's the first sign the shad spawn is about to happen," says Elite Series pro Jason Quinn, whose home water is Lake Wylie, S.C.
Alabama district biologist Ken Weathers looks for shad swimming up shallow near deadfalls and other objects.
Gizzard shad roll aggressively in large schools near the surface, spreading milt and eggs over the bottom on rock or vegetation. Threadfin, the smaller and more favored shad species, swim in smaller mixed groups of males and females, often near shallow objects such as logs, brush and stumps. Males may gather in a big ball around one female and roll in a frenzy of activity just below the surface.
All agree the shad spawn bite usually ends early. Late risers need not apply.
"The shad don't get cranked up until after dark," says Jones, who looks for signs of bass blowing up on shad during his morning prowl. "The early morning bite is really some of the leftover of the nocturnal spawning activity."
Quinn makes sure he is on the water two or three hours before daybreak — as early as 3 a.m. when the spawn is on.
"Once the sun is up, they're done."
The early morning bite may be short-lived, but it can be intense.
"It's always the first two or three hours of daylight," agrees Chandler. "But you can get rich quick. It's not uncommon to catch 30 bass in 30 casts when you hit it right."
Shad typically trail spinnerbaits during the shad spawn. Jones speculates that clusters of male shad are attracted to the flashing blade, thinking it is a female shad. It's not unusual to see bunches of threadfin shad following the bait back to the boat.
"Often you'll have a ball of shad around your spinnerbait," says Jones. "Then when the bass comes up behind it, the shad scatter. The bass doesn't really prefer your spinnerbait to the shad. It just appears to be a more vulnerable target. When the shad quit following your lure, that's a pretty good sign it's time to get off the shad spawn pattern and change baits."
Former Elite Series pro Jimmy Mason thinks that many of the perceived phantom hits that anglers experience on spinnerbaits in spring are not strikes at all. "A lot of the short hits this time of year I think often are bass hitting the shad following your bait," says Mason.
Jones' first choice is a 1/2-ounce Booyah spinnerbait with a willowleaf blade. "I'm always throwing a white skirt because a shad is the only thing I'm trying to imitate," he says. "I don't need to add chartreuse or anything else. The underside of a shad is white, and the bass is looking up."
He always opts for a willow blade, believing it to be about the same profile as a threadfin, which, at 2 or 3 inches in length, he calls the "perfect size" baitfish for a bass. His second choice is a Bomber Fat Free Shad, series No. 5 or No. 6, in pearl white.
THE RELOCATION FACTOR
The shad spawn largely coincides with postspawn bass recovery and a gradual shift into summer patterns. Bluegill and sunfish often are spawning at the same time. That means bass have easy meals whether they remain close to the bank or stage on flats.
Jones bases his shad spawn strategies on the type of water he is fishing, dividing his approach into "grass and nongrass strategies."
In grass lakes, the primary zone is the weedline. On Alabama's Lake Guntersville, for example, bass may position themselves on the edges of hydrilla or milfoil, where grass meets open water.
On nongrass lakes, shad prefer clay, hanging limbs or riprap, particularly around bridges crossing portions of the lake.
Often overlooked are boat docks where threadfin may congregate to spawn.
"Shad will spawn on the styrofoam of a floating dock," says Matt Reed, Elite Series angler from Madisonville, Texas. "Work the bait suspended — a spinnerbait or Booyah Boogee Bait works well — just below the line of sight, right up against the side of the dock, as close to the foam as possible. This is a pattern you can take across the country. You are fishing suspended fish but they are easy to catch because they are relating to something — the edge of the boat dock."
Some of the biggest bass in the lake may be found around the black plastic on foam docks and big marinas, agrees Quinn, whose favorite baits at this time are a 1/2-ounce tandem Terminator spinnerbait with No. 3 or No. 4 willow blades and a Rapala Skitter Walk. "If you don't have much rock, the black plastic is especially attractive. The shad will beat circles around it on main lake docks."
Though near-shore and deeper flat patterns may both prove productive, some pros believe the chances of hitting the mother lode are better when they pursue bass on flats closer to the main river channel. As a pelagic (open water) species, shad will be moving toward open water after they spawn. If the lake has a strong shad population, a large portion of the bass population also will be moving back toward the deep weed edges and ledges they will occupy through the summer period. Areas holding recovering bass on grassy flats also are likely to "reload" with fresh comers as more and more bass migrate to their summer homes.
TIME FOR ADJUSTMENT
On grass lakes, the bread-and-butter offering during the shad spawn is a spinnerbait rolled through the vegetation. But missed hits are common at this time of year, and, at times, the bite can be frustrating. Short hits and faint taps are common, particularly as a rising sun comes into play.
Kevin VanDam, who enjoys nothing better than a good spinnerbait bite, trimmed his spinnerbait skirts back during his win at the Southern Challenge last season, but was still plagued with short hits — "lots of them!"
When his shortened skirts didn't satisfy, he downsized his Strike King spinnerbaits, a move that paid off.
Jones also pays close attention to the size of the shad following his lure, making frequent adjustments if necessary to match the size of his bait to the size of the shad. "Anytime I feel my bait is not quite mimicking the shad, I will make a change," he says. "Add a little more realism."
When fishing vegetation, Jones also adjusts his retrieve to keep his bait in contact with the tips of the growth. If he's not contacting the plants, he lets his bait fall and slows his retrieve.
To target larger bass during the shad spawn, Guido Hibdon secures a fluke tail on his spinnerbait after cutting 1 to 2 inches off the bait and tapering the head. The bait is particularly effective when bass are chasing larger gizzard shad. "I want 2 inches of the tail sticking out past the skirt," says Hibdon, who anticipates the shad spawn in late April and sometimes through the month of May in his home waters in Missouri. "The larger lure eliminates a lot of bites, but those you get will be the right bites. As soon as you get a limit, tie on one of these.
It will definitely get you a bigger fish."
SHORELINE BUZZ CUT
As far as Alton Jones is concerned, the shad spawn is also the "best time of the year for a buzzbait" on lakes with little or no vegetation.
His buzzbait of choice is a 3/8-ounce Booyah Buzz, which tends to run slightly left during the retrieve — a tendency Jones uses to his advantage when fishing parallel and tight to shore.
"Most single blade buzzbaits run either left or right," he says. "Mine drifts left. I want it to tick the rocks of the riprap. I also like to hear the bait squeak. I'll adjust the blade shaft and rivet to make it chirp. I mean I really want it to chirp! I'll flatten the rivet to increase the friction between the bottom blade and rivet, and maybe bend the blade slightly, too."
The 3/8-ounce model also rides high even with a slower retrieve.
"It's amazing what kind of action you can get into in those first hours of daylight."
SHADES OF SHAD
Both gizzard and threadfin shad thrive in fertile water, rich in plankton. Threadfin shad are "filter feeders," capturing and converting both zooplankton and phytoplankton.
Gizzard shad feed principally on plant material and organic debris, which they grind in the stomach and intestine.
The spawning period of gizzard and threadfin shad may extend from springtime into late summer. Threadfin may spawn more than once during the season. But it's the peak springtime shad spawn — usually spread over a four- to six-week period when water temperatures range from 68 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit that gets bass anglers feverish.
The shad spawn may begin as early as March in smaller off-colored waters in the South. By mid-April, the bite is in full swing in northern Alabama. Further north in the shad's geographical range, the shad spawn bite may run into June.