Jun 2, 2014

Tiny Tarpon of the North

Fishing for American shad in the Bonneville Dam tailrace has been on my to-do list for at least five or six years. However, I'm always so busy in the spring with field work that I haven't had the chance to do it... until now.
A couple weekends ago the stars aligned and my wife and I both had almost (almost...) two full days off work! So we quickly threw our kids, dogs, and camping stuff into the car and headed down the river!
We crossed the Bridge of the Gods and pulled into the town of North Bonneville and began the search for a free campsite. We ended up by some lake that surely had fish in it, but I had shad on the brain, so I didn't try it. I got the camp set up in the rain and got everybody squared away in the tent, then with a couple hours of daylight left, I headed down to the river. 

There were one or two other people there as well (insert sarcastic eye roll here).
Ya, it's a popular fishing spot... Photo credit goes to this site.
Shad are a little different than other fish. They are anadromous like salmon, growing to adulthood in the ocean then swimming up rivers to spawn; so they're not really looking to eat when they're in the river; they've got other things on their minds. Also, they eat plankton for a living so you can't just toss a worm out there and catch one. The gear of choice for these fish was a 1/2 to 1 oz. weight followed by about a 30 inch leader, then a bare jig. Don't ask me why it works, but it does. It was super simple fishing - cast out, let it sink a little, then reel in slowly. Oh, and hang on!
Bonneville American Shad
The first of many shad!
American Shad
American Shad
This one had on too much eye shadow.
The next morning it wasn't raining, so I pulled my little mini-me out of bed at 4:30 and we hit the river again. The fishing was no where near as good as the night before, but I still managed to get her a fish. She battled the hard-fighting fish like a champ!
I like this kid! Four AM sleepy-eyes, pop-tart grin, and all!
The whole point of this random camping trip was to go on a hike and find a waterfall (shad fishing was just a convenient bonus... and that's my story. And I'm sticking to it). We sort of succeeded with the waterfall thing. The second half of the trail (a creek at the bottom of a canyon...) was a little much for the girls, so I took pictures of the waterfall for them.
Oneonta Falls
Oneonta Falls. Don't ask me how to pronounce that...
My three favorite ladies!
The best family trips end like this!

BUT WAIT! There's more! 
The following Saturday, lightning struck twice and I found myself with another Saturday off work so I headed down there again! Just a day trip this time though. They open the fishing access point at 05:00 and if you're not there on time or earlier, you probably won't get a fishing spot. It's a 3.5 hour drive from my house, soooo... I had to leave my house at a very painful 1:30 to make it there on time (I'm not sure if that counts as early in the morning or late the night before...). But I did it and it was worth it! I caught tons more shad and made some new friends.
I was standing next to an elderly Korean man who guffawed in protest when I released my first two shad of the day (I'm a catch and release guy so I wasn't planning on keeping any). He spoke no english, but I managed to ask him via sign language if he wanted my fish. He did. So for the rest of the morning he happily netted, unhooked, and took my fish. It was a good deal for the both of us! (Note: these fish are not native here, but are VERY prolific, so I didn't feel bad about harvesting them. That day almost 100,000 shad were counted passing the Bonneville Dam fish ladders, and that's not even a particularly good day!)
Late in the morning I hooked a fish that was definitely not a shad. Whatever it was didn't seem too concerned at first about the little bit of pressure my light action rod was putting on it. However, after a few minutes, it began to care... It shot off downstream and I knew I'd have to chase it. That might not sound like too big of a deal until you remember now many people were standing shoulder to shoulder allong the entire bank. I had to scramble downstream about 300 yards, durring which time I passed AT LEAST two or three hundred shad fishermen who were still fishing... Luckily my Korean friend was awesome enough to follow me with my net the whole way. He was my untangler. We had to untangle about a dozen lines from mine as we made our way downstream. Somehow, my line didn't break, my light-wire hook didn't straighten, and all the tangles were dealt with and we managed to slip the beautiful spring Chinook salmon into the net! This was not a huge salmon, probably 12 lbs or so, but it was by far the most challenging fish I've ever landed!
Spring Chinook Salmon
Probably more luck than skill was used to land this fish!
My friend was really confused when I quickly put the fish back in the water after the picture and began to release it. I didn't know the Korean word for adipose fin, so I tried to sign to him my reasons for letting this beautiful creature go. I think he finally understood, and the fish kicked away to do his business. I'm left with a picture and some awesome memories - much better than a couple fillets if you ask me!


  1. That looks like it was an couple awesome trips! How cool is that salmon to top things off. Glad you took the time to share. Do shad taste good?

  2. Thanks!
    One guy said they're good smoked and canned (they end up like kippered herring), another guy said (through a thick accent) that he just salts them for a few days then eats them, but everybody agreed that they're super bony. It sounded dicy so I didn't try it. I did discover that they make wicked awesome catfish bait though! More on that soon...