Several members of the shad and herring family are sometimes caught by anglers. Most recreational fishing for shad and river herring occurs in the spring in freshwater rivers and creeks of the Atlantic Coast.
Shad and herring are anadromous; they spend much of their lives in the Atlantic Ocean or coastal estuaries. In spring, adults make spawning migrations up rivers, creeks and streams. After spawning, adults return to saltwater until the next season.
The largest member of the family is the American shad. These beautifully colored fish are a challenge to land on light tackle. American shad are known for their leaping ability and spectacular runs when hooked.
A smaller species is the Hickory shad, which average around 14-20 inches in length. Strong hickory shad spawning populations exist in several eastern rivers.
Two species of river herring are related to shad, but are smaller in size. Like shad, river herring are difficult to identify and are often found together. Both bluebacks and alewives reach lengths of 10-14 inches in length and weigh about 8-10 ounces.
The blueback herring is found in rivers and creeks throughout New England and the Mid Atlantic. Adult bluebacks spawn in freshwater rivers in late spring, after the alewife has spawned.
The alewife is similar. This herring is grayish or violet above with a silver underbelly. The alewife usually has a distinct dusky spot just behind the upper region of its gill cover. The name alewife refers to the large belly of the fish, which reminded New England fishermen of barmaids or “ale wives”.
Both shad and herring seek out shallow creeks or pools with areas of gravel or hard sandy bottoms. They are associated with flowing water and can sometimes be caught in areas where creeks are restricted and flows accelerate.
Both shad and river herring are caught using shad darts, jigs, spoons, or other small, bright lures. They are also caught with fly fishing gear and flashy fly patterns.