I’M NOT MUCH of a fish counter, except for when it comes to false albacore—and even then, the action can get so crazy that I forget if I’ve landed four and lost three or vice versa or some equation that only approximates that. And then I forget that I’m trying to keep count in the first place because I’m trying to keep the boat in the fish and they don’t particularly appreciate my efforts. It’s probably just as good that I lose track.

But the shad runs in the mid-Atlantic coastal plain this year have been epic, and shad-fishing Facebook groups have been awash in reports and photos of eye-popping totals. I’ve never seen so many tailgates groaning with hickory shad. Breathless accounts have been flooding in for the last 10 days. One angler claimed his boat had brought 387 hickory shad over the gunwales in a single day.

So, as I launched into the river yesterday, I thought, Maybe I’ll try to count fish today. Just to see. Just for funsies. There’s no real competition here. And then I caught two on two casts while drifting midstream, waiting for my buddy Mike to park the truck and trailer. And we were off to the races.

hickory shad fishing
The 2023 shad run was fast and furious. T. Edward Nickens

Gamefish On

Our first anchor drop was a doozy: We picked up 40 fish in the swirling vortexes of water behind a line of stout boulders. They were big hickory shad 20 inches long, most with roe-swollen bellies that made them look like you’d carved a football out of opal. I landed 25, while Mike had 15. But it wasn’t a contest, just an unscientific poll. I watched an osprey fly overhead with a fish in its talons, lost in the stunning start to the day.

“But you did have that head-start on me, when I was parking the truck,” Mike said. “You should probably factor that in.”

“Oh, that?” I countered. “You know this is not a competition. We’re just counting for fun, right?”

Mike sent another cast across the main river flow, and it was a smooth delivery, with a tight loop—not an easy feat with a fly rod and a 300-grain sinking line. Uh-oh, I thought. I might have poked the wrong bear.  

Next up we anchored in a current seam below a long, easy bend in the river. A stream’s velocity increases on the outside of bends, creating a transition zone between slow water and fast as the water course straightens. It took a couple of anchor sets to hold, but once we were in place, the fish kept coming. Mike and I looked both upstream and down. There were bent rods everywhere.

“Can you imagine how many fish are in this river at one time,” Mike said.

“It must be like those underwater cameras in rivers in the Pacific Northwest,” I replied, “with the fish crammed together like, uh, sardines.”

Mike laughed, then went quiet for a few minutes.

“What you up to?” he asked casually, as if it just occurred to him that we were counting fish.


“What? Are you sure you haven’t jumped ahead one or two?”        

“Whoa! Are you accusing me of cheating?”

I might have overplayed the righteous indignation. To be honest, I might have been one ahead, but it was just as likely that I was one behind. What was clear was that Mike wondered if my fish counting hadn’t been infected by the overall rise in inflation these days.

So I caught another one. As I played the fish, I moved my rod tip a foot over Mike’s ball cap, so the jumping, jerking fly line smacked him around the back of the head a bit.

“That makes 38!” I hollered. “What an amazing day!”

The Big 5-0

And it was, but only partly because of the catch rate. Blue skies and temperatures in the upper 70s had something to do with it. The greening trees along the riverbank helped. I’ll even posit that the mussel shells glittering like confetti on the mud flats—leftovers from a raccoon picnic—helped push the day into red-letter territory. At fish number 49, I figured the river had given me enough. “Alright,” I said. “Once I hit 50, that’s it. Catch any more, and I’m going to start feeling greedy.”

Of course, the fish gods were listening, so I lost three stud shad in a row, the hook pulling free each time after they’d surged and swirled, and two even jumped. I’d already counted them in my head.

Serves me right.

But the last fish I babied to the boat. I slipped the hook out and watched the shad vanish in the water. “Get out there,” I said. I starting reeling in line.

For Mike, it was like calling the game when his team was behind.  He was within a half dozen shy of 50 himself. “Oh, come on,” he said. “I never looked at you as a quitter.”

“OK,“ I replied. “Just one more.” Which, when it comes to fishing, is really the only number I care about.

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