The McKinley Shad
Originally Published in
Country Anglin' Outdoor Guide
By Joe Cornwall
In a letter to John Banister
written on April 9, 1778, George Washington said; “No history now extant can
furnish an instance of an army’s suffering such uncommon hardships as ours
has done… without clothes… without blankets… without shoes… without
provisions… marching through the frost and snow.” The Revolutionary Army
was on its last threads. Only a miracle could send history reeling off in a
direction that would permit a nation where “… all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that
among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
In part, that miracle arrived in mid April in the form of the seasonal
migration of the American Shad. Writing in The Philadelphia Campaign: June
1777 – July 1778, David Marin said; “The meat shortage did not begin to ease
up until spring, and was not eliminated until the local shad run on the
Shuylkill came as a godsend in April.”
To this day, all along the east coast from Maine to Florida, the spawning
migration of the American and Hickory shads brings diehard fisherman to
cold, windswept shores. Since colonial times American shad have been valued
both for their succulent flesh and delicious roe. From the mid-1800s to the
early 1900s, the American shad fishery was the largest fishery in the
Chesapeake Bay, with annual catches that exceeded 22,000 metric tons. The
fishery has been in decline over the past 75 years, primarily the result of
over fishing and habitat degradation in spawning areas. With such a
prominent place in history, it is almost certain that early settlers on the
Ohio River found their own riches in the seasonal runs of our local shad,
the skipjack herring (Alosa chrysochloris).
Originally a New Englander, I am no stranger to the spring shad runs. For
many years I waited impatiently for first word that the shad were “in”.
Light spinning rods armed with colorful shad darts (a type of bucktail jig)
were rigged and ready in the corner of my room from the first warm days
March! My fascination with this fish didn’t diminish when I moved to Ohio.
I’ve made trips to Delaware, Massachusetts and Florida to fish for both
Hickory and American shad. Perhaps I will again, but I’ve found an
opportunity right here that is every bit as fast, exciting and productive as
the famous east coast fisheries. And, with few exceptions, it is one of
Ohio fishing’s best kept secrets!
The skipjack is abundant on the Ohio River. It migrates up the larger
tributaries, but seldom roams very far from the powerful, clear waters of
the main river. As a sport fish, skipjack have a long history. Dr. James
Henshall, Cincinnati icon and author of the Book of the Black Bass, wrote
about this fine fish as early as 1888. Milton Trautman wrote in The Fishes
of Ohio; “The species was universally known as the ‘skipjack’ because of its
frequent leapings into the air to capture the jumping minnows. It readily
took natural and artificial baits, leaping spectacularly in the air and
dashing about with great speed when hooked. When taken with the aid of a
fly rod and light tackle it ranked among the finest of Ohio game fishes.”
The skipjack herring is known regionally as the McKinley
Shad, a moniker that was most prominent nearly half a century ago.
This name was used primarily in a region including Pike, Scioto and Hamilton
counties in Ohio. A spring spawner, the skipjack will average 2 to 4
inches in length by August, and may grow as large as 8 inches during its
first year. It is an important forage species as a juvenile, and
continues to be a major source of food to large predators such as wipers,
striped bass and catfish as an adult.
Skipjack are most available to fishermen when they move into the mouths of
Ohio River tributaries and in the races below any of the lock and dam
systems on the entire Mississippi River basin. While its population has
suffered in some areas (the skipjack is nearly extirpated from Wisconsin),
this little silver tarpon is doing quite nicely in the Buckeye state. In
the fall, and again in the spring, regional anglers have wonderful fishing
with 100+ fish days not only possible, but common. And, while the skipjack
is well known to serious catfish fanatics as excellent bait and is avidly
sought by that group, it is almost unknown to the local fly fishing
community. If you give this silver bullet a try I’m sure you’ll be as
flummoxed as I as to why this is so.
The skipjack is not just an important fish to monster-hunting flathead
addicts and thrill-seeking fly fishers. Several species of mussels,
including the endangered ebony shell (Fusconaia ebena) and elephant
ear (Elliptio crassidens), depend on the skipjack as a host. The
mussel larvae cling to the herring's gills until they mature.
The skipjack shad is a small fish with typical adults running from 12 to
16-inches in length and weighing from ¾ to 1 ½ pounds. The IGFA recognized
world record is a 3lb 12oz football of metallic energy, and I’m convinced
skipjack larger than that are swimming within driving distance of Cincinnati
right now. They are perfectly matched to a light fly rod; a 4 weight is
perfect if weather conditions cooperate. Best of all, they often congregate
in areas where the wading is easy and the bottom is firm.
For whatever reason, neither the IGFA nor the state of
Ohio keep fly rod records or state fish records for this exciting game fish.
Further, the skipjack is not protected as a game fish in the state of Ohio.
This, in my opinion, is a major oversight. While this fish is abundant
in our waters now, it is important that we realize the fabulous gift nature
had given us to enjoy. I firmly support the imposition of limits on
the skipjack harvest (it's likely no damage is done when taking a dozen for
bait, but let's not get greedy). Beyond this, the skipjack is a
delicate fish. It doesn't survive excessive handling, so a quick catch
and release without taking the fish from the water is the best technique for
ensuring high release survival rates.
Skipjack herring are mostly piscivorous. This means they spend much of their
time hunting and feeding on shiners, gizzard shad and other small minnows.
Skippies are most decidedly not fussy in the flies they demand. Any small
streamer will work when they are about. My personal favorite is a
gray-over-white Clouser minnow tied on a size 6 hook with prominent flash
included. Other flies to try include marabou streamers, flashy wooly
buggers and 2 to 3-inch long feather wing streamers. A simple cross current
cast with a mend to let the fly sink, followed by a staccato stripping
action is all it takes.
The skipjack is a creature of deep and swift flows, it actively avoids muddy
water. In the spring they are known to stack up below river dams. Skipjack
will suspend from just below the surface to several feet deep. When they
do, a slow sinking or intermediate line is the best bet for consistent
action. On rare occasions you’ll find skipjack willing to hit top-water
poppers, but my own experience is, while they’ll feed on or near the
surface, they strongly prefer a presentation that is subsurface. Skipjack
shad are not leader shy, I often use 8lb or 10lb fluorocarbon in case I hook
one of the hybrid striped bass that often accompany schools of marauding
When skipjack hit they leave little to the imagination. Your fly line will
come tight in a sudden rush and the fish will just keep on moving despite
your best efforts to control the game. They love to jump. The fight of a
skipjack is characterized by strong, fast runs and sudden rushes to the
surface. If you land one out of every six you hook, you’re doing great.
Their flashy acrobatics, combined with a bony mouth and papery jaw, means
chemically sharpened light wire hooks are a must.
Skipjack are available year-round in the many warm water discharges of the
Ohio. The peak fall season typically starts in mid October and lasts
through December. They will begin to move into the shallows and actively
feed again in the spring when the water temperatures rise to the fifties.
The spring spawn sends schools of skipjack into the Great Miami, Little
Miami and Scioto rivers, but we may want to keep that a secret. There’s no
sense in inviting a bunch of rabid shad fanatics to line up along our shores
when we can keep this amazing fishery to ourselves! One thing is certain
and that is that my rod will remain rigged and ready to go until I hear the
word that the shad are “in!”