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The James River Shad Run, It’s a Thing

A fisherman on the back of a boat looking down the river.

FEB 26, 2024 | BY TIM HOMA

The shad run on the James River in Richmond, VA, is a thing. Denier turned believer, I'm here to say it is a unique angling experience. 

Dictated by the water temperature, but usually starting in March, American and hickory shad make their way from the Chesapeake Bay up the James River to spawn. The Richmond portion of the James presents an ideal habitat for shad to spawn, thanks to the rocky bottom, various ledges, and boulders that intercept the river's current flow. It also provides easy access for anglers in the area to get in on the action via bank fishing, kayaking, or boating. 

Known as "America's Founding Fish," love for these anadromous fish runs deep into the depths of history. Shad are credited as a pivotal food source for the Native Americans and early colonists in the Virginia area. Nowadays, the presence of these fish in Richmond signals the start of spring. 

A Shad Run First Timer 

When I decided to learn how to fly fish, almost immediately, I heard, "You need to fish the shad run in Richmond." It kept happening. Each time, I returned a friendly nod and an awkward smile. "Shad? Like the baitfish?" I thought to myself. "They're like tiny tarpon," I heard.

Enough people mentioned it to me, and I became intrigued. Ignorant to the experience that is the shad run in Richmond, I took the bait. "They do look like small tarpon," I conceded.

A shad jumping out of the water with a fly in its mouth.

Equally confusing was the destination. Ignorance ran rampant; when I pictured fly fishing, my mind didn't paint a picture of a city skyline and manufacturing plants lining a river. Plus, I'd never seen a person fishing when I drove over the I-95 bridge.

Always down for new fishing experiences and despite my baseless skepticism, I agreed to give the shad run a shot. 

Simón The Shad Run Sherpa

We rolled into Richmond on a cool, overcast morning in late March. The wind was light, and the surface of the water was slick. The noise from the bustling city was dull. It was early. It felt fishy. I also have no clue why I was worried about the noise. The jet noise in Virginia Beach has never deterred me from fishing, but I digress. 

We were greeted by a guy who got out of an old Toyota pickup. He had a dark mustache, tan skin, a bright smile, and a firm handshake. He looked like a fishing guide; his name was Simón.

A fly fisherman smiling at the camera while holding a fish.

Simón is a co-owner and guide with Current Culture Fly Shop (@currentculturefly) in Richmond. He was born in Bogotá, Colombia, and later moved to Florida where the fishing bug grabbed hold around the age of 10.

Nowadays, he focuses on helping people experience Virginia's diverse range of fly fishing targets. From chasing redfish in the Chesapeake Bay, to trout in the mountain streams, or the anadromous species of the James, Simón is stoked about it all and eager to spread the joy. 

Like any good guide, he set the expectations for the day. As water temperatures fluctuate in early spring, so does the shad's feeding activity. Nothing in fishing is guaranteed, which rings true tenfold with fly fishing. That being said, Simón's confidence was evident. 

"I want to take advantage of these conditions and try a couple of spots for stripers," he said after we stepped onto the center console. 

A suggestion we appreciated. It's always nice to fish with a guide excited to deviate from plans based on the conditions presented. 

As a newer fly angler, I'm always anxious to start casting, hoping to receive compliments or coaching. Simón handed me a 12wt with a large Deceiver he dubbed "The Wet Sock." 

After close to a dozen casts and a few snags, he interjected, "Stop horsing it; you're going to burn yourself out." 

I could feel what he was talking about. He explained that the cast has to come from a rotation of the core instead of me going in all shoulders and arms. Almost instantly, I felt relief and gained distance on my cast. 

Sniffing out stripers was a bust, so we set sights on shad as the tide started to drop. It didn’t take long to find them on the fish finder. Our instructions were to get casts up current and count 10-15 seconds, depending on the depth, to let our flies get down. The retrieve was a “tick, tick. Tick, tick.” Making sure you made the fly line snap a tad. No dice. Onto the next spot.  

Conversations flowed easily with Simón. We talked about his experience being a social worker, social haunts in Richmond, mutual friends, tailing redfish, and of course, fly tying. 

The next several spots were identical. Fish finder lit up, but no takers. The water temperature was comfortable, it could be a matter of tide level Simón speculated.

two fisherman on a boat.
"We are out here in the rain trying to catch f'ing bait"

We made a run to one of his favorite spots. The tide had visibly dropped and the banks of the James started to come alive. Almost every area we passed had people of various backgrounds and ages fishing for shad. There were a couple boats in the area with one hooked up to a fish.

Simón gave us the countdown number to try, and we started casting. The flies didn’t take long to get a few bumps, but no takers. He asked for my rod to try a different angle and hooked up, landing an alewife, a cousin of American and hickory shad. 

Not long after, Ryan landed a nice shad. I kept missing. Simón took out a third rod and quickly got in on the action. For 45 minutes, I watched Ryan and Simón land over a dozen quality shad. In fact, everyone around us was catching fish. There was no jockeying for position or animosity toward other anglers. Just smiling faces enjoying a Richmond tradition.

As for me, I just didn’t have the touch. Simón set me up for success. There was a definite learning curve, with that being my first time using a sinking line. A few weeks later, while speckled trout fishing, I saw a school of shad. I casted my shrimp fly towards them and retrieved it as Simón taught me. For the next hour, I forgot about speckled trout and enjoyed the fight of these tiny tarpon. Now I get it. Shad rule. 

Current Culture Fly Shop

Since it opened in 2021, the shop has been a fantastic resource for fly anglers in the River City. Richmond has a sneaky fly culture. You wouldn’t recognize it as a periodic passerby, but spend enough time in Virginia’s capital and you’ll notice an abundance of Grateful Dead trout stickers and roof rack fly rod carriers. For trout bums and saltwater enthusiasts alike, the shop is a welcomed change of pace from the bigger box stores in the area. 

The outside of Current Culture Fly Shop in black and white.

Above all else, Current Culture is a community. Simón and his business partner, Reid Parker, are at the heart of that community. In addition to offering products from leading brands in the industry, Current Culture hosts instructional classes for all levels of skill and interest, access to affordable guided trips, and an infectious stoke for the sport that’s apparent the second you walk in the door.

If you need to freshen up your fly box, upgrade your rod and reel, or simply want to grab a cup of coffee and talk shop, Current Culture is the place for it. Spring is a busy season, so if you’re interested in a trip we recommend getting on their books ASAP. Check them out online, or swing by in person and let'em know we sent you. 



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