First sightings of American shad in our waters is a sure sign of spring.

Everyone seems to have their own theories about the first signs of spring and, more specifically, when the cold of winter is finally over. For some, it’s the flock of robins that all of sudden appeared on their lawn. For others it might be the dreaded pollen that nearly blocks out the sun as waves of the yellow stuff swirl around in the air.

But for someone like me it’s all about a secretive fish called the American shad.

You would have thought that with the relatively mild winter we have had this year that spring would have come early. I, too, was in that mindset as I headed down to the Ogeechee River around Valentine’s Day, just knowing that the shad migration had begun. After two hours of fishing, it became quite evident that there wasn’t a shad around and, quite frankly, I was mystified by their absence.

As warm as it was, they should have been there – so what did they know that I didn’t?

If you will remember, winter finally arrived with a vengeance around the third week in February and it got downright cold. I know I’ll probably never know the answer to this question, but how does a fish like a shad know what’s going to happen with the weather while we humans can only guess?

As far as I can tell, little is known about the American shad. Like salmon, they spend their lives in the ocean and around this time of the year there is a mass migration where they come up certain rivers that are, for all intents and purposes, fresh water – just so they can spawn.

I can’t even tell you if they die after spawning like a salmon or whether they head back out to sea. I have asked a number of people this question and nobody seems to know the answer. Another shad mystery that gets to me is where do they come from? You would think that as much as I am out in the ocean and back in our creeks that I would inadvertently come across a shad but I never have.

Even throwing cast nets off the beach for menhaden should catch one of these fish at some time but I have never heard of anyone that has. For all I know, they might spend their lives hundreds of miles out at sea before making their journey to spawn. I guess they just don’t rate high enough to have studies done on their life and their habits.

So what is the draw that I would go so far to catch one of these fish? In my opinion, their flesh isn’t all that great to eat and they are loaded with tiny bones, making filleting one an art known only by a handful of folks I have ever known.

But give me a big fat female and I am all over it – because inside of these larger gals is a pair of roe sacks that are considered a delicacy to many, including me.

As if the roe isn’t enough, shad are great fighters, especially on light tackle. A member of the tarpon family, they jump. And because you are fishing in a swift current, when hooked they put their broad sides to the current, making them a challenge to land. Their mouths are paper-thin and, because the lures I generally use are tiny, too much pressure will lose one of these fighters in a second.

I know that up north around Delaware there is a lot of interest by anglers when the shad run is on, but down in this part of the country, just finding someone to go with me is a challenge. There are only two locals that I can count on – Jimmy McIntire who has moved to Savannah and my friend Bill Sanderson.

After being hoodwinked by the late winter surge, I decided to give it another go and asked Bill if he wanted to accompany me. Remember what I said about everybody having his or her own idea about the first sign of spring? Bill’s indicator is the goldfish that live in a neighbor’s cement pond. If they come out from under the lily pads and quickly eat the food he had thrown in, spring is here. For me, it is when the wisteria blooms.

Arriving at the Ogeechee River, we were the only boat at the landing. It was an ominous sign but having driven that far we decided to give it a go anyway. We trolled for nearly an hour without so much as a tap and then as if a light switch had been flipped, one rod bent double followed closely by another.

They were here! Spring is here!

For the next couple of hours we landed more than a dozen shad, five of which were big females bursting with roe.

As I sat down for a shad roe dinner that night, I wore a smile with every bite. You can have your robins, daffodils and pollen because my sign that spring has sprung is, simply put, delicious! 

Collins Doughtie, a 60-year resident of the Lowcountry, is a sportsman, graphic artist, and lover of nature.