Social distancing with North Carolina shad

A long-planned trip turned into a great opportunity to finally get out of the house and experience one of North Carolina’s best fisheries

The Weldon Boat Ramp, right, is a favorite fishing spot for spring shad fishing on the Roanoke River. (Cory Lavalette / North State Journal)

WELDON — Weldon is known as the Rockfish Capital of the World because of the fish that swim up the Roanoke River to spawn usually starting in April. But before the striped bass really hit their peak there’s another visitor from the Atlantic Ocean that comes through the tiny town in Halifax County — shad.

Shad, like striped bass and salmon, are anadromous fish that spend most of their life at sea before returning to freshwater rivers to spawn.

In the spring, hickory shad — and their larger cousin, American shad — are plentiful in North Carolina’s coastal rivers. (Cory Lavalette / North State Journal)

I grew up fishing for shad in the spring in the Westfield River, a tributary of the Connecticut, near my childhood home in the suburbs of Springfield, Massachusetts. The plan was pretty simple: head down to the river in the morning armed with some light spinning tackle and a few shad darts and hope the American shad were swimming upstream when you were there.

American shad are usually around 18-24 inches and 3-8 pounds, and you can catch them cast after cast when they’re running. It’s hard not to have fun — shad are sometimes called the poor man’s tarpon because of the fight they put up when on the other end of the line.

American shad come up the Roanoke River through Weldon in the early spring, but they’re joined by their smaller cousin, the hickory shad. And the abundance of both is what draws dozens of people every day during the shad run to the Weldon Boat Ramp near the Halifax County and Northampton County line.

That’s what brought me and my 12-year-old son — who has taken a liking to fishing over the past year — to Weldon to try our hand at Southern shad fishing. While the trip was planned for about six weeks, we were more than ready to get out of the house given the coronavirus concerns that had kept our family pretty much on lockdown.

But first, the preparation.

Unlike in my teenage years, I had the benefit of some easy online research to find the best places in North Carolina to try our hand at some Old North State shad. The Weldon Boat Ramp quickly became the obvious choice in terms of proximity (about 80 minutes from Raleigh) and the ability to bank fish, since we didn’t have a boat.

I also perused and joined the “NC-Shad” Facebook group, which not only provided a wealth of knowledge about which spots were hot and when, but it also had advice on the best setups to land the most fish.

The sun rises over the U.S. Route 158 bridge that crosses the Roanoke River on the border of Halifax and Northampton counties. (Cory Lavalette / North State Journal)

Shad darts are still a favorite, but most anglers recommended a double rig with a variety of lures. One-eighth or 1/16th ounce jig heads are a favorite — many suggest pink or white — using a 2-inch twirl tail grub in pink, white, orange or chartreuse.

Some suggest a small single-hook spoon at the bottom of the rig with a jig and grub about 12-14 inches up the line.

My son and I tried a variety of the suggestions, but we had the best luck with the jig head-grub combo and also paddle-tailed soft lures — called, coincidentally, swim shad — after we settled onto the banks of the Roanoke just a few hundred yards north of the boat ramp.

It wasn’t every cast action that some have had before and since in the same area, but we pulled in five hickory shad and one American — a hefty female that was close to 20 inches.

While we didn’t have as much luck as some had in some of the days before and after, we couldn’t have asked for a nicer day. Despite the onset of the pine pollen, it was the warmest day of the year so far with clear, blue skies.

And when the shad hit, it was even better than I remembered as a kid.