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Understanding an Ozark Shad Kill
The shad kill on Arkansas’ White River and its tributaries is an example of man and nature colliding. Shad that reside in the relatively warm lakes behind the dams are not native to the area and weather and flow dynamics can impact their survival. Because shad are a species of fish that prefers warmer water, extremely cold temperatures during the winter can force these forage fish deep in search of more comfortable conditions. When everything comes together, millions of shad get pulled through the dam and into the rivers where the trout gorge themselves on this abundant food source. It seems like everyone who is familiar with the White River Basin trout fisheries has their own theories on why a shad kill occurs. I prefer to look at the situation in as simple of terms as possible, and my approach to fly fishing when shad are in the rivers is to pay attention to what I know to be true.
Because shad need warm water to thrive and survive, there are times when prolonged periods of cold weather will significantly cool the upper layers of the reservoir, and this drop will threaten their livelihood. Over the course of a long winter, colder water will sink towards the bottom of the lake, and this action forces the shad deep in search of temperatures that will enable them to survive. Keep in mind that shad become more lethargic with each passing day that they are exposed to cold. When the shad are forced down to the levels where water is drawn through the dam, they are not physically able to fight the current that is created during the process of power generation. Typically, the numbers of shad that get sucked into the river increases as the water flow increases. On the White, you will not normally see shad on the water when three or fewer generators are running, but I have witnessed exceptions to this. It usually takes a full one unit (or higher) level of water for the shad to get rolling on the Norfork. Although Table Rock has had issues with the lake’s shad population, anglers can expect to see some activity when two or more generators are running at the dam during the winter.
The timing of the shad kill directly relates to how cold it has been. There are people trying to figure out “magic numbers” that correspond with lake surface temperatures and predict a shad kill. This concept is intriguing, but relatively untested. The best way to know if there is a shad kill going on is to look not only at the river near the dams, but to also keep an eye on how much gull activity is taking place. If the birds are going nuts in the area where the water comes out of the dam, then there are shad coming through. If there are gulls stationed on the edges of the structure and only a few birds are flying, it is likely that shad have been coming through recently, but they are not currently passing through. Sea gulls will not stick around for long after the shad stop providing an easy meal, so the presence of these birds is telling.
If the winter has had its share of below-average temperature days, and there have been some very cold nights, a shad kill will really get going around the first or second week of February. This is just what happens on average – shad have been observed coming through the dams every month of the year. There are shad kills that occur that are not water temperature related, but those events seem to be far less common than the annual winter kill. Figuring out if shad are coming through the dams is the easy part though, as fishing this event can cause fly anglers to get a little frustrated at times. There is no way to make a trout take a fly when they are stuffed with shad, so intuitive strategies must be utilized when the bite gets tough.
A new and nutrient-rich food source entering a river can be a great thing for the fishing, but this is not always the case. If an Ozark shad kill is heavy, and shad are coming through every day, the fish get really lazy and will only feed sporadically. If you happen to be up by the dam the first day or two that the shad start coming through, you are going to have a blast throwing any sort of white streamer variation, but that hot bite is very short lived. The fishing near the dams is most consistent if there are just a few shad coming through. During a heavy kill, the trout are exposed to shad for many miles below the dams, so it pays to move downstream, if large amounts of shad are on the upper river.
Because the best way to fish a shad kill is from a boat during high water, appropriate safety measures should be taken before operating a motorized vessel on a frigid and fast-flowing river. It is important to pay attention to every detail of your surroundings during these times – take notice of whether or not there are shad on the water. Use a white strike indicator to help see if any trout are interested in something floating – if your indicator gets eaten, try a white popper. Most of the shad that end up in the river are stunned, dead or wounded, so it makes sense to dead-drift shad imitations. It is alright to impart some movement to the fly, but you don’t want to overdo it. Traditional streamer techniques that involve stripping a floating, sinking or weighted line will work at times, especially during the periods when the shad are not coming through very heavily, but dead-drifting is the go-to technique during the majority of the kill.
Another important shad kill strategy is to fish with an open mind. There are the magical times in fishing where all the big fish in a river get stupid at the same time, but for the most part, it still takes quite a bit of tact to produce trout consistently, even during the best of conditions. For some reason, trout on the White River and its tributaries will still eat “regular” high water flies during a shad kill, so do not be afraid to try a worm, egg or large nymph if a white streamer just isn’t cutting it.
It has never been my style to encourage people to plan a trip specifically around a shad kill. This is because there are too many constantly-changing variables that can significantly affect expectations. Instead, I like to keep people updated through my Web site so that they can be alerted of the best bites right when they are happening. A sensible approach is to plan a trip during one of the best months for a shad kill (February, March, early April), and then enjoy whatever the river offers. There is no way to fully predict water conditions or how the fish will react to the shad, so for the sake of staying sane, I prefer to be in a position to help my clients capitalize on the shad bite if it is happening, but I will not lose sleep worrying about what I cannot control. If the shad bite is off, it is time to get to work utilizing other flies and techniques.
Fly fishing the shad kill on the White River, Norfork Tailwater or on Lake Taneycomo can be one of those epic fly fishing experiences that most anglers only dream of being a part of. There are days when every big trout in the river is feeding aggressively - but there can also be slow times when the fish simply get sick of eating the same thing over and over again. The chance of catching a trophy fish increases whenever there are shad coming through the dams. When the weather is cold, and it seems like the fishing season couldn’t be any further away, consider checking out the shad kill on a White River Basin trout fishery. Fishing this event provides important insights into trout behavior and it is something that must be seen to be believed. Every year is different, so be sure to perform adequate research regarding prevailing conditions before committing to a trip.
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