The sun dipped below the treetops and the glare off the water surface dissipated. My cast landed just to the left of a large rock; I mended the line slightly to the left hoping the fly would swing across the currents on a relatively tight line. I had made a few dozen casts prior, reminded by my friend, Andy, that we would have casting practice for a bit before there was a good chance to catch a fish. He was using a spey rod. The line danced to his right and then to his left before he snapped (and pulled the bottom end of the rod) the rod forward rolling the fly line out like a carpet. The fly landed well past mine and followed the general trajectory of my fly, about ten to fifteen feet past my swinging fly.
His line was the first to tighten. (Actually, the ospreys were far more efficient fishers than we were.) Skillfully, he set the hook and brought the fish to hand. It was a compact and streamlined river herring with a deeply forked tail, a smaller relative of the hickory shad we were hoping to catch in the twilight. “You know it when they take the fly, it’s not anywhere near as subtle as a trout, you know you have a fish on.” His words felt like they had the combined meaning of describing the moment and preparing me for what he felt was an inevitable strike on my fly. I wasn’t so sure I would catch a fish. Honestly, I was intimidated by the new methods of fishing I was learning and by him. Andy has tied flies and fly fished for over two thirds of his life and looking at the flies and photos of the flies he has tied, I could tell he was incredibly skilled. His fishing and tying skills far exceed mine but he quickly put me at ease with his humble and helpful instruction.
We talked about our families, careers, fishing memories and different techniques. The depth of his knowledge and his generosity in sharing about different types of fly rods, flies and fishing made the time fly by. As I began to ask a question about bamboo rods, I felt a jolt in the line. The slack in the swinging line was immediately taken up by the energetic fish. As if on a switch, the line went slack again as the fish charged toward me. I stripped in line as quickly as I could, scared that if I tried to reel in the line, I would release pressure and the fish would shake free. As soon as I recovered all the line and had a tight connection to the fish, it propelled itself out of the water in an acrobatic jump, landing five or six feet away from where it left the water. After another jump and a short run, I brought the fish close to me. Andy netted the fish as I tried to catch my breath. The smile never left my face all night.
Since reading The Founding Fish by John McPhee over the winter, I had been intrigued and excited to fish for shad. During the Revolutionary War, starving soldiers camped along the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers were rumored to be saved by catching migrating shad during their spawning runs. Prolific masses of fish fueled and invigorated the soldiers, sustaining the army when it reached its lowest points in health and morale. I’ve designed several nature-like fishways and worked on dam removal projects intended to allow migrating shad and alewife to pass barriers over my career. The book helped me to gain an understanding of the importance of shad to our country and I was embarrassed to have never seen one before or understood their connection to our history as a nation.
Over the course of the evening, we each caught several more shad and had a wonderful time. Each strike of a fish briefly interrupted our conversation with cheers and congratulations. The remnants of light began to leave the stream valley, so we decided to follow suit. I was grateful to Andy for inviting me out on the river and helping me to catch my first Hickory Shad. I felt welcomed and supported to learn something new about fly fishing for a species other than trout. Standing in a beautiful river with bald eagles and osprey flying overhead, while fishing with a knowledgeable and fun friend is about as good as it gets.