While the rest of the country was freezing in the snow, we were kayak fishing - me in my Native “Ultimate 14.5”, and Josh in his pedal-powered Native “Slayer Propel 13”. We got there early because we knew the shad run gets busy. We beached our kayaks in the perfect spot. Shortly after, Eric Edwards and Spence Wise motored in and beached Eric’s 18’ East Cape “Caimen”. Before long, we were all casting our fly rods, waiting for the first bite. First, Josh pulled in a crappie, then a blue gill, and then finally the shad started biting. We got one after another, and they were all larger female “roe” shad that can get up to 6 lbs – 7 lbs.
American shad (Alosa sapidissma) are native to the east coast of North America, ranging from Canada’s St. Lawrence River in the north to Florida’s St. Johns River in the south. Shad spend their first year in the river, and then swim to the ocean to mature. They remain in the ocean up to six years before they return to their birth rivers to spawn. If you can correctly time the part of the river the shad will be on during the return run, you will have an epic day. Shad fight like mini tarpon, and on a mid-size fly rod (5 or 6 wt) you will have a great match. I use a Bull Bay Rods 9’ with a Lamson “Konic II” fly reel and an 8 lb fluorocarbon tippet.
The way shad bite reminds me a little of crappie. One day they like orange flies, the next pink - but this day it was chartreuse and a flash tail. Because you fish the deep bends in the river, it’s important to have intermediate sink tip fly line, fluorocarbon leader as it sinks quicker than mono, and short-tailed flies. Cast and let sink, then medium-long strips, and soon you should be hooked up.
After many hours of catching, and more and more people moving in closer and closer, it was time to move on to our next location. We wanted to enjoy the age-old sport of falconry with the symbolic bird, the falcon. We were going to a remote location miles from where we were. Since we were in kayaks and our friends were in a boat with a motor, we decided the most expeditious way for us to travel would be to hook lines to the kayaks and have the motor boat tow us there. We received many strange stares as Josh and I meandered through the winding St. Johns River being towed behind the boat like slalom skiers (with very large skis).
According to allaboutbirds.com, “Merlins are small, fierce falcons that use surprise attacks to bring down small songbirds and shorebirds.” Once we arrived, the merlin was let out, and a micro radio transmitter was attached to its back with a tiny harness. This setup was so tiny and light, it weighed only as much as three one-dollar bills. The hood was taken off, and the falcon was ready to fly.
The highly-trained falcon flew up and out in circles above our heads. It swooped in as one of the falconers gave specific calls and gestures to let the falcon know they were about to flush a bird from the marsh grasses for it to attack. We had to go the other way, as we saw a majestic bald eagle watching over a field and keenly eyeing the new opportunity we had brought for food. Bald eagles can’t out maneuver a falcon in the air, but when the falcon makes a kill and brings it to the ground to eat he would be an easy target and quick meal for the vigilant bald eagle.
The falcon swooped down on the birds it chased in the sandy, low-lying areas of the St. Johns. It looked like aerial combat at incredible speeds, right before our eyes over the marsh grass and water, and then BAM - the kill.
The kill has been made, and the falcon is on the ground panting from the mid-air combat and standing over its soon-to-be meal. Before eating, the merlin watches carefully for any signs of approaching trouble, to ensure it doesn’t become someone else’s meal when it dives into its freshly-caught dinner. Once it feels secure, it bites off the head and eats it, and then plucks the feathers out one by one until the prey looks like a tiny chicken you would buy from the grocery store. Holding the naked bird in its strong talons, the merlin uses its sharp beak to tear pieces of flesh until its dinner is consumed.
The outdoors is ever-changing; the circle of life continues day in and day out. Each day spent in the wild is different, and this was an absolutely amazing day. A special thanks to Eric and Spence for closing out our superb shad fishing day with a close-up look at a diurnal raptor in action - one of the ultimate birds of prey, a merlin!
Live life by the minute, and get outdoors and have fun!