Shad and Stripers in the City of Brotherly Love
Philadelphia’s fishing roots began before William Penn laid out his grid of streets between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers. The Lenape, an Algonquin-speaking people, built weirs along the rivers seeking some of the millions of anadromous fish that entered the Delaware watershed each spring to spawn. Blooms on the aptly-named shadbush heralded the start of their fishing season. While English and Swedish settlers adopted the Lenape’s style of roasting whole shad on wooden planks displayed around a fire, they employed large haul seines to catch shad by the thousands. In fact, Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood earned its name from the German-American fishing families who inhabited it in the 18th and early 19th centuries. John McPhee’s popular book, The Founding Fish, alleges that 1778’s Schuylkill River shad run saved Washington’s beleaguered Continental Army at Valley Forge, some 25 miles upstream of British-occupied Philadelphia. With improved water quality in recent years, area anglers have returned to the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers seeking shad and striped bass within Philadelphia’s city limits, and I’m proud to say that I am one of them.
Urban Philadelphia Fishing
I discovered Philadelphia’s fishing opportunities while riding my bike around my Center City home. I encountered people with fishing rods on bikes and on buses, and noticed trucks plastered with fishing stickers parked in odd places along the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. Among many casual anglers, I soon discovered Philadelphia’s quiet fraternity of serious urban anglers, whose diverse backgrounds converge because of our sport. In spite of decreasing fish populations, we have found plenty of fish to catch. However, the challenge is finding a place to catch them. Serious surf anglers know that, many times, the best spots are a long walk from the truck. Philadelphia’s urban angling is no different. To get started, you must purchase a Pennsylvania fishing license and register with the Pennsylvania Saltwater Angler Registry Program, both accessible via www.fishandboat.com, the Commonwealth’s fishing website.
Walleye, Smallmouth, and Largemouth Bass
The Philadelphia fishing season starts in February, when diehard anglers spend cold nights tossing pink Zooms into the Schuylkill River seeking walleye. I associated walleye with fishing in remote northern lakes, until I caught what I considered to be a freshwater weakfish. Walleyes and weakies have similar bodies, eyes and teeth, and they share a fondness for pink soft plastics. My best Schuylkill River walleye weighed 4 pounds, and I have seen photos of larger fish caught in the area. As the snow melts, smallmouth and largemouth bass slowly join the party. But, my favorite opening act for Philadelphia is our alleged “founding fish”—the American shad.
Philadelphia Shad Fishing
American shad enter the river with sex on their mind—roe shad want to lay their eggs; buck shad want to spread their seed. They undertake their upstream journey in pursuit of their mutually beneficial goals. Although shad roe is available in area fish markets by Valentine’s Day, the Delaware River shad run starts nearly a month later, as reported by anglers near Trenton. I start targeting Schuylkill River shad around Apr. 1, as shad push upstream on April’s spring tides. Early in the Philadelphia shad run, I typically encounter hickory shad during the second half of the incoming tide in clear water. As the run progresses, I will catch Americans throughout the incoming tide. Barring a significant rain event, the new moon on March 30 should push shad toward the Fairmount Dam fish ladder at the head of the tidal Schuylkill (and Dam # 1 in the Christina River). Significant rain will cool and dirty the river, slowing the shad’s upstream advance for a few days. Check out USGS.gov to find river data from a local US Geological Survey gauge to understand your favorite stretch of river. As April showers become May flowers, a rainless week will decrease river flow, which in turn slows fishing success. However, I always like to fish the first few hours of rain before surface runoff muddies the river for a few days.
A word of warning: the incoming tide rises quickly in the tidal Schuylkill as it backs up the downhill flow. If you intend to wade along the bank, skip the hip boots and wear chest waders, a belt and studded soles for safety. Bank fishermen should remain aware of their surroundings as the water rises—and leave their extra gear above the high tide line. Furthermore, there’s limited legal parking in the area around the Fairmount Dam and Art Museum. If you’ve ever seen A&E’s hit show “Parking Wars,” you’ll appreciate Philadelphia’s serious stance on parking and towing. The area is also known for its vagrants who readily smash car windows in search of valuables. For those reasons, many anglers park about a mile away and then ride their bikes to their spot, locking it to one of the many guardrails or light posts in the area. It’s not quite the Cape Cod Canal, but the idea is similar. SEPTA Bus Routes 32, 38 and 43 also service the area from Center City, South Philadelphia, Roxborough and Fishtown.
Most local anglers prefer to use a tandem shad dart rig. Experiment with different colors and presentations until you find one that works. Try to keep your dart just above the bottom.
Because shad feed on plankton, anglers must elicit a reaction strike from them, rather than try to imitate their natural prey. Many anglers prefer to toss two shad darts, or a shad dart ahead of a flutter spoon. On light monofilament line, tie a small dropper loop 18- to 24 inches ahead of a 1/16-ounce shad dart or flutter spoon. The dropper loop holds a heavier shad dart appropriate for your rod and required casting distance. Start with 1/4-ounce when fishing light tackle. When it comes to color, chartreuse is my go-to color, but fellow anglers have had success with varying shades of yellow.
Local shad experts prefer 9-foot “noodle rods,” small high-quality spinning reels and light monofilament line for these “Poor Man’s Salmon.” The long rod and smooth drag absorb the shad’s run and lessen the risk of pulling the hook from the fish’s soft mouth. I often fish my 8-foot Century 1065 Slingshot armed with a Shimano Stradic Ci4 4000 in the river, replacing the heavier dart with a 3/8-ounce leadhead or bucktail, allowing me to target striped bass, walleye and smallmouth bass in addition to the shad.
Most fishermen employ an erratic, moderately paced retrieve that allows a shad the opportunity to see your dart flutter in front of it. Smallmouth and steelhead anglers will appreciate that shad travel and hold in specific seams in the river, and that repeated targeted casts are the key to covering likely seams and eddies. Hickory shad and river herring will also strike at a dart, but anglers are prohibited from possessing them. More importantly, the herring are an outstanding indication that the striped bass have arrived in the City of Brotherly Love.
Delaware River Stripers
Like all great dramas, the annual striped bass run into the Delaware Bay and River is powered by sex. Migratory fish move into the Delaware Bay by mid-March, joining a smaller population of striped bass that spent the winter in the deep reaches of the estuary. The spring tides associated with the new and full moons in April and May trigger the striper’s amorous instinct to swim upstream to spawn. They move on the incoming tide, resting and feeding during the stronger outgoing current. As with the shad, significant rainfall and subsequent high water will delay their journey. True to their “rockfish” moniker, stripers will rest in eddies behind points, piers and pilings. With sex on the brain, they will feed on what the river offers them, rather than pursuing a specific run of baitfish. Studies show that a number of Delaware River stripers historically spawned between Wilmington, Delaware and Philadelphia in tidal freshwater tributaries, but industrialization and changing salinity may have pushed that activity farther upstream in the Delaware estuary.
Not surprisingly, Philadelphia anglers will catch the first stripers of the season soaking bloodworms along Hog Island Road behind the Philadelphia International Airport’s UPS terminal. While many of these early Philadelphia stripers are small, your fish-finder rig should have at least a 30-pound-test leader and a circle or beak hook sufficient to land a 15-pound striped bass in current. Thread the worm’s head onto the hook so that its tail undulates in the current. Many anglers have been supplementing one or two real bloodworms with a Berkley Gulp or Berkley Powerbait worm.
Pennsylvania fishing regulations permit each licensed angler to keep two striped bass from 21 to 24 inches each day from April 1 to May 31. This slot limit protects the larger females during the spawn. Outside of those dates, Delaware River anglers are permitted to keep one striper between 28 and 35 inches.
With increased security measures around the airport, anglers should exercise caution when parking along Hog Island Road. Fishermen can also access the area via SEPTA Bus Routes 68 and 108, with service from South Philadelphia and Upper Darby, respectively. Area anglers can also catch stripers in the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge and from piers along Delaware Avenue, including from an abandoned one behind the Wal-Mart and from the brand-new Race Street Pier under the Ben Franklin Bridge. After 300 years of human use, the river is littered with debris to snag your rig, so bring plenty of rigs (or fish close to the Wal-Mart).
Farther upstream, Christopher Eife and Shane Vincent Carroll target striped bass in Northeast Philadelphia, eschewing bloodworms for cut bait. Throughout the run, these young anglers regularly catch stripers to 36 inches soaking fresh chunks of shad or bunker on circle hooks with fish-finder rigs. Eife attests to the value of fresh bait, noting that his chunk (or head) must compete with the forage available in the Delaware. For that reason, Eife and Carroll prefer fresh American shad, adhering to the three-fish daily bag limit. Remember that possession of hickory shad or river herring in Pennsylvania is illegal. Initially, Eife and Carroll prefer to fish nighttime outgoing tides, as striped bass moving upstream on the incoming tide will feed and rest during the stronger current. Additionally, striped bass will move into the shallows under the cover of darkness. Eife and Carroll seek out docks, piers and jetties that break the current, knowing that stripers will gather in the eddy behind them. They also target striped bass around creek mouths, which Eife considers “conveyor belts” that deliver prey to hungry striped bass. As the stripers begin their exodus, the incoming tide offers additional opportunities to catch stripers. Where to fish for Philadelphia stripers? Check out the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission public access points at Linden and Station Avenues and near the now-defunct Frankford Arsenal. They are all accessible by SEPTA bus and train lines. Local standard Brinkman’s Bait and Tackle will point you in the right direction and get you outfitted for these spring stripers.
Schuylkill River Stripers
I prefer throwing artificial lures over soaking bait, which is perfect for stripers at my home waters of the Schuylkill River. Because of the striped bass’ preference of river herring as a favorite post-coital snack, it is no surprise that, following the river-wide prohibition on possession of river herring, anglers turned to artificial lures to imitate these Snickers-sized striper snacks. While the herring arrive in mid-April, small stripers move into the Schuylkill River following the Delaware River spawn before moving downstream for the summer. Nocturnal anglers throwing 4- to 6-inch Storm WildEye Swim Shads, white Zoom Super Flukes and Sassy Shads will catch the first arriving stripers. With more fish arriving on spring tides, faster river flow will create a daytime bite, for which I prefer to swim ¾- to 1½-ounce white bucktails with white twister tails or white 7-inch Got Stryper soft plastics on ¾-ounce jigheads over the shallow rocky water. In dirty water, throw a chartreuse Sassy Shad.
This is not your typical coastal river. The Schuylkill River below the Fairmount Dam is strewn with rocks, trees and debris. Bring plenty of rubber and leadheads as fish will be close to structure. Frustrated with the loss of my sixth bucktail one evening, I flung a white 5¼-inch Rapala X-Rap Walk across the river to avoid the rocks below. As the plug crossed a particular seam, it disappeared in a whitewater explosion. Many of Philadelphia’s hardcore striper anglers employ their favorite 8- or 9-foot surf rods to cover as much water as possible with Cotton Cordell pencil poppers, Smack-It popping plugs and walk-the-dog lures like Zara Spooks and Skitterwalks. While this topwater bite typically is over by 7:00 am, cloudy days will keep fish active until mid-morning.
While many Philadelphia anglers flock to Monmouth and Ocean County beaches each spring in search of early season blitzes, a small cadre of us will throw shad darts, bucktails and topwater lures much closer to home, resulting in bent rods, smiling faces and the satisfaction that we found another place to pursue our piscatorial passion.
This article was originally published in April of 2016.