What is it about a species that makes us chase it or dismiss it? Why will we travel hundreds of miles in search of steelhead, yet leave largemouth bass to a guy with a day old spin rod and a crankbait? I’m standing deep enough in a maze of thorns that if it were water I’d be drowning, a quarter mile into a half mile hike along New Jersey’s side of the Delaware River. With me is Rob, photographer, avid fly fisherman, and high school friend. Most people are taller than me, Rob is quite a bit taller, for some reason I almost whisper to him as if we are hunting, “how’s it look up ahead?” His demeanor is how I remember it, always with a smile, Rob turns back, smile embedded in a big red beard that would make a character from Lord of the Rings jealous and says “Eh looks alright” I nod my head, smile and say “alright”. What he really meant was “looks like hell” and what I meant was “Thank you for not being that guy, although your waders, that are way more expensive than mine give you every right to be, and dear god let us catch a striper.”
A sea of green, and thorns. Not all journeys need a path. Photo by Rob Yaskovic
This High school reunion started how most start these days, a Facebook message. Where most of these end in an after work drink with dismal conversation about how the hot cheerleader put on a few pounds or the band tuba player lost a ton, our message let both of us know no ones weight would be discussed “ Let’s go fishing”. I didn’t feel obligated to Rob to get us into monster fish, he seems the type of guy who can appreciate any species from a small stature, poetically colored native brook trout to a gnarly toothed run of the mill pickerel. Me on the other hand, though not proud, I need something more out of a fish. I thought at first it was the hunter in me. I consider myself a 50/50 outdoorsman, 50 percent fishermen and 50 percent hunter, in reality I probably lean more hunter. The fish needs to be big, it needs to be bad, and I think I need to want to eat it. Now hear me out before you want to catch and release my heart out of my chest. I need to want to eat the fish, not that I’m going to eat the fish, in fact I haven’t kept a fish in quite some time. Even if I have no intention on keeping the fish, when the hook sets, my reel cries with that buzz, and my eyes catch the flash of color as the fish regrets his meal selection, it starts. A primal message from the bowels of my DNA to my brain simply stated “Lose this fish and we starve”. My “big, bad, delicious” moto seemed simple, logical, and somewhat scientific. It’s why when someone would ask, “Do you want to go shad fishing?” I would say “Meh what else ya got?” I didn’t except a Facebook message from an old friend to yank it from the depths of its double helix hiding spot.
Crossing rivers to get to rivers. Not all crossings… ok enough of that. It’s me crossing a stream. Photo by Rob Yaskovic
April in New Jersey and fishing usually means one thing, trout. Cool mornings give way to warm afternoons while winters last remaining soldier of snow releases it’s stranglehold on the ground with a burst of greens. The banks of the streams and rivers flood with fishermen elbowing for room, ears are hooked, lures are lost and old men in rubber hip boots judge young men in neoprene waders. It was at this time, a few years ago, one of the best fisherman I’ve ever met, my buddy James , turned and asked me “ Want to go fishing?” I replied “Sure!” then rattled off a few well stocked and stomped trout streams. The word “no” accompanying his shaking head confused me “Dude I want no part of that circus. Shad fishing”. I questioned the best fisherman title I gave him with a raised eyebrow and the words “Bait? You want to catch bait?” in my head. American Shad run the rivers of the east coast starting sometime in April through June. Starting in the southern rivers they slowly make their way up the coast as the water and weather warm. As the shad move their way up stream they are followed by striped bass . Ocean going, sea fairing, some fifty pounds plus, a worthy opponent for my fly to say the least. The bass are spawning as well and my guess fattening up on the shad. With the lure of stripers in mind I joined my friend James. By days end not a single fish lip was harmed by my hook. He had caught a few shad, so I asked “does anyone eat them?” With an unsure look he replied “I’m sure, but mostly I think people just eat the roe.” Fish eggs, fish eggs in my mind are bait. I did go as far as to try eating shad roe, the taste of which would not be what pulls me from a 4am slumber in search of shad. Imagine grains of sand, softer , fishy, and stuck in your teeth. I was no closer to becoming or understanding a shad fisherman.
Checking out the damage a Bald Eagle did to this shad. Photo by Rob Yaskovic
I was fine with not chasing shad, after all there are plenty of fish in the sea, pun intended. Then spring 2017 rolled in and my buddy James began talking about an epic shad run, best run in years. He spoke about crazy fishing days, you know the stories, fish on every cast, 20-30 landed, fish spitting flies only to have another take it. I thought to myself what’s wrong with him? They’re shad. I shook my head and said I don’t get it man. Almost every day he would send me multiple pictures of chrome colored fish in the 20 inch range fresh from the Atlantic Ocean, along with captions like “Dude you’re missing out!” I would study his grip and grins hoping somewhere between the shimmering dark of a shads back through the metallic glimmer that gives way to the bright white of it belly something would hit me, and I’d say “yeah I think I’ll give this fish a chance.” That feeling never came.
The weeks went on, the shad run went on, James kept sending pictures and I kept hunting turkeys. Then as if the fishing gods were calling me to the river, or maybe it was the turkey gods feeling bad for not having out smarted a gobbler, James sends me a picture. The accompanying text, though not needed, simply read “striper”. The fish wasn’t big, it didn’t have to be, but much like so many shad he had pulled to the bank before, I too was just hooked and being pulled to the banks of the Delaware River. Days later a Facebook message from an old friend would seal the deal. Let’s go fishing.
With a handful of closer minnows and few spots where I think stripers would hole up we head from Rob’s mini van. Our hike takes us through fields, over downed trees we use as make shift bridges, down steep embankments, and through thorns. In my proposal to Rob I boiled this down to “a short hike”. Our conversation takes from eatable plants, a subject I’m not so well versed, to how mini vans are the perfect vehicle for overnight fishing trips. We talk about shad too. Rob like me has never caught or really targeted shad. He says he too didn’t really understand it, but I feel he’d be more appreciative than me with a rod bent by a shad. The unseasonable chill to the air has our breath visible as we near the final leg of the hike, a two tiered near vertical drop which looks as if it’s seen a few of the Delaware River’s historical floods. Rob leads the way down the first drop about seven feet is cleared with ease by Rob where gravity helps me to a speedy decent on my rear end. The second drop looks as though I’d tumble at least four times before my head comes to rest on the baseball sized, and similarly shaped river rock. We clear it gracefully. As we near the river I spot a bald eagle enjoying a fish breakfast about 80 yards down river, right where we plan to fish. Rob readies his camera, as I take this as a good sign there are fish ready to be caught, a second eagle flys in chasing his counterpart away then follows. I can’t help but wonder if either of us would have chased them away from the fishing hole if they hadn’t vacated it willingly. My thought is we would have fished up river out of respect for the fisherman who got up earlier then we did. Rob hits the river first, I ready my 9wt switch rod and slide into the water down river. Rob’s casts are clean, large waves of fly line lay out in the air before hitting the water without a buckle. His single hand cast looks as though it’s in slow motion as he hits his target in a ballet with the rushing water. I’m almost jealous but I feel my spey cast better suits my personality as it cuts through the water with aggression into a fluid “D” loop that shoots my fly to the far reaches of the fast water. Somewhere in my fly fishing journey I accidentally learned how to cast. To myself I call it an ADHD cast, it covers a lot of ground but I just can’t seem to get to concentrate on catching fish as well. I sometimes catch myself, figuratively admiring its distance and literally in the back of my head, like I said not always pretty.
Spey casting and almost looking like I know what I’m doing… ah the timing of a great photo. Photo by Rob Yaskovic
If you ever find yourself on one of those fishing party boats with me, and are the one going around with the morning collection hat yelling “who wants in on first fish bet?”, you can skip me. I do not, and feel no shame in, ever claiming that prize. On a side note if you are the guy right behind him asking “who wants a morning beer?” please pay me a visit. Right on que Rob’s line goes tight, I turn my head as so many losers of the first fish bet to the words “fish on!” I watched the fight, caught up with it I nearly forgot my own line which was exiting the swing, as Rob’s fight started running into my direction. I quickly reeled in and moved out of the water for the photo opt that was about to unfold. Rob brings the fish to hand. My first thought is “is it a striper?” my second thought is, poor Rob probably doesn’t get many quality pictures of himself gripping a fish since he’s the photographer. I felt bad my own photography skills would not change this, and that it was no striper but a lowly shad he had in hand. As the thought of “well at least I didn’t march him out here for nothing” entered my mind, I saw it. I thought maybe it was just his good nature shining through, but there it was a smile from hairy covered cheek to hairy covered cheek. His face was a glow as he ripped his eyes from the fish and said to me “now I get it.” Rob was caught by the shad as much as he caught the shad, his next words with a giggle “I guess I’m shad fishing!” alarmed me in some way.
Big waters of the Delaware River, behind me NJ, ahead PA. Photo by Rob Yaskovic
I moved down river to slower water, hoping a striper would be lying in wait for a half dead spawned out shad to float his way. I started thinking if a shad took my fly would I be changed? I thought maybe it was the hike in the had Rob just glad he caught any fish. I started to ask myself “Is there something wrong with me?” Then it happened my line went tight. Was I snagged? Was I fishing to deep? Before I could asked another question the fish answered by ripping my line up river. My reel screamed just before my unknown opponent changed course and ripped me back down river. “Fish on!” I screamed to Rob. This was a big fish no spawned out shad, it was hungry and angry with the power of the Atlantic Ocean behind it. The fight went on and it had to be a striper, as the fish neared the surface at 15 feet from me it was confirmed, this fish did have the power of the Atlantic behind it. It was no striper, it was a shad. Then without delay my DNA from long dead ancestors kicked in “don’t lose this fish or we starve!” I yelled to Rob with excitement “It’s a SHAD!” and “I get it now!” I yelled loud enough for my buddy James to hear me where ever he was “I GET IT NOW!”I was now shad fishing, I am now a shad fisherman.
Hooked up on my very first shad. Photo by Rob Yaskovic
All photos created by Rob Yaskovic. Feel free to contact Rob at http://www.yaskovic.com and follow him on Instagram @robyaskovic to see more great photos. Thanks Rob!