Back in D. C., I was ready to flyfish for shad on the Potomac but I wasn’t prepared for this. I found a dead shad along the Rivanna River in Charlottesville where I was staying for a few days. The dead fish made me realize I was farther upriver from the coast than I had thought. Shad run up the James River when the water temperature hits 50 degrees, and now that the Woolen Mills Dam in Charlottesville has been removed from the Rivanna, they’re able to swim up to the northern edge of town where I was staying.
Easter morning was cool and rainy as I stepped from the house and walked down through the woods to the Rivanna. I was less than 10 river miles north of Monticello where Mr. Jefferson experimented with agriculture and democracy, with the help of his slaves. I had never cast for shad before, but if a dead fish was any sort of indication, I hoped for the best– tying on a small weighted fly, brightly colored, and let it drift through the deepest currents.
I was looking forward to an outing in the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains, casting for native trout, but the old Rivanna River, flowing so close to where I laid my stuffy head at night, was irresistible. If shad were in the neighborhood, I wanted to know a little more about them. The birds were singing and tapping mightily from the river woods– titmice, cardinals, chickadees, red-bellied woodpeckers, Carolina wrens. I caught a whiff of wild garlic or onion from the warming ground, and I felt pretty damned good now that I’d finally put winter at my back.
The sinking fly line paused in its drift; the short, quick motions of the fly stopped and I felt the weight. A hefty smallmouth, my first of the year, fought valiantly and made a pleasant substitute for a shad. Shortly after releasing the fish, the rain intensified and I quit for a while.
Late in the evening I returned to the river and tried again. This time there was no sign of fish, although the body of the dead shad remained at water’s edge as if to say, “Keep at it fella; water’s still cold, but you never know.” Migrating shad figured so dominantly back in Jefferson’s day, but times had changed in more ways than I could fathom. Hiking back to the house at dusk I passed a little pond where the peepers were ringing so madly there was no question of what was in charge today.
Hyla crucifer is the real name of the small spring peeper. Their ringing can draw you to the water’s edge. It quiets down as you peer in for a view, then rings like hell when you continue into the night.