The three miles of the north bank below Bonneville Dam might be the most popular spot on the Columbia River for shad. (Photo by WDFW)

Columbia River shad watch begins this month


May marks the start of the annual run, which provides good fishing up the Columbia River and in Oregon’s Lower Willamette River

Story originally published in the Northwest Sportsman Magazine May issue

If your fad is fishing for Columbia River shad, then you’ll be glad to know we’ve got some exciting news happening in the months ahead.

The shad migration up the Columbia River each spring and early summer over the past decade has turned into one of the most consistent and easily accessible sport fisheries that anglers can find on Pacific Northwest waterways.

While the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) fishery managers don’t provide a yearly shad forecast, the outlook for 2024 calls for another robust return. Rewind to 2023 when the Columbia River run was at least 4.5 million shad strong, with an escapement of 4.4 million migrating above Bonneville Dam. Those numbers don’t include shad that spawned downstream of the dam or below Willamette Falls on the Oregon side of the Columbia River.

Since the late 1970s, the big river’s shad runs have easily met or exceeded one million fish annually. Through the 2000s, the 10-year average shad return size increased by around one million fish each successive decade, with a peak of more than six million fish in 2005.

Then from 2010 through 2019, the shad run ranged from more than one million in 2011 to a record high return of 7.7 million in 2019. The shad return of 6.4 million in 2022 was the second largest on record.

In 2023, the Lower Columbia River and Willamette recreational catch was 193,300 shad, up from 184,500 in 2022. An additional 3,100 fish were harvested in a mainstem Columbia River commercial fishery near Beacon Rock (up from 1,600 fish in 2022).

The combined 2023 recreational and commercial catch of 196,400 fell below the recent five-year average of 223,900 fish and represented 4.3 percent of the total return.

Recreational fishing for Columbia River shad peaked in the early 1990s with more than 20,000 angler trips per year recorded by the WDFW and ODFW.

Run timing extends from mid-May through early August at Bonneville, with peak daily counts occurring in the June timeframe. Since the run overlaps with upriver Chinook, sockeye and steelhead, shad fishing opportunities are regulated to minimize impacts on Endangered Species Act-listed salmon stocks.

Shad fishing has been extending further and further up the Columbia in recent years. (Photo by Northwest Sportsman Magazine)

Where and how to catch shad

As for where to catch shad, the Columbia’s shoreline below Bonneville Dam and Beacon Rock in the western Columbia River Gorge area are the two main hotspots, although you can find fish congregating farther downstream in the Camas Slough and from Washougal downstream to Kalama, as well as in the Willamette immediately above and below the I-205 bridge.

The most popular shad fishing area is located along the riprap right below Bonneville. Heading east on Highway 14 from Camas, take a right-hand turn near the transmission towers about two miles past the town of North Bonneville. This access road allows anglers to easily fish along roughly three miles of prime shoreline on the northern banks below the second powerhouse dam, the transmission towers and above and below the Hamilton Island boat launch.

Further upstream, the area below John Day Dam has bank fishing access at Maryhill State Park, from near the Sam Hill Memorial Bridge (Highway 97) upstream to the dam itself.

Shad prefer to hug the bottom of fast-running current and it’s not unusual to catch the bulk of them as close as 25 to 30 feet from the shoreline in water as shallow as six to 20 feet, depending on the flow. Casting your presentation any farther will likely result in fewer hookups with fish.

Shad darts are the most popular lure choice, but red-and-white-colored flies with a small hook, colored beads in red or metallic silver or gold, and small crappie-like jigs, along with small wobbler spoons will also land their decent share of shad.

Most anglers use a lightweight, eight- to nine-foot salmon-style rod with a spinning or level-wind reel loaded with eight- to 10-pound-test mainline to an 8-pound-test leader. Be sure to bring along a long-handled net, and be careful while standing along the rocky, swiftly moving river. There is no daily catch limit for shad, but don’t be overly greedy and keep only what you can make good use of.

While very abundant, shad are fished mainly for the pleasure of the sport or used as crab or sturgeon bait and not necessarily to eat. Let it be known that shad are bony; they can be fileted, and if you choose to eat them, most prefer to pickle, smoke, or cook them in a pressure cooker. Shad roe, however, is considered a delicacy.

You can track the shad migration by going to the Columbia River Fish Passage website.

Columbia River shad history

American shad are a non-native, introduced species brought to the West Coast from Pennsylvania in the late 19th century and about 35,000 were introduced in northern California’s Sacramento River at Tehama in 1871. Believe it or not, these baby shad were transported via railroad cars.

Five years later, anglers reported harvesting shad in the Columbia River and in 1880 confirmed a shad invasion. A specimen was sent to the Smithsonian Institution, where it is preserved to this day.

Shad are an anadromous fish, spending most of their lives — three, four or five years — at sea before returning to spawn in freshwater areas. Shad, the largest of the herring family, are mainly plankton eaters and their diet includes euphausiids, copepods, mysid shrimp, amphipods, fish larvae and tiny insects. During spawning time, females release anywhere from 30,000 to 300,000 free-floating eggs which are then fertilized by males that arrive later. Shad are known to spawn twice or more.

They’re known to reach up to 30 inches long and weigh up to 12 pounds, but most measure 16 to 20 inches long and average two to three pounds. Female shad tend to be larger than their male counterparts.

While shad can grow large in Washington waterways, you might be surprised to know that the official state record weighed 3.85 pounds and was caught by Tom Magnuson on the Columbia River in Clark County way back on June 21, 2005.

Since the extensive development of hydroelectric projects on the mainstem Columbia River, the WDFW reports shad returns have increased markedly in abundance and have extended their range into the Upper Columbia River and Hells Canyon of the Snake River, where they’re also known to grow much larger in size.

With no limit and run sizes up the Columbia River in the millions, American shad represent an opportunity to put a lot of fish on a stringer in late spring and early summer. They’re good for bait and canning, as well as just fighting until your arms get sore. (Photo by WDFW)

Possible impacts of non-native shad

There are studies and management efforts being conducted on the impacts of Columbia River shad and how they could potentially disrupt the ecosystem and compete with native fish such as salmon and steelhead for food and in-river nursery grounds.

Other unknown concerns are how their downstream and upstream migration at peak periods correlates with other migratory fish; predation on young salmon and steelhead; disease transmission; low oxygen levels at fish ladders; obstructing salmon at hatchery facilities; a rise in water temperatures both in the river and ocean; unpredictable annual river flows; and drought other environmental issues.

In 2021, hundreds of shad began to show up in another unexpected location — right in the backyard of Seattle, in Lake Washington. Their numbers nearly doubled by 2023, per the annual springtime predatory fish abundance surveys conducted by the WDFW and Muckleshoot Tribe. Prior to that, their numbers were minimal in the huge lake.

Other places in Washington where shad have been spotted include Grays Harbor, other locations of Puget Sound, and Hood Canal.

The effects of their distribution into new waterways such as Lake Washington are unknown, but state and tribal fishery managers are closely monitoring this to see if there could be any ramifications to native fish populations.

Other West Coast locations where shad have been found include the Willamette, Umpqua and Siuslaw rivers in Oregon, and the Fraser River in British Columbia.

(Editor’s note: Mark Yuasa is a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife communications manager and longtime local fishing and outdoor writer.)

Bank anglers line the shoreline along the three miles below Bonneville Dam for shad. (Photo by WDFW)



The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.