Fishing for gizzard shad would prove daunting

While talking with a couple of Lake Mead fishermen recently, the subject turned to gizzard shad. Since they showed up in Lake Mead in 2007, gizzards have displaced threadfin shad as both the primary forage fish in the lake and the live bait of choice for many anglers. But what if the quick-darting baitfish could be more than just another source of bass food?

That thought came to mind as we swapped stories about gizzards and the unexpected things anglers have seen them do. Among those was the gizzard’s imitation of a striper boil, an event that occurs when striped bass feed aggressively on the surface. Ironically, stripers boil when they are feeding on shad.

We laughed as we described seeing significant disturbance on the water’s surface followed by what appeared to be striped bass chasing shad. When this happened to my friend Roger and me, we quickly grabbed rods rigged for top-water action and began working the school of fish as they made their way along the shoreline in Vegas Wash. After several casts, it became apparent the fish wanted nothing to do with a Zara Spook, a Super Fluke or anything else. When we slipped in to take a closer look we realized that we had been fooled. The porpoising fish were actually gizzard shad.

As we chuckled over shared versions of a similar experience, I couldn’t help but wonder whether gizzard shad would take bait presented on a rod and reel. Not that gizzard shad have a reputation for being tasty table fare. In fact, it is quite the opposite, but with Lake Mead’s growing gizzard shad population one has to ask whether the fish might present yet another fishing opportunity. Especially with football-shaped fish pushing beyond the 4-pound mark.

Though anglers have caught untold numbers of gizzard shad with a cast net, and some through spearfishing, to date there is no record of an angler catching a Lake Mead gizzard shad with a rod and reel. Not even so much as a rumor. But what about elsewhere?

Naturally, my search for answers to that question led me to the Internet — the center of all knowledge, true or not. Gizzards present a problem for anglers because they feed on phytoplankton, a microscopic plant organism that lives in water. Try putting that on a hook, even a small one.

My search led me through several online forums where the primary focus when it comes to gizzard shad is how to use them for bait. Of course, you can’t use them for bait if you don’t catch them. Most anglers who reported catching gizzard shad with a rod and reel said they snagged them rather than caught them. However, I did find a few posts in which the authors said they did catch gizzard shad in a traditional sense.

In a post on Xtreme Catfishing (, Jerry Trew of Little Rock, Ark. wrote, “If I was determined to try and catch one in the mouth with a hook, I’d use a small green pea for bait. ... If you visit the cross-Florida barge canal, you’ll find lots of people fishing for their supper, using a cane pole, small hook, and a green pea for bait.”

I also have heard that frozen peas will catch Lake Mead’s tilapia, but how do you get a pea to stay on your hook?

Steve Williams, of Coxsakie, N.Y., wrote that he has caught shad using small worms. And while answering a reader’s question about catching gizzard shad, the editor of Pond Boss Magazine said he and a friend found success with 4-pound test, tiny hooks and “a tiny bit of soft plastic, no larger than a pencil eraser. ... The shad fishing became an entertaining sidelight to our bass fishing.”

Whether Lake Mead gizzard shad can be caught with a rod and reel remains to be seen. Perhaps someone already has taken that up as a challenge, but only time will tell. Meanwhile, those who are serious about catching shad will probably want to stick with a cast net.

Freelance writer Doug Nielsen is a conservation educator for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. His “In the Outdoors” column, published Thursday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, is not affiliated with or endorsed by the NDOW. Any opinions he states in his column are his own. He can be reached at