BENEATH THE MAYO BRIDGE I share a small island with the homeless of Richmond. I return each year when the tiny buds of spring start to appear and warm weather kicks out the last frost. The folks on the island don’t seem to mind. They know why I’m here.
There’s a small sandy shore on the east side of the island where the mighty James River is cut thinner than elsewhere. This is where you’ll find me, fishing deep and slow with gold and silver and perhaps a bit of marabou. Fixated on every pause or bump of my indicator, I wait for it to plummet, hoping for the telltale shiver that shoots through my rod as my father’s voice echoes in my head, “Get him.”
On a six-weight, anything from the sea is an adventure. Hickory shad run up to 18 inches and are a lot of fun to catch, but the best bite comes from the beautiful American shad, which still carry a bit of ocean in their coloring and can grow to two feet long. Four pounds of Technicolor blue-and-silver leaping out of the water like a baby tarpon. It took my breath away the first time I hooked one.
Mornings here are so calm it’s hard to believe I’m in the middle of a state capital. The bridge is free of cars, just the occasional biker cruising by in neon garb. Blue herons—the true fishermen—nest in trees at the western point of the island and are the only thing walking the beach this time of day. The large, lanky birds look so strange settled in the straining branches. They probably enjoy the shad even more than I do.
My solitude won’t last. By midday the rocky banks of the river’s south shore will be freckled with fishermen, and tidal waters will gush and break across plenty of boats. Up on the bridge, residents of the tough surrounding neighborhoods will cast blood worms more than 20 feet down, hoping to fill their buckets with perch. There are stripers to be caught as well, though most of the larger fish remain downsteam.
Like so much else in the world, this annual shad migration has been abused. While it’s still a much-anticipated event in downtown Richmond, the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has placed a moratorium on the possession of any American shad. While the rule doesn’t much affect a catch-and-release fisherman like myself, it’s still a reminder of our penchant for wasting resources.
My first trip here was with my wife and her father, Conrad Gressett, who’d spent his whole life in Richmond and had seen big changes. “You couldn’t even see those rocks,” he said, pointing down to the water as we looked over the bridge. “There were so many damn shad they were piled on top of one another.” I asked him about stories I’d heard of fishermen just dipping a gold hook and getting strikes. “You could just dip a net!” he laughed. “You didn’t even need a fishing pole!”
The shad dart is every local guy’s favorite. There’s some debate about color and size, but it’s always a shad dart. I will use a size 6-to-10 hook with some gold or silver flash underbody and marabou over the top, with lead eyes tied up, Bob C. style. I prefer white marabou but have done well with black. Using white will net you an occasional bronzeback, which also lurk around the island.
On the drive home I find myself thinking about the island’s homeless inhabitants. When the water rises these people must abandon what little they have, then watch the water each day, waiting for it to recede. They don’t even notice me; I am simply a seasonal ornament that will fade away as the flowers start to bloom. Like many of my favorite fishing spots, I’ve learned a lot from this stretch of river. For the shad and me, it’s a good place to meet.