Threadfin Shad - A Comprehensive Guide | Great Days Outdoors

Threadfin Shad – A Comprehensive Guide

The threadfin shad (Dorosoma petenense) is a small freshwater fish that belongs to the herring (Clupeidae) family. It is widely spread throughout the eastern United States, and is an extremely important forage species for all types of freshwater game fish. If you are targeting bass, crappie, walleye, or catfish…then it behooves you to become familiar with threadfin shad.

Understanding threadfin shad habits can be key to understanding gamefish patterns on your local waterway. Gamefish follow schools the same way wolves follow deer herds. Find the shad, and you’ll find the rest of the food chain. Knowing how to locate, catch, and keep threadfin shad is a big step in becoming a competent freshwater angler.

What Is A Threadfin Shad?

Threadfin shad are small, schooling fish. They are typically 3-6” long and silver in color. They possess deeply forked tails which typically demonstrate a yellow/chartreuse coloration (this color is often mimicked by many artificial baits). Threadfin shad also have a characteristic black dot located just behind their gill plate.

Threadfin Shad Vs Gizzard Shad

Threadfin shad can be distinguished from gizzard shad in a number of ways. For starters, gizzard shad get much larger than threadfin. Mature gizzard shad can grow up to 19” in length, and average specimens are usually 6-9”, much larger than even big threadfin shad. 

threadfin shad
The deeply forked yellow/chartreuse tails are the easiest ways to distinguish the threadfin from the gizzard.

Gizzard shad also have a “nose.” Their upper jaw extends past their lower jaw, whereas the inverse is true of threadfin shad. This is the quickest way to identify small gizzard shad compared to large threadfin.


Where To Catch Threadfin Shad

Threadfin shad can appear almost anywhere in a body of water depending on the time of year, temperature, oxygen levels, and other factors. However, if you’re unfamiliar with an area or new to searching for shad, the most foolproof location is also the easiest. At night and early in the morning, they frequently congregate around the lights on boat ramps and docks. They are also drawn to the warmth of concrete boat ramps as temps fall. This is convenient for fishermen, since it means you can often go ahead and catch your bait before you head out on your boat.

On a river system, shad can usually be located anywhere there is a break from the current. Shallow oxbow lakes can be good places to begin your search. In shallow water, you can often smell large schools of shad or see them flipping at the surface.

On lakes, look for areas that have current. Creek mouths are an excellent place to start your search. On a windy day, start on the downwind side of a lake and go from there. The edges of grass flats can attract shad as well.

What Do Threadfin Shad Eat?

Threadfin shad eat plankton so understanding some basic facts about plankton can help you locate and catch them. 

Plankton are microscopic on an individual scale, but visible in large numbers due to the impact they have on water clarity. If the water is crystal clear, it likely doesn’t have high levels of plankton available for threadfin shad to feed on. Plankton also require light. This is why dock lights will often attract shad at night. 

When Do Threadfin Shad Spawn?

Shad unfortunately do not rely on a calendar the same way that we do. Threadfin spawn is usually triggered by water temperatures rising to 70 degrees fahrenheit. Depending on where you are in the US, this can occur by mid-spring or as late as summer. Typically, for most of the south, late April marks the first shad spawn of the year. It’s important to know that in good conditions, shad can spawn multiple times in a year. This means that realistically, you can encounter shad spawn throughout the fishing season.


How To Catch Threadfin Shad

How To Find Threadfin Shad

The easiest way to find threadfin is to prowl likely spawning and feeding habitat and pay attention to what you see. On calm water, a trained eye can quickly spot the telltale “flick” of shad activity near the surface of the water. Good polarized sunglasses and a brimmed hat can make searching for shad easier on your eyes. Birds such as osprey, egrets, gulls and terns also quickly learn to identify shallow water shad. On open water, you can see congregations of birds feasting on shad long before you’ll see the shad themselves.

If you have a fishfinder on your boat, sonar technology makes it very easy to locate shad. Sonar can quickly reveal schools of bait too deep to observe with your naked eyes. On down-imaging, shad show up as “balls” or “clouds,” usually with larger arches underneath and to the sides of the school. These arches are baitfish opportunistically feeding on weak or injured shad that stray from the safety of the school. 

How To Catch Threadfin Shad With A Cast Net

Once you’ve located threadfin, the best way to catch them is with a cast net. If you find a very large school, there’s not much to it. Sometimes it seems like it’d be hard to throw a net and not catch shad. But on smaller schools in deep water, or when the fish are very shallow, there are a few tips that can help you catch more shad in less time.

First, make sure you have a good marker on where the shad are. If your sonar unit has GPS, drop a pin as you drift over the school. Ideally, approach the school from several directions and mark it each time to get a better idea of where exactly the fish are. If you don’t have GPS, drop a marker buoy. The deeper the shad are or the smaller the school, the more important it is to pin down their location.

It’s also important to be as stealthy as possible when making the final approach. Threadfin know they are at the bottom of the food chain, and the rumbling of an outboard engine or the thump of cast net weights hitting the boat floor can spook them. They will also move out of the way of your shadow. Knowing all of this, it’s best to make your approach by drifting with the wind, or at the least killing your outboard and approaching with the trolling motor. Keep the sun in your face if possible.

Make sure to have your net ready to throw as you approach the target area. While it’s possible to net shad and run a boat, it’s much better to delegate boat handling to a helper while you operate the net. Ideally, you want to make a good throw right on top of the school and catch all of your bait on the first throw. 

Best Size Cast Net For Threadfin Shad

There are several factors to consider when choosing the best size cast net for threadfin shad. 

“Size” can refer to several things. Cast nets are usually measured by their radius, their mesh size, and their weight-per-foot. So, for example, you may go to your local tackle shop and see a net that’s marked as 8ft in diameter, with half-inch mesh, and weighted at a half-pound per foot. 

In general, you want to throw the largest diameter net you can comfortably handle. The bigger the net, the more shad you can catch in one throw and the harder it is for the shad to swim out from under the net as it sinks. For most anglers, 8ft is a good size. Experienced throwers may be able to throw 12ft comfortably. However, smaller nets can sometimes be a blessing around docks or other  structure since they’re easier to keep off of snags. 

threadfin shad in net
A good cast net throw can fill up your livewell quickly with threadfin.

The ideal weight depends on the depth of the shad. On average, one pound of weight per foot is about right. If shad are suspended deep in the water column, 1.5lbs will help the net to sink fast enough to avoid shad being able to swim out from under it. If shad are very shallow, 3/4lbs of weight per foot will suffice. If you are having to “hunt” for shad, throwing the net repeatedly to fill your livewell, a lighter net is less of a workout.

For your mesh size, ⅜” or ½” is best. ⅜” will catch smaller threadfin shad and reduce the number of baitfish that become “gilled.” Fish become gilled when the net is too large and allows the fish to swim halfway through it, resulting in a fish that is stuck in the net. However, it’s important to remember that a bigger net size, such as ½” sinks faster due to less water resistance.

Best Cast Net For Threadfin Shad

While cast nets are readily available at most mom-n-pop bait shops and big-box retailers, good cast nets are somewhat rare and can be quite expensive. If you get sticker-shock, take a deep breath and think about how much time and money you’ll save in the long haul catching your own bait out on the water.

When shopping for a cast net, look for one with as many panels as possible. 

How To Catch Threadfin Shad Without A Cast Net

What if you don’t own a cast net? Can you still catch threadfin shad? The most honest answer is, “Maybe.”

Whereas larger gizzard shad can be caught on small spinning lures and sabiki rigs, the diminutive size and dietary habits of threadfin shad makes targeting them without a cast net difficult at best and impossible at worst. You can technically catch them in trawling nets and gill nets, but due to government regulations and high purchase prices these are generally not an appealing substitute. Dip netting shad is technically possible, as is seining them with a minnow seine, but the yields on these methods are much lower.

Threadfin shad are also technically possible to catch on micro fishing gear. Japanese fishermen target tanago regularly with tackle that may seem impossibly small to Western anglers. You won’t find it in your local tackle shop, but Amazon and many specialty online retailers carry hooks small enough for even threadfin shad. Paste bait, either purchased gluten bait or homemade flour and egg mixes, will attract shad and many other small baitfish.

At the end of the day, however, a good cast net is without a doubt the most effective way to catch threadfin shad.

Using Threadfin Shad As Bait

How To Keep Threadfin Shad Alive

Once you’ve managed to locate and catch threadfin shad, a new problem arises. How do you keep them alive, or at least fresh? Shad are incredibly fragile fish, and while freshly-dead fish perform almost as well as live ones, once they start to decay their fish catching ability deteriorates rapidly. 

To keep shad alive, you’ll want to handle them as little as possible, keep them cool, keep them in the dark, and ensure adequate water circulation and filtration. If your boat’s livewell system can’t provide these conditions, you’ll have a difficult time keeping bait alive.

If you’re serious about keeping large quantities of shad alive, you may want to consider an Xtreme Bait Tank. These double-walled tanks come with impressive water recirculation and filtration systems, and optional features such as black-out walls and lids to reduce light and heat. They can be installed on docks and in boats, and are quickly becoming standard for fishermen who rely heavily on live shad.

For the weekend warrior, your best bet is to immediately ice your threadfin. Dump them straight out of the cast net and onto a cooler full of ice, close the lid, and motor to your fishing spot. Shad will keep well enough on ice to provide a full day of good fishing.

Threadfin Shad Imitation Baits

If you see shad flipping in the shallows and don’t want to go through the hassle of keeping live bait, shad imitations are a great alternative. Since threadfin are such a crucial part of the food chain, almost every type of lure made for crappie and bass comes in patterns designed to mimic them. You can find jigs, topwater lures, crankbaits, and soft plastics in various shades of white, grey, and silver designed to mimic the appearance of shad. Of course, most of them will include a flash of chartreuse and the characteristic black dot. 

Where To Buy Threadfin Shad

If your local waterways are home to threadfin, it’s a good bet that your local bait shops are procuring them from their suppliers. If you’re short on time or don’t have a net to catch them yourself, try the nearest bait shop. They may not be set up to keep them alive, but it’s not uncommon to find them in a freezer alongside other frozen baits.

In a pinch, many stores also stock salted shad on their shelves. While they’re not nearly as good as fresh shad, they can work in a pinch.

Stocking Threadfin Shad

As we’ve discussed, threadfin shad are a key forage species for many species of game fish. If you manage a private pond, they can be an awesome addition to it. Their small size and high reproduction rate makes them awesome bass food. They lack the protective spines that panfish have, making them preferable to bluegill. Their introduction to a pond can shift bass’s feeding efforts away from stocked bluegill, enabling more of them to reach adulthood. They also compete slightly with bass fingerlings, reducing recruitment. Put all of this together, and introducing threadfin to your pond can mean fewer fingerlings and stunted fish and more bigger, healthier ones.

stocking shad
Threadfin are a great forage species to stock in your pond.

If you’re interested in stocking threadfin in your pond, Southeastern Pond Management has been a leader in pond and lake management services since 1989. Their consultants can assist you with making sure that shad are a good fit for your pond, and ensure that the stocking goes smoothly and aligns with your overall management goals. They can be reached at 1-888-830-POND, or at

Final Thoughts On Threadfin Shad

Threadfin shad are a small fish that should be a big deal to freshwater anglers. Whether you’re targeting crappie, catfish, or bass, understanding how shad feed and spawn in your local waterways will make you a more successful fisherman. So go out, put on your polarized lenses, and start looking for them today!

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