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by Bob Banfelder

It was many moons ago when Donna and I started fishing the Peconic River, somewhere between the formally named Indian Island Clubhouse Restaurant and the Route 105 Bridge in Riverhead, Long Island, New York. Donna and I were working a medium action spinning outfit and a fly rod: she, with ten-pound test monofilament line, tossing a 3/4 oz. Kastmaster; me with a fast-sinking shooting head carrying a Clouser Minnow; a deadly fly on many species. We were hooking up like there was no tomorrow. But with what, we weren't quite sure initially, as both of us were pretty new to fishing the suds. Silvery-greenish airborne specters vaulted high into the misty atmosphere then vanished instantly, spitting hooks as we threw a series of sissy fits. At first, we both believed we were into a school of bunker. But bunker don't blast lures with a vengeance or at all. That much we knew for sure. Something was surely fishy. I figured those acrobats belonged to something in the herring family species.

Well, the catch of our day was certainly confusing at first, but we had a good excuse. We had only made the transition from freshwater fly-fishing (for brookies, browns and rainbow trout) to the brine the season before. During a fall outing, in the same spot, the two of us had inadvertently snagged scores of menhaden (a.k.a. bunker or mossbunker) with Kastmasters. We hooked them in the back, the tail, the belly. However, the following season, they—or so we thought—were the same fish as the season before, striking our lures with a vengeance: the Kastmaster and the Clouser Minnow, too. We soon learned that what we were hooking into were, indeed, hickory shad, not menhaden: wild, flying-out-of-the-water acrobatic show-offs. Fun! Fun! Fun! Like miniature tarpon, those torpedoes ascended and broke the surface straightaway. Donna duped several with the Kastmaster. I caught better than a dozen with the Clouser imitation. Still, we had lost many more than we actually landed. But why? Subsequent research revealed the answer. Like weakfish, hickory shad have thin, tissue paper-like mouths. They are to be played very gently—most carefully. And forget about trying to lift them out of the water by the leader.

I had broached the dubious shad/bunker subject with Mark Sedotti, a veteran fly caster who can send big fly patterns out to remarkable distances. At one of our Eastern Flyrodders monthly meetings (now defunct), Mark had been the evening's guest speaker. Later that evening, he told me all about shad and an old friend of his, Joe Brooks [former editor for Outdoor Life from 1968 to 1972, the year in which he passed away]. Mark and I discussed American shad, hickory shad, bunker, and other such species. Based on my story and details, the consensus referencing Mark and other club members was that the species in question was more than likely hickory shad.

A week or so later, back in our spot along the Peconic River, a surgical crescent cut created by a thirteen-and-a-quarter pound bluefish, which had attacked the quarry in question, having inhaled a chartreuse Clouser Minnow fly without conscience or fanfare, confirmed the species. Sure enough, the bodiless creature was the head of a hickory shad.

Off to Borders Bookstore (now defunct, too) for books covering chapter and verse concerning those aerial acrobats. Joe Brooks and Lefty Kreh cleared away the cobwebs often surrounding the enigma regarding those members of the herring family. Between Joe and Lefty, I had a pretty good idea how Donna and I can consistently land these celestial leapers, pledged to return all but a few to the waters for purposes of live-lining, for hickory shad do not make fine table fare as reported by those I spoke to and through the tomes of which I pored. Cookbooks included.

Succinctly, this is what I gleaned: American shad (Alosa sapidissima), which is prized for its roe and praised by a number of folks for its flesh, can be found along both sides of Long Island Sound, especially near the Connecticut River. Hickory shad (Pomolobus mediocris), however, sustain less desirable accolades, unless you are into pet food, fertilizer, chum, or live-lining as mentioned. According to James Peterson, award-winning cookbook writer, re Fish & Shellfish, the author feels that most people generally shy away from eating American shad because of all the tiny bones, yet he remains dauntless, emphatically stating that it is a delicious fish. Nowhere did I find anyone who condescends in accepting its cousin, ol' hickory, as acceptable cuisine.

Opinions and arguments set aside (especially from those who delight in creamed herring jammed into a jar), Donna and I can tell you firsthand that we had fantastic outings enjoying the aerial antics of those eighteen-inch anadromous acrobats.

For purposes of identification, note that hickory are smaller than their counterpart. Three and a half pounds tops, versus six to eight pounds; eighteen inches versus thirty inches, respectively. Also, the lower mandible of the hickory shad protrudes past the upper jaw while the mandibles of the American shad close evenly. This is the best way to distinguish the pair. Between menhaden and hickory shad, the picture may seem somewhat murky to the neophyte. So rather than get into confusing colors and questionable body markings, bunker simply will not take your lure nor give you an acrobatic show. Anglers will merely snag them—inadvertently or otherwise. In any event, you don't want hickory shad on the menu as the Catch of the Day or any day. And certainly not mossbunker, God forbid. But either of them acting as a magnet for the thirteen-plus pound bluefish or two thirty-two inch stripers we landed a week later, well, that's a lot like double-dipping and has certainly drawn us to the Peconic River, time and time again. You'll more than likely see Donna with her spinning outfit; me with my fly rod and a hickory shad pattern.

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Donna's bunker snagged on a Kastmaster. Bob epoxies eyes on all Kastmasters.

Bob Banfelder

Award-Winning Crime Thriller Novelist & Outdoors Writer
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Recent recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from Who's Who in America

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