Like many residents of the West Coast, American shad aren’t natives but have come to thrive here.
Northern California sees some pretty great runs, with large numbers of shad heading up the rivers where they were born to spawn, offering fast and furious fishing.
American shad are related to the herring and are often referred to as “little tarpon” because they are such fierce fighters.
Please note, these fish are not the threadfin shad you might use as bait for stripers or other game fish. American shad can easily run a couple pounds each.
Rivers like the Sacramento, Russian, and Feather are all well known for their prolific American shad runs.
As always, keep in mind the need to check local regulations to ensure you don’t run afoul of the law.
In some rivers, shad runs overlap with some Chinook and steelhead runs, so make sure you’re prepared to deal with one if you catch it.
Those bigger fish will occasionally take a shad lure and give you a heck of a fight, but they also are more tightly regulated than shad.
How to Catch Shad
Shad will readily attack a variety of lures.
Some good places to start for conventional tackle are shad darts, small spinner and spoons, and crappie jig heads with soft plastics.
Make sure your lure is fishing deep in the available water since the shad hold close to the bottom at varying depths.
Shad also tend to hold out of the fastest currents but don’t mind some movement. Try to find them along the transitioning lines between fast and slow currents.
Deeper, slower holes can also be great places to target as well.
Fly fishing for shad can be a lot of fun.
Since these feisty fish are so aggressive, they make a great fish for introducing anglers to fly fishing. The memory of bringing in a 2- or 3-pound shad on a 5-weight rod is likely to be etched in their memory for life.
Shad are a schooling fish, so when you find one, there almost certainly are more to follow.
Target areas just off gravel bars in slower water where they hold, stacking up before spawning.
If bank fishing, try making casts upstream and let your lure flow along till it’s almost back onshore. Repeat another half dozen times. If you don’t get a bite in that time, move several feet downstream and keep it up.
California’s shad runs generally start in early to mid-April and last through at least June.
The season really hits its stride in May, with some of the best fishing being mid-May through mid-June. Some years have truly epic runs that last through July.
Each river system will provide slightly different schedules, but as a whole, that is the general timeframe throughout California as well as farther north for best shad fishing rivers in Oregon and Washington.
After you see which rivers are your best bets for catching lots of American shad in California, stick around for a link to our favorite tips on how to catch these fun fish.
We’ll even cover the topic of whether shad are good to eat or not, and whether they make good bait.
But first, here are the best shad rivers in California.
The Sacramento offers fantastic shad fishing, both in its main river as well as in some of its larger tributaries (the best of which we cover below).
The lower sections of the Sacramento River offer an earlier start to fishing the shad run than most California rivers. Start in April below Sacramento, then move upstream with the migrating fish as the days get warmer.
Shad follow the warming waters, so as May comes and goes, large schools of shad will move through Chico, up to Red Bluff and Woodson Bridge.
In June and July, the fishing really heats up around Red Bluff. Check out the length of the river between Corning and the Red Bluff Diversion Dam.
Below Chico, expect to have 20-30 fish days pretty regularly from mid-May through June. Above Chico, the numbers pick up later in the spawn, with 100-fish days possible.
The Sacramento River Delta area has large numbers of shad heading upstream in early to mid-April.
There are some shad that stay and spawn in the delta, but with huge water fluctuations, the area isn’t as prominent a fishery as it once was, and the delta is often better fished for stripers, largemouth bass, sturgeon and several other game fish species.
More information: Sacramento River Fishing
The American River joins the Sacramento River in Sacramento itself and has a great shad run, typically starting in May and going at least through June, and occasionally into July.
It’s not unheard of to catch post-spawn shad into September and early October, but the main fishery for freshly returned shad will be in late spring and early summer.
Boat anglers tend to hang out near the confluence by Discovery Park. There are access points throughout the city, with bank anglers generally fishing between Nimbus Dam and Arden Bar.
Fish the slower sections of the river, targeting the deeper pools. Use just enough weight to get your lure close to the bottom.
One big benefit of fishing the American River is the convenience of its urban setting. It cuts right through the city and has several public access points.
More information: American River Fishing
The Feather River, another major tributary of the Sacramento River a bit farther inland, has shad biting in late July and through August, which is much later than most rivers.
In fact, several are caught by anglers targeting salmon in September every year.
Target shad on the Feather River side of the confluence with the Sacramento River in farming country about a half hour north of downtown Sacramento. The Verona Marina is near the confluence.
Shad aren’t fans of dirty water, so they move into the clearer waters of the Feather River and will hold there, waiting for the temperatures to rise.
Best early bets on the Feather are from Verona up to the Shanghai Bend, then head farther upstream to find them after mid-May.
Stop off in Yuba City or Colusa to inquire about the best access points along the river.
More information: Feather River Fishing
The Yuba River sees a good number of shad that run up from the Feather River and into the Yuba, a major tributary.
The lower Yuba from the confluence at Yuba City up roughly a dozen miles to Daguerre Point Dam can be exceptional for shad fishing, depending on water depth.
The dam stops the shad from moving any further upstream, but it’s possible to find fish stacked up just below in deeper pools.
Once the water warms up into the 60s, shad will be stacking up in every available pool and slack water on the river. Huge numbers can be caught regularly throughout June and much of July before tapering off late that month.
The clear water and relative shallowness of the lower Yuba make targeting shad a lot of fun. Wading out into waist-deep water may find you surrounded by shad.
Try casting as far as you can, as the ones near you likely won’t bite … unless they change their minds, which can happen. Shad are super aggressive, after all.
There are several coastal rivers, especially north of San Francisco Bay, that have fishable shad runs, at least some years.
The best of these coastal shad streams is often the Russian River, which usually has a good run.
The best time to target the Russian is between mid-May through June.
While much of the river is close to California State Route 116 (SR 116), you’ll find accessing it isn’t so easy. Most of the river bank is private property.
Wade-in access is possible in spots if you look around enough, though it can be difficult going in some areas.
The best approach is via drift boat between launches along the river. You’ll be able to cover more water without the hassle of finding bank access points.
If boating this isn’t feasible for you, try on the lower section of the river. It has the best shore access but is also the most popular, so expect to have anglers off either shoulder.
More information: Russian River Fishing
More California Shad Fishing Rivers
The San Joaquin River, which flows into Suisun Bay along with the Sacramento River, at times has been a good producer for shad anglers.
However, the fact is frequent drought and other water quality issues can put a damper on the San Joaquin’s runs more than on nearby the Sacramento River system, so we would point you that direction most years.
If the shad are running full force into the San Joaquin, they may also appear in very good numbers in some main tributaries, especially the Stanislaus River and Tuolumne River.
The San Joaquin River system also has a rather unique shad fishery in the form of Millerton Lake near Fresno, where a very unusual landlocked population of American shad has taken hold. Millerton Lake also is quite a good striped bass fishery.
Shad runs, at times worth your fishing attention, have been observed on the Mokelumne River, which joins forces with the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers in the delta area.
Also, anglers have found varying degrees of success on several other coastal rivers much more famous for salmon and steelhead, including the Klamath River, Trinity River, Eel River, and perhaps even the Smith River.
More tips: How to Catch American Shad
To learn more about this kind of fishing (and a bit about whether you’d want to try eating shad or using them for bait for sturgeon and crabbing), we suggest you read our easy to read guide, American Shad Fishing: Simple Techniques and Tips.