The annual pilgrimage

Craig Murphy advises on fishing for the migratory twaite shad on the River Barrow at St. Mullins

 Issue 4 (Jun-Jul 2015)    Craig Murphy


As I write this (May 2015), the annual pilgrimage to St. Mullins in Co. Carlow has once again begun and anglers from all over Ireland will be descending on the tidal stretch of the River Barrow to fish for twaite shad as they make their way upstream to spawn on the clean gravel beds just below the weir.

The twaite shad is a deep bodied herring-like fish who – unlike herring – spawn in freshwater. They are found in most of Europe and all countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, but here in Ireland the Barrow is the Mecca for shad anglers and for a couple of weeks a year anglers line the tidal stretch at St. Mullins to enjoy the sport. Overlooked by the Blackstairs Mountains to the East, Mount Brandon to the West and fringed with rich forestry, the Barrow at St. Mullins is one of the most picturesque places to fish in the country.

St Mullins
St. Mullins is the Mecca for Irish shad fishing and truly beautiful

On light tackle shad can put up a spirited fight, are highly acrobatic and masters of throwing hooks. They have been likened to tarpon for their acrobatic antics and head shaking. Using their deep bodies in the current they kite left and right, giving powerful runs and even tail walking. This is why you usually lose more fish than you land, but there is something you can do to combat this. Long before Savage Gear brought out the line-thru range of pike lures, which allow the lure to slide away from the hooks after a fish strikes at it, shad anglers have been fine tuning their rigs to do the same. Instead of using  the ‘Tasmanian Devil’  lure straight out of the packet, anglers are instead replacing the metal trace and treble supplied, with a length of 6 or 8lb test  fluorocarbon, 30cm or so long. It is tied up with a micro swivel one end followed by a Tasmanian Devil, a 6 or 8mm bead, and finished with a good quality treble hook like an Owner ST-36BC in a size 6 or 8. The advantage of this rigging method is that when a shad hits the lure and becomes hooked the lure is free to slide away from the treble, leaving no weight near the hook to aid the fish in shaking itself free. The effectiveness of this rig really comes into play when the fish breaches; this is where most shad will be lost and bowing the rod to a jumping fish can also help in this situation.

Twaite shad spinning
A balanced set up is crucial when constantly casting for shad
twaite shad catch and release
A pristine St. Mullins shad. This species is not very good out of the water so please try to minimise the amount of time they spend on the bank

A lot of anglers, including myself, still sometimes use metal lures. You do pull out of more fish but they can get bites when the ‘Tassie’ isn’t getting down deep enough. The Savage Gear LRF Psycho Sprat in the 8g version is one of my favourites but any similar lure will also do the job. I do however replace the single hook with a size 8 treble and a tip I received from a friend of mine recently is to add three or four small split rings before attaching a treble. This is an old sea trout angler’s trick and it creates a hinge between the hook and the lure, making it harder for them to throw the hook. As in any fishing, it’s small modifications like these which can give you the edge and help put more fish on the bank.

A standard light spinning rod with a casting weight up to 15 or 20g is ideal. Most anglers prefer a rod of 9ft to aid in casting distance. The Barrow is 30 to 40 yards wide in parts at St. Mullins and you will need to get your lure as close as you can to the opposite bank. Personally I like a 7 to 8ft rod used in conjunction with a thin diameter braid. I find a shorter rod is easier to impart a bit of extra action into the lure as you work it back in but really it comes down to whatever you are most comfortable with. A 2500 or 3000 size front drag reel is perfect to complete a nice balanced setup, and believe me a light and balanced setup is crucial to avoid body aches in this game, as repetitive casting can be hard going for hours on end.

twaite shad fishing
A shad shakes its head violently in an attempt to throw the hook. You can see the Tassie travelling up the line here to shift the weight away from the point of hooking, a big edge

As far as line choice goes both braid and mono have their advantages and disadvantages. Mono is stretchy and absorbs any strike at the lure you might get as you’re retrieving, something you rarely miss while using braid. Mono of 5 or 6lb and braid of around 10lb is perfect. Generally I use both, and keeping two rods setup can be useful if the weather is changeable. Braid is my default choice but I invariably switch to mono if the wind kicks up because braid tends to lift off the water in windy conditions preventing your lure from sinking and by the time you take up the slack of the cast the lure is halfway across the river. That said, braided mainlines are still the superior choice as every knock is transmitted through the line and into the rod blank. Sometimes if you pause for a second after a knock you will get another hit and hook the fish. It’s also more fun fighting a fish as you are in direct contact. With so many braids on the market these days, it’s hard to choose. In saying that Power Pro and Daiwa Shinobi are my top choices currently, however I’ve recently spooled up with the new WFT Gliss in 8kg (0.14mm). To be fair I haven’t used it enough to make a judgment on it yet but early indications are good. Created from extruded HMPE fibres, it takes a fraction of the time to produce compared to traditional weaved braid of the same quantity. It’s extremely good value for money because of this. Gliss resembles a monofilament but has practically zero stretch making it an excellent choice for this kind of fishing.

specimne twaite shad
My PB at the time of writing, 3lb even, caught in May 2014

Male shad usually start to enter the river in mid to late April, depending on the timing of the spring tides. The larger females follow one to two weeks later and continue to run into the end of May, sometimes just into June. A couple of days each side of a full moon – so, spring tides – being the best times. You will catch at all stages of the tide but I find a couple of hours either side of low the most productive time as the fish are concentrated in the deeper, holding areas along the river. Like most fish species, dawn and dusk seem to be the most productive times of the day. If low water coincides with either dawn or dusk, you’ve got pretty much ideal conditions, as long as the wind and rain doesn’t spoil it on you!

The Irish specimen weight (as set by the Irish Specimen Fish Committee (ISFC) for above average-sized fish) for twaite shad this year (2015) is 1.2kg. I found this out the hard way in late April after I landed one of 1.12kg only to find out the qualifying weight had been raised from the previous year’s weight of 1.1kg! It was the only fish over one kilo I had out of a dozen fish that weekend before a low pressure system dumped a month’s worth of rain over the country, turning the Barrow into something that resembled the river from Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Too much fresh water coming down the river puts the shad off running, so I’m told, and any that do venture up in such conditions struggle to see the lures with the coloured water, making the fishing very hard indeed. Eventually, though, it all came good in mid-May this year. With a week of no rain, the river cleared up and the fishing improved dramatically. The female fish started to run and news started to spread through the grapevine of a few specimen size fish coming out, some of which were over the long-standing record which stands at 3.4lb/1.54kg, which was caught in 1999 by Michael O’Leary.

large twaite shad
Well known specimen angler Sid Kennedy with a big 3lb+ shad
twaite shad fishing
Shad fight very well for their size!

I, and many others, reckon we could very well see the official twaite shad record finally broken this year, with a couple of possible candidates already landed. The main criterion in making such a claim is identifying the species. Anglers wishing to ratify a specimen (or record) fish are requested to take several scale samples from their fish, which are then sent to Inland Fisheries Ireland who, working with University College Dublin, carry out genetic analysis to determine whether they are twaite, allis or a hybrid shad. According to the ISFC records, a specimen allis shad (which can grow substantially larger than twaite) hasn’t been recorded in Ireland in the past 59 years. I think it is highly unlikely that any of the larger fish caught this year are in fact allis shad.

I recently stumbled across an interesting paper called ‘Ecology of the allis and twaite shad’  1. It seems, like so many fish these days, allis shad have suffered considerably from over-fishing, river obstructions and pollution throughout its range. Allis shad prefer to venture further upstream to spawn but man-made barriers like dams and weirs have caused both allis and twaite shad to share the same spawning grounds, thus causing extensive hybridisation. However, data collected in recent years points to there being very low numbers of allis shad migrating into Irish rivers  2.

In 2011 the ISFC set a specimen weight for shad hybrids at 1.1kg and the following year they ratified 35 claims for them, yet oddly there is still no record for the species. There also hasn’t been a ratified claim since the 2012 report. Could this be the year the hybrid record is set, the twaite record broken or possibly both? We will have to wait and see how it pans out in the 2016 specimen report but until then there’s still plenty of shad to be caught before they return back to the sea for another year.

Tight lines,

Craig Murphy

¹ Maitland & Hatton-Ellis (2003) Ecology of the Allis and Twaite shad Alosa alosa and Alosa fallax. Conserving Natura Rivers Ecology Series No. 3. English Nature

² King et al. (2011). Ireland Red List No. 5: Amphibians, Reptiles and Freshwater Fish. National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Note: As of 2019 the current qualifying specimen weight for the Irish Specimen Fish Committee remains at 1.2kg (approx. 2lb 10oz) with the Irish record standing at 1.64kg (approx. 3lb 10oz). A length-based category also exists with fish ≥46cm total length eligible.