You have just cast to the edge of the bank in an effort to sweep your fly across a seam of current slowly meandering in the middle of the river. Suddenly you see a large silver flash porpoising just behind the spot where your fly was hopefully lurking. In a matter of micro-seconds, you feel a sudden slamming vibration jolting your rod tip then your hands. Fly line then backing starts screaming off of your reel and your mind goes to mush or into autopilot to fight this beast. After you gain back some line, you now experience powerful dives and acrobatic leaps until somehow you have summoned enough courage to land this torpedo with fins. You would be forgiven for thinking that you have just hooked a fresh spring salmon or passing Jet Ski, but you have just hooked and landed an Allis shad (Alosa alosa)!
Allis Shad Who?
So you're thinking, if this European fish fights this good where in the U.K. can I go and catch one? Good question. For the U.K. fly fisherman, the depressing answer comes in the form of the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981. This bit of legislation makes it illegal in U.K. waters to catch Allis or Twaite shads via commercial or leisure-angling methods. The old culprits of over fishing, pollution, water obstructions and abstraction head the list of reasons for prohibiting shad fishing in the U.K. But don't throw in the fishing towel just yet as the solution to this angling problem lies just across the channel in Finistère ('land's end'), Brittany.
Allis Shad Fishing in Finistère
Although virtually unknown to English-speaking fly fishermen living outside of France, every year Brittany plays host to a special homecoming. Starting from mid to late April, the river Aulne near Châteaulin (just 30 minutes from the city of Brest) boils up and comes alive with prolific runs of Allis shad. These migratory spawners are easily observed below the weir sills of the final three lochs of the Aulne river system (also known as the Nantes to Brest canal). They migrate upriver along side the Atlantic salmon and are as big as many returning grilse. Although fishing for the Allis shad is very popular in the south of France, this is not the case in Brittany where most local and visiting French anglers to Châteaulin concentrate their efforts solely on catching spring salmon. This mixture of local French snobbery ignorance towards the fighting qualities of the Allis shad helps to create a wonderful fly fishing opportunity for the rest of us! Therefore the result is very little fishing pressure on the Allis shad population with specimens over the 4 lb. mark being very common. Below is my tale of one fly fishing session for the Allis shad
Breaking the World Record
On May, 6th 2005, I broke the IGFA 'all tackle' world record for the Allis shad while taking a break from a week's salmon guiding in central Brittany. The 60 cm fish which weighed 2.31 kg (5 lb. 2 oz.) almost doubled the weight of the previous world record Allis shad of 1.19 kg (2 lb. 9 oz.) held since June 2001 by Stephane Giraudeau. Instead of fishing for salmon on the river Aulne, on the evening of the 6th Sam decided to take his 7 weight and fish for shad. The conditions seemed hopeful with fish cruising on the surface, light levels dropping slowly, coupled with a slight tail wind to aid casting. Since the river flow was quite strong and the majority of 'taking' shad were located in deep pockets between current seams just below the weir at Coatigrac'h, I switched from a WF7 to a high density sinking line to get down to the fish quickly. Early in the evening, the session appeared to look quite productive with 5 fish in the 4 to 4.5 lb. range succumbing to various number 8-sized mini fly lures with color combinations ranging from red and white, green and black, to the most productive, chartreuse and white. Most takes resulted from casting cross-current, then allowing the fly to sweep and sink towards the center of the river where the shad would normally 'pluck' or 'hammer' the lure.
To avoid losing the interest of the shad, I would systematically change fly sizes (normally from size 6 to 8 and visa versa), colour combinations, and patterns. However, after a couple hours of trying various lure combinations, I was now down to the last fly of the evening which was a simple dull silver fry pattern. After tying on the fly, I cast to the left bank of the river, but as soon as the fly started to swing, a fish came up and crashed the fly. Instinctively, I pulled sharply on my line hand while lifting the rod to embed the fly into the shad's bony mouth. Immediately after the hook-set the shad was in the air dancing as if he had tarpon blood in her. Then as quickly as it was airborne, the shad would lunge for a deep run using the current to her advantage by turning sideways to use the current for leverage. After 10 minutes of a seemingly endless scenario of 'flight' then 'dive' the fish finally tired and glided sideways into my landing net. After re-grouping from the fight, I rushed home to look up the existing record on the Allis shad. It is then I realized that, if certified, I had caught the second largest 'all tackle' shad on record.
Now It's Your TurnDon't think this is the end of the story. Visiting fly anglers to Brittany not only have a chance to catch these hard-fighting silver 'nut cases' but still have the opportunity to hook the next world record. Recent scientific studies plus my own observations indicate that there are still some big critters amongst the returning legion of Allis shad to the rivers of Brittany with fish in the 80 cm range amongst the returnees. So the story big shad on the fly isn't a red herring after all.
Sam Davis is a distance casting athlete who gave us a lesson in man-casting a few years back while he was setting up the British Flycasting Association. He now lives in Brittany, France and can be found here!