Havre de Grace, Maryland, May 7, 2011
Fish after fish was hooked, played and released. How could such a small area hold so much shad? But on almost every cast the line would suddenly stop and there would be a deep bend on the rod. After a short fight another Hickory would be brought to hand, unhooked then slid gently back into the 57 degree water. But it wasn't me doing the catching and it wasn't Jin. We were just witnesses as we watched one angler put on a shad fishing clinic by racking up ridiculous numbers of fish on lower
Deer Creek outside Susquehanna State Park, Maryland.

The weather hasn't been kind to people fishing for shad on the Potomac River. Heavy rainstorms in mid-April sent a deluge of water surging downstream and washed out the best part of the season. If the water level was above 5-feet, the folks at Fletcher's Cove would not rent their rowboats, which meant you either fished from shore or stayed home. Day after day, anglers were curled in fetal position outside the Fletcher's Boat House kiosk as they went through serious withdrawal symptoms brought on by the lack of rowboat rentals and the inability to fish for Hickory or American shad. It was frustrating to watch the water gauge fall only to have it spike back up again after yet another thundershower rolled through our area. When it looked like the water on the Potomac wouldn't hit the magic number in time for our planned shad fishing trip, Jin and I decided to try our luck on Deer Creek.
For years I have heard about the shad fishing possibilities on Deer Creek but never bothered to make the 2 hour drive up to Havre de Grace to check it out. But with an abysmal Washington shad season already behind us we decided it was time to try our luck on the creek. We knew shad season was winding down, but it was new water and it would be a chance to explore new fishing grounds.

Deer Creek is a large body of water and is divided into two sections. Upper Deer Creek is located in Rocks State Park, the Hidden Valley Natural Area and Eden Mill. This part of the creek has been stocked with hatchery trout for over thirty years and offers put-and-take trout fishing in the Spring. A Fall stocking of trout sustains fishing from October into early June. Lower Deer Creek is located in Susquehanna State Park at the mouth of the Susquehanna River and thousands of Hickory shad make an annual run up this section of the creek to spawn.

I met Jin at the parking area just before the Stafford Road Bridge. I was the first one to arrive so I spent some time chatting up several local fly fishing anglers and checking out the water. There were three fly fishing types already flogging the water and they were bringing in shad. It was comforting to me to know that the trip would not be a total waste of time. Fish were here and they were biting. After looking at the water from the bridge I took a walk down the two-lane road to a spot a local told me to try. There was a guy fishing there and I watched him for awhile as he hooked fish after fish. It was 6:30am.
As Jin was gearing up I heard a clattering mechanical sound and saw a white F-150 crew cab pickup pull up on the side of the road. The driver was visibly upset as he got out of the truck and said he really screwed up his vehicle. The rear passenger tire was flat to the rim and the front passenger tire was leaking air. Both custom rims on the truck were headed for the junk pile because they were seriously bent out of shape. He didn't know what he hit, he thinks it was an old rebar sticking out from the side of the road, but it did a number on his wheels. I helped him out with directions for an AAA tow truck then Jin and I headed for the water.
The creek bottom is covered with small to medium sized rocks and everything is dusted with fine, sandy silt. The banks are muddy and if you're not careful where you step off the bank you could get your feet seriously stuck in the goo. The flow was steady but it did not present a wading hazard. However it would be good to carry a wading staff to help determine if the next step will put water over your head. There are deep slots scattered throughout the creek and you should use a wading staff. Using the staff rather than the tip of your toe as a depth indicator for your next step is a good idea if it's your first time on unknown water. A couple of times I came close to slopping water over the top of my waders because I left my wading stick in the car and was too lazy to walk back to get it.

We began fishing above the Stafford Road Bridge and worked our way downstream. We were in scouting mode so we didn't spend a lot of time in one spot. Another reason was that the locals, many who arrived at the creek before 5am, had already staked out all the good spots. We'd fish likely looking areas then move on. After awhile we found ourselves fishing in the spot that was occupied by the fly angler I was watching earlier in the morning while waiting for Jin. He was still standing in the same spot and he was still catching fish.
Jin and I watched him as he methodically fished a small slot that held shad. Cast, swing, strip and fish on. Over and over and over. He caught a fish on almost every cast while we were there and I told Jin he was catching them well before we even stepped into the water. He was a local fly angler who lives nearby and fishes Deer Creek regularly. Fly fishing is a passion for him and between fishing for shad, and later in the season for trout, he wedges in his job and other domestic responsibilities so he can clear as much time as possible to fish. He's not a stickler for tradition or what other fly fishers refer to as "the proper way things should be done." His view is, "whatever works." He had been fishing this spot since 5am. I saw him doing his thing around 6:30am while waiting for Jin, so do the math and it comes out to a serious number of hooked and released fish. It was an example of his skill and technique. He put the fly in the same spot on every cast and began his strip in the same area, just as the line began to swing through the section of creek holding shad. He gave up the area around 11am and Jin and I moved in, but did not have the same success as he did. We caught fish, but not in the numbers the previous angler put up.
After lunch we fished further up the creek, past the water treatment plant. We followed a scenic trail and the advice of two local fly fishers who told us the further in you walk, the better your chances of finding fish that haven't has the s*** pounded out of them by folks who aren't willing to exercise their leg muscles. Hollywood fly fishing. Drive up, park the vehicle, take a few steps to the water and start fishing. They also explained what sort of terrain and water conditions the shad would be holding in and also warned us to watch out for snakes. So Jin insisted that I walk in front of him as we started down the trail. We walked down the trial until the signs of human footprints disappeared, then we walked a little more. We found pods of shad, caught a few, and as the sun began to fall below the tree line it was time for us to leave.
Deer Creek is worth the drive so next year, when the Dogwoods bloom and the shad are running thick, we'll be back.

EQUIPMENT: We used 6 and 7 weight rods with fast sinking sink tip lines. Keep the tips around 5 to 7 feet long (I cut a tip that was 15 feet long in half and put a loop on the cut piece so I could use it as a backup or loaner). Short fluorocarbon leader (straight) around 5 feet long at 6 to 10 pounds test. Flies that can stay on the bottom. Everyone we met said to get that fly on the bottom and keep it there. I saw a myriad of flies. Cone head shad flies, Wooly Bugger variations, home made shad darts and Crazy Charlie-style flies with bead chain eyes. Some flies were just a thin wrap of tinsel with bright dumbell eyes. They all worked.

DIRECTIONS: Go up I-95 North, past Baltimore, to Exit 89 Havre de Grace and take MD 155, Level Road, toward Havre de Grace. Turn left from MD 155 onto Lapidum Road (it comes up suddenly so watch the signs). Follow Lapidum Road, which winds through scenic farmland to the intersection of Stafford Road and the Susquehanna River boat launch ramp. Turn left and follow Stafford Road along Susquehanna River, past the mouth of Deer Creek (which is a good place to fish but a real zoo) until you come to the Stafford Road Bridge. Parking is limited here. If it's full, you can pay $2 to park in the lot at Susquehanna State Park, which is 200 yards before you arrive at the bridge.