Types of Shad: Identification & Behavior

Written by: Dan R
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The first thing many of us think about when we hear the word shad is bait. Whether you fish for bass, catfish, any fish, really, shad are a favorite, so it’s understandable that our minds immediately go there. 

While it’s true that shad are an excellent bait and a major food source for most fish, freshwater or otherwise, they can also be a highly sought-after sport fish that many anglers are unaware of. 

To help break things down and get a better understanding of shad, we’ve put together this look at some of the different types of shad.

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What Are Shad?

Shad have a deep, rich history not only in North America, but also throughout other parts of the world. With close to 30 recognized species of shad around the world, they have long been considered a viable commercial food source and excellent game fish. 

Shad species are part of the herring family and are anadromous, meaning that they spend the majority of their life living in salt water but enter freshwater to reproduce. While overfishing and the construction of dams on many coastal rivers led to a steady decline in shad populations, they can still be found in numbers not only in saltwater but in many freshwater lakes and rivers across North America.

Depending on their age and size, shad will feed on photo and zooplankton, insect larvae, fish eggs, insects, crustaceans, and even other small fish, and unlike most other anadromous fish, they will continue to feed during the transition from salt to freshwater and through the spawning period.

Easily grouped together as a single type of fish, each shad species has distinct features and habits. Keep reading below as we take a closer look at some of the most prevalent shad in North America.

Different Types of Shad

Gizzard Shad

gizzard shad

Commonly referred to as a mud shad, Dorosoma cepedianum, the gizzard shad is found in freshwater lakes, rivers, and reservoirs across North America, as well as in the brackish waters of coastal rivers up and down the east coast from Canada to Florida, introduced to many of those freshwater bodies of water as a food source for other gamefish.

Small but mighty, the gizzard shad have an insatiable appetite for zooplankton. Couple that appetite with its ability to tolerate many different environments and the fact that they reproduce quicker than most other fish, and gizzard shad can have detrimental effects on bodies of water where they are not native. 

Growing to an average size of 8 to 14 inches, the gizzard shad’s plump, oblong body and silver-green color make them easy to identify, and they are the shad that most of us think of when we think of using shad for bait.

Threadfin Shad

Threadfin Shad

Dorosoma pentenense, or the threadfin shad, is another well-known bait for sport fish like striped bass, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, and even catfish. Because of their intolerance for lower water temperatures (below 43 degrees will often result in dye off), their range isn’t nearly as wide as their cousin, the gizzard shad. They can be found primarily in the southeast United States, in both fresh and brackish warm water. 

While native to natural lakes and rivers in the southeast, the damming of those rivers has created reservoirs that threadfin now call home, and the increasing water temperatures in more northern lakes means that threadfin shad have a wider range than ever before.

Averaging 4 inches in length the threadfin shad can reach lengths of up to 8 inches, although fish that size are rare. With silver sides, a blue-gray back, and a dark spot on their shoulder, threadfin have similar colorations when compared to other species of shad. The easiest way to distinguish a threadfin shad is by their yellow, split tailfin. 

American Shad

american shad

The American shad, scientifically known as Alosa sapidissima, is referred to as “the fish that fed the nation’s founders,” having been plentiful and easily accessible. Since the early 20th century, however, the population of American shad has been steadily declining due in part to overfishing and dam construction on the coastal river that this anadromous fish used to reproduce.

While their silver sides and blue-green backs may not immediately separate them from other shad or herring as far as looks are concerned, what does is their size. One of the largest shad, these fish can range anywhere from 3 to 8 pounds, with the world record American shad weighing in at a whopping 11.3 pounds. The size, power, and incredible acrobatics make these fish a highly sought-after sport fish, at times being referred to as freshwater tarpon. 

To this day, American shad are considered outstanding table fare, their meat having a subtle, pleasant fish taste that requires little seasoning. On top of their light, delicious meat, an American shad’s roe (eggs) is considered a delicacy in many areas along the east coast. 

Alewife

Alewife

The alewife, or Alosa pseudoharengus as it’s scientifically known, shares much of the same water as the American shad. Although it is an anadromous fish like its bigger cousin, there are known populations that survive exclusively in freshwater, most notably the population that now thrive in the Great Lakes.

Not native to the Great Lakes, the alewife migrated up the St. Lawrence river, using the Welland canal to bypass Niagara Falls. Once in the Great Lakes, populations exploded, and alewife were considered an invasive species. Because of this invasion, Pacific Salmon were introduced to help keep that population under control.

Not only do alewives share the same water as American shad, but they also share the same characteristics and often get confused for juvenile American shad. The biggest distinction between the two is their size. Where the American shad is one of the biggest, alewives average between 8 and 10 inches in length, considerably less than their larger cousins.

Blueback Herring

Blueback Herring

Alosa aestivalis, the blueback herring, is commonly referred to as blueback shad or summer shad and is found along the east coast from Nova Scotia to Florida.

The blueback herring can sometimes be hard to distinguish from the alewife, and because of that, the two are often lumped together and called river herring. Despite the similarities, there are some subtle differences that can help a keen eye tell the difference. Mostly silver like the alewife, a blueback herring features more of a gray-blue back that is less gray than the alewife. Perhaps the easiest way to tell the two apart is their eyes. The blueback herring has much smaller eyes than the alewife.

Typically known as a baitfish, most notably for the lobster industry in the northeast, blueback herring also make great table fare and are usually caught during their spawning migration, where large dip nets are used to haul fish out of the shallow spawning areas in coastal rivers and streams.

Hickory Shad

hickory shad

Bonejack, fall herring, and freshwater taylor are all names commonly used when talking about hickory shad. What they are not, however, is American shad, a common misconception because of the size and color similarities between the two.

Found on the east coast from Florida to the Gulf of Maine, it’s easy to understand why the hickory shad and the American shad often get mixed up, sharing much of the same habitat. Size can be a major factor when trying to differentiate the two, as hickory shad tend to only grow to about half the size of American shad.

Unlike some of the other larger shad on this list, the hickory shad has very little commercial value. But their size and fighting power make them a very sought-after sport fish, especially through the mid-Atlantic states where surveys suggest that it’s the fourth most sought-after fish. 

Alabama Shad

alabama shad

Scientifically known as Alosa alabama, the Alabama shad is one of the rarest shad on the list. It has seen a steady decline in population, due in part to the construction of locks and dams that have cut them off from their river spawning grounds.

The Alabama shad is another that shares many similarities with the American shad, with the major difference being they’re in native waters. Instead of inhabiting many coastal waters of the eastern U.S, the Alabama shad is found along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, where it uses rivers like the Mississippi and Suwannee for spawning.

Alabama shad were once prevalent enough to support a healthy commercial fishery but have become very rare. They’re now completely missing from some of the areas they used to call home, most notably west of the Pascagoula River in Mississippi. While the fish is a concern for government agencies, there is not enough information available to list them on the Endangered Species Act.

Skipjack Shad

skipjack shad

Another shad exclusive to the Gulf of Mexico, the skipjack shad, or Alosa chrysochoris,is sometimes referred to as the Tennessee tarpon because they leap out of the water when feeding.

As with many other migratory fish, the skipjack has seen some of its original habitat become inaccessible, thanks to the construction of dams. While this - along with the possibility of overfishing - is a concern, the skipjack population remains stable in many of their native areas. Skipjack are not known to be table fare but instead are caught by many to be used as cutbait for catfish.

Like most other shad, skipjack will feed on zooplankton, insect larvae, and small fish. As they get older and larger, it’s common for them to feed on other shad like gizzard and threadfin. While it’s possible for skipjack to grow over 20 inches, the average size is between 12 and 14 inches.

Final Thoughts

Of course, the shad we talked about here are just a few of the many species throughout North America and the world. But these are some of the most well-known and popular, be it for sportfishing, consumption, or use as bait, which is why they made our list.

Do you fish for shad? Have you used any of these as bait? Let us know your thoughts by leaving us a comment!

About The Author
Dan R
Review Editor
Dan was practically born with a fishing rod in his hand. Growing up in the Great Lakes Region fishing has been a major part of his life from a very young age. When not on the water you can find Dan enjoying time with his family.
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