“An Evaluation of the Short Term Mortality Rate of Hickory Shad, Alosa mediocris, Caught and Released by Fly Fishermen in Deer Creek, Maryland.”
by  Rudolph Lukacovic


American shad Alosa sapidissima and hickory shad Alosa mediocris have been protected in Maryland since 1980 and 1981, respectively, by a moratorium (Markham et al. 1994).    American shad had supported both a commercial and a sport fishery in Chesapeake Bay and some of the larger tributaries such as the Susquehanna River. The hickory shad was never a targeted commercial species, although it was marketed when landed. It was sought mostly while on spawning migrations by recreational anglers in smaller streams such as Deer and Octoraro Creeks, both tributaries of the Susquehanna River.
Most information on the life history of the hickory shad deals with spawning movements and little is known of the adults after they leave the spawning grounds. Coastal migration patterns may be similar to that of the American shad  (ASMFC 1988). Most of their adult life is spent in marine waters, but they return to freshwater streams in the spring to spawn. Spawning populations are river-specific (ASMFC 1988).
Hickory shad are predators in the ocean, their diet consisting of small fish, crustaceans and fish eggs (Breder 1948). They exhibit aggressive behavior in freshwater, making them available to recreational anglers. Opinions are mixed whether this striking is a feeding behavior or non-feeding aggression (Dale Weinrich, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, personal communication). Anglers use a variety of lures to take hickory shad. Shad darts, small spoons and soft bodied “twister tails” are used with spinning tackle and variable patterns are fished with fly tackle. Live bait is not used to take hickory shad.
Anecdotal information from biologists and anglers indicates that over the last several years there has been an increase in the observed number of hickory shad returning to Deer and Octoraro Creeks and to other rivers (Dale Weinrich, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, personal communication). There has been an increase in catch and release hickory shad fishing by both fly and spin fishers in Deer and Octoraro Creeks and in the mainstream Susquehanna River. Maryland law does not prohibit fishing for hickory shad, even though there is a ban on their possession.
In Maryland, anglers target American shad mostly in the mainstream Susquehanna River, although hickory shad are also taken there. We have observed most of the fly and spin fishing for hickory shad in the smaller tributaries, particularly Deer Creek. Spin fishing is favored at the mouth, as deeper and faster water make wading difficult and stream bank vegetation inhibits fly fishing. Most fly anglers fish the area above Stafford Bridge on Deer Creek, but spin fishers also angle here.
In Deer Creek, fishing for hickory shad begins during either the last week of March or the first week of April when water temperatures reach 46 to 50 F (Dale Weinrich, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, personal communication). Angler pressure varies with time of day and day of the week. Weekend evenings have the greatest number of anglers present.
Location and light levels influence angler success. Certain spots or structures in streams are holding areas for hickories. Striking activity is most intense around first light and again at fading daylight. Mildly discolored, or turbid water from runoff reduces light penetration and can improve angler success during mid-day, but extreme high flows and turbidity reduces angler success. Experienced anglers believe that several runs or surges of fish occur during the spawning season.
Muoneke and Childress (1994) defined immediate hooking mortality as the proportion of fish that are landed and exhibit no opercular movement. It included fish so severely injured from hooking they were judged incapable of recovering. Delayed mortality in some species, such as largemouth bass Micropterus salmoides, occurred up to 19 days following release (Schramm et al. 1987). Most catch and release mortalities of salmonids, rainbow trout Oncorhynchus mykiss, (Mason and Hunt 1967), and brown trout Salmo trutta, (Hulbert and Engstrom-Heg 1980), occurred within 24 hours. Studies by Warner and Johnson (1978) found that all mortality of Atlantic salmon Salmo salar caught in streams occurred within 24 hours.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources recognizes the value of catch and release fishing as non-consumptive recreation. However, catch and release fishing may cause an unacceptable level of mortality in some situations. Muoneke and Childress (1994) found hooking mortality increased with temperature.
Hickory shad were scarce in Chesapeake Bay spawning tributaries until two years ago. To preserve this apparent recovery, the impact of catch and release fishing activity needs to be measured and, if necessary, addressed. This study was to determine the short-term mortality rate among hickory shad on their spawning run caused by catch and release fly fishing.


Our study was conducted on Deer Creek in Harford county. Of the two possible study streams, Octoraro and Deer Creeks, Deer Creek has a more intense fishery. Our study site was chosen because of the availability of electrical power and proximity to a good fishing location.
We defined short term mortality as fish dying within 48 hours. We conferred with other biologists that have worked with shad who felt that a 48 hour period was sufficient for detecting catch and release mortality  (S. Ault, Radiation Management Corporation,  personal communication). Hickory shad were on their spawning migration and were very active. Holding times in excess of 48 hours could have induced “confinement mortality” and fungal infection was also a concern.
We did not use control fish, we assumed that confinement mortality would be low. Control fish would have been hickory shad not subjected to stress of capture but only stressed by confinement. However, any method of obtaining wild hickory shad would have imparted stress. Murphy et al. (1995) found overall end mortality of caught and released spotted seatrout Cynoscion nebulosus was very low (4.6%) and the researchers concluded that confinement did not cause significant mortality.
Volunteer fishermen captured experimental fish with 4 to 7 weight fly rods and a single hooked artificial lure, sometimes tandemly rigged. Barbed and barbless hooks were used. Once hooked, the fish was played normally and landed by hand or into a net. Time required to land the fish was recorded for some individuals. Anatomical location of the hook wound was noted. The hook was removed, the fish was transported in a wet cotton sling to shore and released into an observation tank. If the fish was foul hooked, we marked it by punching a hole in the membranous portion of the upper lobe of the caudal fin. A maximum number of 25 were used in any test.
Two 340 gal circular fiberglass tanks, 5.0 ft in diameter and 30 in deep, were used to hold fish for observation following capture and release. A centrally located standpipe drained each tank. Water was supplied to the tanks by means of a 1.0 horsepower Hayward electrical pump (115 volts, 10.0 amps). Electrical power was provided through the cooperation of Baltimore City’s Deer Creek Water Pumping Station. Pump capacity resulted in approximately ten exchanges of water in each tank per day. Water was introduced to the tanks above the surface to maximize aeration and at an angle to create a current into which the fish would orient. Water was drawn from Elbow Branch, a tributary of Deer Creek, approximately 100 ft from the confluence with Deer Creek. We recorded water temperature (F), dissolved oxygen (mg/L), pH and conductivity (µmhos/cm) daily from both creeks to document differences. Tanks were covered with blue polypropylene tarps to prevent the fish from jumping out or being frightened by onlookers.
Fish were observed daily for mortalities.  Following 48 hours of observation, we marked the fish with a hole punch in the membranous portion of the upper lobe of the caudal fin and released them into Deer Creek.
We made counts of dead fish in Deer Creek each Monday during the study. The portion of the creek from Stafford Bridge to the confluence of Elbow Branch, a distance of approximately one half mile, was surveyed by foot and dead fish were counted and retrieved, if possible. The fish which could be retrieved were examined for wounds and marks indicating that they had been study fish.


We conducted ten trials of 5 to 30 fish per trial from April 12 to May 3, 1996. The number of fish per trial varied due to angler success. No short-term mortality of hickory shad occurred due to angling (N= 150). At release, all fish were vigorous and swam off under their own power. No fungus was seen. One hundred and forty fish (93.3%) were caught in the maxillary or the mandible. Ten fish (6.7%) of the 150 total were foul hooked. All foul hooked fish survived the 48 hour observation period.
Fight times for 32 fish varied from 30 seconds to 2 minutes 20 seconds. Most anglers landed fish in under one minute.  Three extreme playing times were recorded (greater than 2 minutes) and all three were foul hooked fish.
Stream counts of dead fish were made on April 15, 22 and 29. High, discolored water prevented a count on the final day of the study. Thirteen dead fish were recorded. Nine fish were recovered and seven had physical injuries consistent with having been hooked. Five fish had oral damage and two were foul hooked, both in the back. Two additional fish were recovered and examined; one was severely damaged, possibly by an osprey and the other was unmarked.
Thunderstorms and heavy rainfall resulted in water levels in both Deer Creek and Elbow Branch rising during the night of April 15-16 (Trial III). Flood waters carried away some of the pumping system and possible damage was sustained by the pump as evidenced by repeated loss of prime during the rest of the study. Trial VII was terminated at the end of 24 hours. The pump failed and 22 of 25 fish died because of low dissolved oxygen.
Water temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, and conductivity were monitored each day in both tanks, Elbow Branch and Deer Creek. Water temperatures did not differ greatly between the tanks and Deer Creek except during Trial III when tank temperatures were 5F less. All other trials differed by 3F or less. Conductivity and pH were consistent between the tanks and the creek. Conductivity never differed by more than 0.015 µmhos/cm and pH differed by less than 0.6. Oxygen levels were generally within 1.0 mg/L, except for Trial III when the flood damage shut down the pump.


We did not observe short-term mortality of hickory shad from catch and release fly fishing in our experiments. Absence of mortality among the test fish should be tempered by the presence of a few dead fish in the stream. It is not possible to determine if their death was the result of angler involvement, but hook injury was documented on most (77.7%) of the fish examined. We polled fisheries management agencies from Maine to North Carolina on hickory shad hook and release mortality and found no other studies had been conducted on angler induced mortality of hickory shad.
Artificial lures were used to capture hickory shad and none of the fish observed during this study were deeply hooked. Our observations of spin fishermen on Deer Creek indicated that most of these fish were also not deeply hooked. Fly fishing was selected because fly fishermen volunteered to participate.
This study focused on the issue of short term survival of hickory shad caught and released. It did not address the possibility of longer term effects such as interruption of the spawning migration or spawning success. Reingold (1975) reported that migrating adult steelhead trout Salmo gairdneri caught and played to exhaustion, and then transported downstream returned to their target stream as well as fish just transported and released. Pettit (1977) reported that there was not a statistically significant difference in the percentage of eyed eggs produced by caught and released steelhead trout compared to control fish.
Hickory shad used in this study were not given extraordinary care. They were played in a normal manner with sporting tackle, landed, and handled to place them in our experimental tanks (which represented an additional stress not associated with catch and release fishing). This study suggests that a hickory shad hooked, played, and landed by a conscientious angler will not experience an unacceptable level of angler induced mortality.

Literature Cited

ASMFC (Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission). 1988. Supplement to the Fish      Management Plan for the Anadromous Alosid Stocks of the Eastern United States:     American Shad, Hickory Shad, Alewife, and Blueback Herring. Washington D.C.
Breder, C . M. 1948. Marine Fishes of the Atlantic Coast, G. P. Putnum and Sons, New York.
Hulbert, P. J. and R. Engstrom-Heg. 1980. Hooking mortality of worm caught hatchery brown    trout.     New York Fish and Game Journal 27:1-10.
Markham, C. A., J. P. Mower. A. A. Jarzynski, R. A. Sadzinski, and D. R. Weinrich. 1994.        Investigation of anadromous alosids in Chesapeake Bay. Federal Aid Project F-37-R.
Markham, C. A., P. G. Piavis, E. J.Webb, B. H. Pyle, J. P. Mower, A. A. Jarzynski, R. A. Sadzinski, and D. R. Weinrich. 1996. Stock assessment of selected adult resident and     migratory recreational finfish in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. Federal Aid Project
Mason, J. W. and R. L. Hunt. 1967. Mortality rates of deeply hooked rainbow trout.         Progressive Fish-Culturist 29:87-91.
Muoneke, M. I. and W. M. Childress. 1994. Hooking mortality: a review for recreational     fisheries. Reviews in Fisheries Science 2(2): 123-156.
Murphy, M. D., R. F. Heagy, V. H. Neugebauer, M. D. Gordon, and J. L. Hintz. 1995.     Mortality of spotted seatrout from gill-net or hook-and-line gear in Florida. North     American Journal of Fisheries Management 15:748-753.
Pettit, S. W. 1977. Comparative reproductive success of caught-and-released and unplayed     hatchery female steelhead trout (Salmo gairdneri) from the Clearwater river, Idaho.     Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 106:431-435.
Reingold, M. 1975. Effects of displacing, hooking, and releasing on migrating adult steelhead     trout. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 104:458-460.
Schramm, H. L.,Jr., P. J. Haydt, and K. M. Portier. 1987. Evaluation of prerelease,         postrelease, and total mortality of largemouth bass caught during tournaments in two     Florida lakes. North American Journal of Fisheries Management 7:394-402.
Warner, K. and P. R. Johnson. 1978. Mortality of landlocked Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar)     hooked on flies and worms in a river nursery area. Transactions of the American     Fisheries Society 107:772-775.