Spades Steal the Show
Ten years ago hardly anyone fished for them, probably because few knew how. Since then, spade fishing has evolved locally into one of the hottest topics on the fishing front, and anglers from all over want in on the spade-fishing scoop. This fishery is a sure crowd-pleaser, delighting anglers of all skill-levels with a thrilling fight. It is no wonder it is so easy to get hooked on these novel celebrities called the spadefish.
Dwelling around most any type of structure, spadefish are found along the entire East and Gulf coasts. They have been here for years in huge droves, but interestingly, the sport has really only taken off within the last 6-7 years. In fact, in the Gulf of Mexico, spadefish are still considered a nuisance, and are rarely targeted with much seriousness. The notorious Chesapeake Bay, on the other hand, with its appealing inshore structures and shoals, has become a goldmine for these summer-time residents, where anglers anxiously await the first reports of sightings around local structures. When the news hits, not a clam in town is safe, and the rush to intercept these powerful fighters is nothing less than chaos. Spades are most certainly one of the most powerful, and unpredictable fighting fish any angler will come across. Generally ranging about 5-8 pounds, these fish will keep you on your toes, so first-timers be warned! Stand ready for a powerful, fast-moving creature that is quick to outsmart any angler, leaving you holding nothing but a broken leader. The wide-eyed look of surprise once licked by a spadefish is amusing, but not uncommon. The fight is worth it; your reward is one of the tastiest fish in the ocean.
Virginia anglers can keep up to four fish, and a citation is earned from the Virginia Salt Water Fishing Tournament at a staggering 9 pounds. Release citations can also save the day at a not-so-skimpy 22 inches, but have your camera ready; you don’t want to miss a photo-op when releasing these gorgeous fish. Spades are unmistakable beauties sporting a shimmery-silver, flat torso interrupted by at least 5 distinctive black stripes.
TIMING AND LOCATION
Spadefish make a strong appearance from about mid May through late August around numerous structures, including most near shore wrecks, many buoys and markers, towers, shoals, bridge-pilings, and even the artificial islands of the famous Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. When locating spadefish-holding structure, there should be little doubt they are present, as often evidenced by a solid representation on your bottom machine and graceful schools of spades gliding past your boat with no particular agenda.
Feeding patterns vary, but I have found little difference in the time of day for spadefish appetites-either they’re hungry or they’re not! I have noticed, though, that the fish tend to sound deeper when the sun is higher in the sky, so moving the bait deeper in the water column could prove a little more productive around midday. The movement of the tide only seems to be a factor when the current is running so hard that it is difficult to get the bait deep enough to reach the fish and still create a natural presentation.
Once you have located your spadefish-holding formation, move up current to set your anchor. Avoid settling your boat near any ominous line-breaking structures such as buoy chains, neighboring angler’s baits, tower legs, and anchor ropes. If you forget, you will be reminded soon enough!
For a successful spade-fishing quest, take along at least four medium action rods with matching reels; either spinners or bait casters will do the trick. My favorite reels for spades include my Calcutta 400, and my handy Daiwa Advantage spinner strung with 20-pound mono or braided line. As for terminal tackle, after experiencing many broken hooks and leaders, I have found 3-4 feet of 17-pound monofilament leader tied to a small barrel-swivel, to be the best option. Line any heavier than this, and the spadefish tend to become leader-shy, any lighter and you can count on retying your broken rig.
A small, strong and sharp hook is an absolute must. A spadefish’s mouth is about the size of a nickel at best, and these little orifices are exceptionally hard, lined with matching sandpaper teeth, perfect for fraying leaders and fracturing hooks. Therefore, my top choice is a # 1 or 2 Gamakatzu live-bait hook. When they become finicky, the popular red hook may help, be careful to ensure it still meets the criteria of strength and size. I also recommend having several rigs tied ahead of time and ready to go. It’s a shame to miss out on optimum fishing time while retying lost hooks and frayed line.
Chowder clams are always an excellent choice of bait. I have tried other baits, and heard of others with some success, but chowders are cheap and plentiful, and tempt the spades every time. But don’t leave the dock with less than two or more dozen clams per person. In fact, I prefer to buy mine in bags of 50-100 at a time. In addition to the bait, be sure to tote along some clam chum! Chum can be purchased at your local tackle shops in various frozen forms, and is an excellent way to pull the spades closer to your bait, and help hold them around your boat.
Once settled into a safe position near the structure, tie the chum-pot containing your chum over the side of the boat to begin the show. Crack the chowders over the side, by whacking two of them firmly together, and discard the shells. Spadefish are very curious, and often watch this effort, playfully chasing your discarded shells out of sight. Prepare the bait by cutting the clam into two to three strips from the foot towards the belly. Baiting the hook is personal preference, but my best luck comes with the clam threaded on belly first, leaving the foot to cover the barb of the hook. No matter which baiting technique you use, remember that spadefish are professional bait stealers!
Your rod setup will be dependent on different situations and variables of course, so just adapt according to your situation. I usually start with four rods, two donned with a small ¼- ½ ounce egg sinker set above the barrel swivel, and two rods with the small egg sinkers with and a float added about 2-4 feet above the swivel. Drift back the lines with floats first, anywhere from 20–40 feet will give a good starting reference. Place the other two lines directly behind the boat, one lowered until the sinker just disappears in the water, and the other to about 10 feet. The line depths and floats can be readjusted or replaced once the fish’s preference becomes more evident. Tighten the drag on the reels until you can barley pull the line, then put the rods in the holders and leave them alone. Do not be tempted to hold the rods, and ignore all nibbles. But don’t get too comfortable, once those nibbles convert into a doubled-over rod, quickly tend to the rod, and experience a battle that angling dreams are made of!
On the occasion (especially when tasty jellyfish abound) that the spadefish are content to swim right past your offerings, it is time to pull out those red hooks and tie some rigs with 20-pound fluorocarbon line. Fluorocarbon is not my usually my first choice around structure because it is quick to snap, but is worth the risk when the spades become leader-shy. An excellent choice is Yo-Zuri’s H.D. Carbon fluorocarbon leader.
So for a compact-sized beauty, with a powerful punch unmatched by any other…spades steal the show!