The single most sought after food source for the gamefish in our local reservoirs is the shad.
We have two species of shad in both Belton and Stillhouse Hollow lakes — gizzard shad and threadfin shad. Both are pelagic species of fish, meaning they roam open waters instead of seeking out cover.
In these open waters they feed upon zooplankton and phytoplankton.
Threadfin shad tend to prefer deeper, clearer waters with rocky bottoms, whereas the gizzard shad tend to prefer shallower, warmer, murkier waters with softer, silty bottoms.
Both species of shad are fragile and require much care from the moment they are captured, hence they are rarely commercially available.
Anglers desiring to use shad for live bait or as fresh, dead bait must capture their own shad. This is accomplished using a cast net.
Cast nets are round nets with (typically lead) weights spaced equidistant from one another around the perimeter. Braille lines extend radially outwards from a hub in the center of the net and attach to the perimeter after being routed through a gathering ring called the horn. A handline is attached to this assembly after being selected based on the distance the net will be thrown and allowed to sink to.
When the net is thrown properly, the net will spread like a flexible Frisbee; then, the lead weights around the perimeter will pull the net downward toward the lake bottom such that the lightweight mesh of the net takes on a domed appearance, like a parachute, capturing baitfish as it falls. Once the net either reaches the bottom or falls below the level of the bait, the thrower gives the handline a tug, thus causing the braille lines to slide through the horn, and the weights around the perimeter to be gathered together toward the horn in the center, thus capturing the bait in the “bag” of the net.
In Texas, maximum cast net size is regulated by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. A cast net may not be greater than 14 feet in diameter (a 7-foot radius). Additionally, cast nets may only be used for taking non-game fish and other aquatic animal life including crabs, crawfish and shrimp. So when gamefish, like crappie, largemouth bass, etc., get caught in a net, they must be immediately returned to the water regardless of their size.
As with most things in life, when it comes to cast nets, you get what you pay for. Cheap nets tend to have fewer lead weights around the perimeter, thus, they fall slowly and do not capture as much bait.
Lower end nets tend to require a bit of attention before use in that any tag ends at the ends of the braille lines must be snipped off or they will cause the net to tangle repeatedly.
Regardless of brand or price, the single most important consideration when choosing a cast net is mesh size. The size of the mesh will determine what size of bait a cast net is capable of capturing. A good all-around mesh size for our Central Texas reservoirs is the 3/8-inch mesh. This mesh size will allow those shad too small to be used as live bait to pass through the mesh, while retaining those shad approximately 2¾ to 3 inches in length and larger.
If an angler desires to throw for only larger baits, like threadfin shad which are 4½ inches or longer, or for gizzard shad, a half-inch mesh may be used. Although quarter-inch mesh nets can routinely be found in retail outlets, they tend to capture bait which is quite small (such that it does not survive being placed on a hook for live bait), and, the additional drag of the fine mesh slows the fall of such a net, often allowing time for larger, faster baitfish to avoid capture.
When I head out to catch bait (which I half-jokingly call the “fishing trip before the fishing trip”), I typically have two cast nets aboard. The first is a Fitec #12970 Ultra Spreader GS1500 7-foot radius, half-inch mesh “tape net”, and the other is a Fitec #12867 Super Spreader SS 100L, 6-foot radius, 3/8-inch standard net (no tape). Both nets are constructed of clear monofilament and have lead weights.
The Fitec tape net has a ribbon of material attached just inside the perimeter of the net, resembling fiber-reinforced strapping tape used to seal cardboard moving boxes. Other brands of tape nets use what looks like the flat, plastic webbing used in lawn furniture sewn around the circumference of the net, just above the lead line. The addition of this tape acts like a wing and allows the net to spread outwards as it falls through the water column, and to avoid collapsing on itself as non-tape nets will do in deeper water.
One of the nice features of these Fitec nets are the Komfort-Kuff they come with. Instead of a loose loop of rope knotted around your wrist which requires constant adjustment to keep your net from getting away from you, these have a wide, neoprene-like wristband which comfortably encircles the wrist so you never have to give this issue a second thought until you are done netting and desire to slip it back off your wrist.
This time of year when the threadfin shad are spawning, I will typically attempt to catch larger bait under boat-mounted lights under the cover of darkness in the early morning using the tape net, and then will go on patrol at first light looking for shad spawning in the shallows, for which I will use the smaller net with the finer mesh. Since these spawning shad are in under 2-3 feet of water, the collapsing of the net as it sinks is not a concern, so, the additional cost of a tape net is not warranted in this scenario.
The tape net will provide fewer, larger baits and the standard net will provide higher quantities of smaller baits (but still large enough to survive impalement with a hook).
Trying to describe in print a suitable method for throwing a cast net is futile. If you are new to cast netting, consider going online and finding a method which you can understand and practice. An understandable, well-done cast net tutorial video, done in full-speed and in slow motion, is found here: https://castnets.com/how-to-throw-a-cast-net/.
Once bait is caught, it must quickly be tended to or it will not last very long. Once I capture shad in the net, I have a large 24-inch diameter, 15-gallon tub which I fill with lake water into which these shad are immediately dropped without touching them. I will continue catching shad until I have about 75 baits in this tub before transferring them into my onboard shad tank. During their time in the holding tub, the shad defecate and shed scales, both in response to stress.
Once I transfer the first group of approximately 75 shad into my onboard tank using a dip net to remove them from the contaminated water in the holding tub, I will dump the contaminated holding tub water and replace it with fresh lake water, then continue netting and adding more shad to the fresh water in the holding tub.
There are a number of shad tank manufacturers out there making available shad tanks of various volumes, from under 20 gallons to over 80 gallons. Grayline, Bluewater, and Shad Shack are a few of the more well-known names in the business, and all of them produce quality products.
The features which all of these tanks have in common are the ability to filter water, to circulate water, to insulate water and to aerate water. All four of these features are crucial to maintaining shad for any length of time.
Catching and keeping live shad for bait for immediate use on a single fishing trip can be relatively simple and inexpensive. Expense and complexity increase as the number of shad harvested, and the duration for which they are kept, increase.