8 Different Types of Shad

Two types of shad fish on white background

When people hear about shad, more often than not, they think about baits. Nevertheless, besides their effectiveness in luring bigger fish, such as trouts and bass, there is more to learn about the different shad species.

This guide will discuss the eight common types of shad species that you may typically encounter. Stick around if you want to learn about their physical characteristics, distribution, behavior, and many more. Let’s start!

How Many Types of Shad Are There?

Freshly caught shad fish

Shad refers to a group of fish belonging to the Clupeidae family, including herring and sardines. Most are found in the Alosa genus, although some species come from other genera, such as Dorosoma.

There are more than 30 shad species worldwide under the Clupeidae family. For your convenience, we listed eight of the most common and popular shad species in this guide, discussing their unique traits and behavior.

Here are the eight common types of shad species:

  1. American Shad (Alosa sapidissima)
  2. Hickory Shad (Alosa mediocris)
  3. Alabama Shad (Alosa alabamae)
  4. Alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus)
  5. Blueback Herring (Alosa aestivalis)
  6. Threadfin Shad (Dorosoma petenense)
  7. Gizzard Shad (Dorosoma cepedianum)
  8. Skipjack Shad/Herring (Alosa chrysochloris)

Many shad species exhibit an anadromous behavior — they start their life in freshwater, mature in the ocean, and circle back to freshwater for breeding. Some, however, remain in freshwater their whole life.

8 Different Types of Shad

1. American Shad

American Shad
Image credit: trout_vision_ / Instagram
Scientific Name:Alosa sapidissima
Common Name:American Shad
Distribution:Atlantic coast of North America
Habitat:Coastal ocean waters; spawn in freshwater rivers and streams
Diet:Planktons, crustaceans, and shrimps
Adult Size:Up to 20 inches (51 cm)
Weight:3–8 pounds (1–4 kg)
Lifespan:6–10 years
Conservation Status:Least Concern

The American Shad is a unique herring species native to the Atlantic coast, stretching from Newfoundland to Florida. This deep-bodied fish showcases a greenish-blue top with silvery sides.

They have a distinctive dark spot atop their gill flap and a series of smaller spots running down their upper side.

Their average size is about 20 inches, and they weigh between three and eight pounds. Some can exceptionally grow up to 30 inches and 20 pounds.

American Shad are travelers, migrating vast distances from the Atlantic Ocean to freshwater rivers for spawning. Their migratory behavior makes them particularly intriguing.

During their migration, these fish often school together, skimming the surface in warmer seasons and diving deeper in colder months.

Anglers eyeing the American Shad should note their preference to swim close to the shore, often within 30 to 45 feet. They are attracted to areas behind obstacles like rocks and jetties.

I usually fish American Shad hours before dark. I find shad darts, jigs, and spinners effective in luring these fish.

You can try fishing for American Shad on the pier or a boat. Just make sure you are properly equipped to ensure success.

Watch this video to learn about the spawning cycle of American Shad:

American Shad Life Cycle

2. Hickory Shad

Hickory Shad
Image credit: yixintong / Instagram
Scientific Name:Alosa mediocris
Common Name:Hickory Shad
Distribution:Atlantic coast of the United States, from Florida to the Gulf of Maine
Habitat:Marine water and estuaries; spawn in freshwater rivers
Diet:Small fish, crustaceans, small squids, and fish eggs
Adult Size:12–20 inches (30–51 cm)
Weight:Up to 4 pounds (2 kg)
Lifespan:6–10 years
Conservation Status:Least Concern

The Hickory Shad is characterized by a grayish-green body with a silver belly and sides. They have a dark spot on their shoulder, followed by several fainter spots, and the scales on their belly form a saw-toothed edge.

Hickory Shad are often confused with American Shad due to their similar looks. Their protruding lower jaw distinguishes these fish from American Shad and other related species.

These shad are anadromous, meaning they live in coastal ocean waters and migrate to freshwater to spawn.

After spawning, adults return to the ocean, while the young temporarily remain in freshwater and brackish environments before migrating seaward.

Their predictable migration and tendency to offer an exciting fight make them popular among anglers. They often swim close to the surface, so watching for splashes or jumps can be advantageous.

3. Alabama Shad

Alabama Shad
Scientific Name:Alosa alabamae
Common Name:Alabama Shad
Distribution:Primarily in the Gulf of Mexico, particularly from the Mississippi River drainage to Florida’s western peninsular coast
Habitat:Primarily marine but migrates to upstream freshwater streams and rivers to spawn
Diet:Small fish and invertebrates
Adult Size:12–18 inches (30–46 cm)
Weight:Up to 3 pounds (1.4 kg)
Lifespan:Up to 4 years
Conservation Status:Near Threatened

The Alabama Shad is known for its unique migration patterns and distinctive appearance.

These shad stand out with their blue-green back that fades to silvery white on their belly. A blue-black spot is also evident behind their upper gill covers.

Unlike other Florida shads, their mouth is less upturned; notably, they lack teeth on the jaws. Alabama Shad require saline and freshwater environments throughout their lives, much like most shad species.

They are also anadromous, meaning they ascend rivers to spawn. They favor large ones with moderate currents and substrates of sand or gravel.

Their movement patterns resemble the American Shad, and they seek deeper, calmer river areas at night.

Studying this species further, I noted that Alabama Shad start their upstream journey in rivers like Choctawhatchee and Conecuh around March. Spawning occurs in April, with the fish preferring water temperatures of 65º to 68ºF.

After spawning, they migrate back downstream, and this provides an excellent opportunity for me and my group of fishing enthusiasts to engage with this species.

4. Alewife

Alewife Shad
Scientific Name:Alosa pseudoharengus
Common Name:Alewife
Distribution:North Atlantic, North Carolina to Newfoundland; Chesapeake Bay and Great Lakes
Habitat:Saltwater to freshwater rivers/streams and deep lakes
Diet:Plankton, small fish and crustaceans
Adult Size:10–15 inches (25–38 cm)
Weight:Up to a pound (0.45 kg)
Lifespan:Up to 10 years
Conservation Status:Least Concern

The Alewife is also an anadromous fish that typically resides in saltwater but migrates to freshwater rivers and streams to spawn.

They have a laterally compressed body with a distinct forked tail. Their scales are shiny and display silver, brass, and grayish-green colors, with darker tops.

In the spring, female Alewives lay up to 300,000 eggs in freshwater habitats. After hatching, the young fish stay in these freshwater areas for several months before migrating to the sea.

Despite their size, these fish have economic and environmental importance. They are consumed by humans in various forms, such as fresh, smoked, or pickled, just like their cousin species, sardines.

Also, Alewives are crucial prey for many larger fish species in fresh and saltwater environments.

5. Blueback Herring

Blueback Herring
Image credit: joshenglandphotos /Instagram
Scientific Name:Alosa aestivalis
Common Name:Blueback Herring
Distribution:Atlantic coast of North America from Florida to Nova Scotia
Habitat:Marine waters, estuaries, and freshwater during spawning migrations
Diet:Plankton, fish eggs, small fish and crustaceans
Adult Size:11–15 inches (28–38 cm)
WeightUp to a pound (0.45 kg)
Lifespan:3–8 years
Conservation Status:Vulnerable

The Blueback Herring is a fish with a blue-green back and silvery sides. They have dark spots on their shoulder and spiny scales, or scutes, on their belly. 

Typically, these fish measure between 10 and 15 inches. Blueback Herrings are slightly smaller with smaller eyes than the Alewife.

They can live in salt and freshwater since they are anadromous. A unique characteristic is that their scales have marks showing the number of times they’ve spawned.

These fish adjust their position in the water based on sunlight, coming to the surface on sunny days and staying deeper on cloudy days.

It’s often difficult to distinguish between Blueback Herring and Alewives. This confusion has led many to refer to them collectively as “river herring.” One key difference is the body cavity color: black in Blueback Herring and pink-gray in Alewives.

Anglers value Blueback Herring as an effective baitfish, especially for various bass species.

6. Threadfin Shad

Threadfin Shad
Scientific Name:Dorosoma petenense
Common Name:Threadfin Shad
Distribution:Found throughout much of the eastern and central United States, extending into Mexico and Guatemala
Habitat:Lakes, reservoirs, slow-moving rivers, and ponds; prefer open water but stay near the surface
Diet:Phytoplankton and zooplankton
Adult Size:4–6 inches (10–15 cm)
Weight:1.5–1.75 pounds (0.68–0.79 kg)
Lifespan:Up to 4 years
Conservation Status:Least Concern

The Threadfin Shad is a sought-after baitfish for anglers targeting species like Striped and Largemouth bass. Its scientific name, “Dorosoma,” aptly translates from Greek to “lance body,” referencing its young’s slender form.

These shad, usually silver-blue on top, transition to a near-white hue on its sides and belly. A distinct purple-black spot can be seen beyond their gill flap and a long dorsal fin ray.

Native to the eastern and central United States and parts of Mexico and Guatemala, they inhabit lakes, reservoirs, and slow rivers. They usually remain near the surface of open waters.

Unlike the Gizzard Shad, the Threadfin’s upper jaw doesn’t project beyond its lower one. They also have fewer rays in their anal fin. Moreover, their mouth’s floor showcases a unique black speckling.

7. Gizzard Shad

Gizzard Shad
Scientific Name:Dorosoma cepedianum
Common Name:Gizzard Shad
Distribution:Throughout the central and eastern United States, as well as parts of southern Canada and northern Mexico
Habitat:Freshwater lakes, reservoirs, and rivers, often in large schools in open water or near the surface
Diet:Planktons, algae, and small insects
Adult Size:8–14 inches (20–36 cm)
WeightUp to 3 pounds (1.4 kg)
Lifespan:4–6 years
Conservation Status:Least Concern

The Gizzard Shad is a distinctive fish with a silvery-green hue on its back, fading to silver on its sides and belly.

Their unique features include a small, toothless mouth, black spots behind the gills, and a deeply forked tail. A notable purple-blue spot near their gill flap also adds to its identity.

These fish, found mainly in the central and eastern United States, southern Canada, and northern Mexico, thrive in freshwater environments. Their name stems from its gizzard-like organ that aids in digestion.

As omnivores, they consume plankton, algae, and some insects. Young Gizzards dash to the water’s surface when threatened, making them a favorite for game fishing. They are also valued as baitfish.

Unfortunately, their overfeeding can negatively impact ecosystems despite their importance in the aquatic food chain.

8. Skipjack Shad

Skipjack Shad
Image credit: fish.finding / Instagram
Scientific Name:Alosa Chrysochloris
Common Name:Skipjack Shad, Skipjack Herring, Tennessee Tarpon
Distribution:Can be found throughout large rivers in the eastern United States, particularly from the Mississippi River drainage to the Gulf of Mexico
Habitat:Prefer large, clear rivers with moderate to swift currents; often occupy deep waters but can occasionally be found near the surface, especially during spawning
Diet:Insects, small fishes such as Threadfin and Gizzard Shad
Adult Size:12–16 inches
Weight:Up to 4 pounds
Lifespan:4–6 years
Conservation Status:Least Concern

The Skipjack Shad is often observed leaping out of water when feeding; hence, the name. Their silver or white slender body sometimes reflects a blue hue.

Their distinct features include yellow eyes with protective lids, larger mouths with pointed snouts, protruding lower jaws, and scutes forming a saw-tooth pattern around their stomachs.

These fish primarily consume zooplankton, insect larvae, and smaller fish. As they mature, they prey on other shad types.

They typically measure between 12 and 16 inches, but some grow over 20 inches. These fish are not usually caught for food but are famous cut baits for catfish.

Frequently Asked Questions

Group of shad fish in an aquarium

Is a Herring a Shad?

No, herring and shad are not the same; they are two distinct types of fish, although they are related and share some similarities.

Although related, herrings, commonly found in the cooler waters of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, are generally smaller and more streamlined, primarily feeding on plankton.

On the other hand, shad are larger with a more pronounced jaw. They possess a more varied diet and are typically found on the Atlantic coast of North America, migrating up freshwater rivers to spawn.

What Is the Largest Shad Species?

The largest shad species is the American Shad (Alosa sapidissima). Adult American Shad can typically reach lengths of up to 20 inches and weigh between 3 and 8 pounds.

What Is the Difference Between American Shad and Hickory Shad?

American Shad (Alosa sapidissima) and Hickory Shad (Alosa mediocris) are both members of the herring family, commonly found in similar habitats and highly sought after by anglers.

However, there are distinguishing features and behaviors that set them apart. In terms of size, the American Shad are notably larger, while the Hickory Shad are more compact.

Hickory Shad also possess a deeper belly, giving them a more rounded profile. When examining their mouths, the lower jaw of the Hickory Shad juts out noticeably, a trait not observed in the American Shad.

Behaviorally, while both species migrate, the American Shad travels further upstream to spawn, whereas the Hickory Shad prefers brackish waters and exhibits less migratory tendencies.

What Is the Difference Between Threadfin Shad and Gizzard Shad?

Threadfin Shad (Dorosoma petenense) and Gizzard Shad (Dorosoma cepedianum) are freshwater fish often found in the same habitats but possess distinct characteristics.

Threadfin Shad are generally smaller, ranging from 4 to 6 inches. They’re identifiable by their slender bodies and a striking, long thread-like filament extending from the dorsal fin.

On the other hand, Gizzard Shad grow larger, averaging between 8 and 14 inches. Their bodies are more robust and oblong and feature a deep fork in the tail.

Unlike Gizzard Shad, the upper jaw of Threadfins also projects notably beyond the lower jaw and is slightly notched at the center. They also display a noticeable yellow hue in all fins, excluding the dorsal.

Which shad species do you find most interesting? Join the conversation in the comment section below! Feel free to ask any questions you may have as well about any of the species mentioned.

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