Know Your Baitfish Gizzard Shad

know your baitfish-gizzard shad
gizzard shad

Gizzard Shad- Dorosoma_cepedianum


The gizzard shad has a compressed body with a sharp belly. They have a ridge on their belly that resembles saw teeth. The gizzard shad can be distinguished from other fish by their trademark look that includes a blunt nose, long thread-like rear dorsal fin, and a distinctive spot directly behind the gill covers. This spot is present in juvenile gizzard shad, but becomes faint then disappears as the shad matures. After the gizzard shad has been eaten by a predator, partly digested shad are much more difficult to identify. Anglers will often report fish with “stomachs full of shad,” that are actually full of other young fish, like crappie or white bass. Know Your Baitfish-Gizzard Shad


The American gizzard shad (Dorosoma cepedianum), also known as the mud shad, is a member of the herring family of fish, and is native to large swaths of fresh and brackish waters of the United States of America. The adult has a deep body, with a silvery-green coloration above fading to plain silver below. The gizzard shad commonly resides in freshwater lakes, reservoirs, rivers, and streams, but can reside in brackish waters, as it does on the Atlantic coast of the United States. Their range spans across most of the continental United States.

They typically go no further north than New York and no further west than New Mexico. They are large parts of many of the ecosystems they inhabit, and can drive changes in phyto- and zooplankton, thereby indirectly affecting other planktivorous fishes. The gizzard shad has been widely used as a food source for game fish, with varied success in management and effectiveness.


Spawning takes place in late spring or early summer. Female and male gizzard shad swim together near the surface, expelling eggs and milt over open water. Fertilized eggs drift and slowly sink, adhering to submerged vegetation and other objects. Larval gizzard shad hatch from the eggs after only two to four days. 

Gizzard shad are temperature sensitive. They can’t tolerate rapid fluctuations temperatures or prolonged cold periods. While not scientifically proven, a good rule is that gizzard shad typically don’t survive winters in waters where ice cover lasts 100 days or longer. 


Gizzard shad are planktivorous in early life. They feed mainly on phytoplankton. They switch to a diet of zooplankton when they become older. Their consumptive demand is so heavy, it can cause collapses in the zooplankton community. This can have far-reaching effects through the ecosystem of which they are a part. They can switch to diets that contains detritus, but their growth rates are decreased. They only do so when density of conspecifics is high and the zooplankton population has been depleted. Daphnia and other crustaceans make up a large portion of some gizzard shad diets. Gizzard shad feed mainly during the day, with minimal activity at night.[3] They have been observed at night in Lake Mead, Arizona congregating in schools in very shallow water two to three feet deep during the fall. source 

Gizzard shad are filter feeders. They feed on small insects, algae, and zooplankton . They’re one of the few North American fish capable of surviving completely on plant materials. This makes them ideal forage for predator fish. They provide a direct link from the plant level of the food chain to the upper levels. 

The gizzard shad gets its name from its muscular stomach, which resembles a bird gizzard. Some researchers have found grains of sand in the shad’s gizzard, leading to speculation that the fish intentionally consumed sand to use as grit to help break down plant material in the gizzard. This has never been proven and researchers have determined that the sand was consumed while foraging for prey.


Gizzard shad are great to use as bait for about any freshwater fish. As a prolific species the gizzard shad is plenty and provide a lot of protein. Gizzard shad can be used as bait alive or dead. While some people may use gizzard shad to catch bass or stripers gizzard shad are mostly used to catch catfish on the bottom as a whole or cut-bait presentation. One catfish species that is targeted with live gizzard shad with great success is the flathead catfish. The flathead catfish is a predator and prefer live bait and if you can keep gizzard shad alive they can be a great bait for flatheads.

Shad are hard to keep alive. They require clean oxygen rich water to survive. While some anglers go through the trouble to build or buy a bait tank capable of keeping gizzard shad alive most just use them as cut-bait. Gizzard shad can be caught in great numbers with a cast net and bagged and froze for later use. Cutting the shad into chunks gives catfish a nice piece of protein without having to keep them alive. Gizzard shad guts is a popular catfish bait as well. I can remember fishing with my grandfather and uncles and all we used was shad guts for bait.

Gizzard Shad vs Threadfin Shad

About Ken McBroom 307 Articles
Ken McBroom is an accomplished outdoor writer and photographer. Growing up in Lynchburg Tennessee allowed him many opportunities afield as a boy and young man. Later in life, after Desert Storm, Ken’s wanderlust took him to Alaska to live and work and experience the last frontier. Married now with two beautiful children, Ken now calls Kentucky home where he continues to communicate our American outdoor traditions and the lifestyle it offers.


  1. I often encounter the gizzard Shad on my home lake here in Arizona, Lake Roosevelt. They are plentiful and quite easy to catch if you go about it with great finesse. Over the years there were times when I fished for Crappie with my hand tied flies and jigs. These flies have a small amount of silver Flashabou extending past the tail. I think that the Flashabou attracted the Gizzard shat because I was getting frequent taps but no takes on my flies. Then I encountered a Gizzard shad spawn as described in the article and attempted to catch them on my Crappie flies. I got the same results. Tap, Tap. So I began carrying some tiny # 16 hand tied flies with a single strand of silver Flashabou looped through the eye of the hook and secured with a few wraps of white thread. Fished on a 5-6 weight fly rod with a long , light leader cast a few feet ahead in their path gets strikes. These Shad are around fifteen inches long and are great fighters. Stelth is the key to success with these fish.

  2. Yea I have caught several big gizzard shad and skipjack here on Kentucky Lake. They fight like a saltwater fish. I wish I could consistently catch them on a fly rod is I could I would for sure.

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