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Larry Woody: Don’t skip out on the skipjacks

Larry Woody • Dec 26, 2017 at 7:47 PM

Fishing buddy Bob Sherborne and I were searching for stripe one day last spring in the Cumberland River when we saw minnows skipping on the surface near a creek mouth – a sure sign of feeding fish.

We putted over, and on our first cast we both had jolting hits.

Only they weren’t stripe – they were big skipjacks, as we saw when the fish broke water and went tail-dancing across the surface, iridescent scales flashing and glistening in the sunlight.

Technically Skipjack Herring, skipjacks are also known as Tennessee Tarpon because of their resemblance to their giant coastal cousins in shape, color and acrobatics.

Some fishermen consider skipjacks a nuisance, but the way I look at it, catching skipjacks beats catching nothing. Many an otherwise slow day on the water has been livened up when a school of skipjacks moved in.

They fight as grudgingly as white bass and are as acrobatic as rainbow trout. What’s not to like?

Skipjacks are not considered fit to eat, at least by human standards. (Catfish love them.) But nowadays when more and more fishermen are practicing catch-and-release, being edible is not the gold standard it once was. Skipjacks are fun to catch, and isn’t that what fishing is supposed to be about?

I once traveled to Melton Hill dam specifically to fish for skipjacks. A friend who lived in the area called to report that the water below the dam was churning with skipjacks. He said to come over and bring a fly rod. Casting streamers from the bank, we caught skipjacks until our arms ached.

Most skipjacks run 1-3 pounds. The Tennessee state record is a 4 pound, 3-oucer caught in Watts Bar Reservoir in 2015.

Skipjacks feed on minnows, and when a school goes into a feeding frenzy they are like stripe – they’ll smash into any lure that spins, wobbles, flashes or flutters. My favorite is a Road Runner spinner with a chartreuse Twister Tail, the same lure I use almost exclusively for strip.

Of course skipjacks also hit the real thing, which makes them pain for live-bait fishermen; a school of hungry skipjacks can quickly empty a minnow bucket. They are known to run crappie fishermen off a hole.

Skipjacks make great catfish bait. During a Cheatham stripe trip a few years back we came alongside a couple of fishermen catching skipjacks on multi-hook rigs specially designed for the purpose, and tossing them into a cooler. They said they were stocking up on bait for an upcoming catfish tournament.

Every spring I freeze a few skipjacks for use on later catfish trips. Skipjack chunks stay on the hook well, and their oily ooze drives cats wild. Some catfishermen spice the chunks with garlic.

Skipjacks are such a popular catfish bait that there is a commercial demand for them, and in 2013 the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency set a limit of 100 per day to prevent over-harvesting.

When nothing else is cooperating, a school of hungry skipjacks can liven up a trip.

Larry Woody is The Democrat’s outdoors writer.

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