Collecting Tennessee’s ‘trash’

Larry Woody • Sep 5, 2017 at 4:26 PM

Most anglers call them “trash” fish – non-game species such as carp, buffalo, drum, skipjacks and gar.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency prefers the more euphemistic “rough fish” designation.

But whatever you call them, they are fun to catch. Especially when nothing else is cooperating.

Last spring fishing buddy Bob Sherborne and I made a trip down the Cumberland River to search for white bass (stripe) but had no luck. Coves and creek mouths that in past springs had brimmed with schools of stripe were deserted.

Deserted by stripe, that it. They were full of skipjacks.

Skipjacks, technically river herring, also are known as “Tennessee Tarpon” because they resemble their giant saltwater cousins in shape, iridescent colors and leaping ability.

Sherborne and I caught skipjacks on almost every cast, some over two pounds. A big skipjack will put up a tussle on light tackle. They hit hard, dive deep and jump high.

I’ve been stripe fishing with friends in the past when they would hook a big skipjack and think they had a stripe. They would be delighted as they fought the surging fish -- until it suddenly exploded from the surface and went tail-dancing across the water.

Their excitement would abruptly wilt. Why? They were enjoying the fight until they realized what they were fighting.

The same goes for drum. I was fishing for smallmouth bass on Center Hill Lake a couple of years ago, catching good-sized bronzebacks along a rocky, wind-swept bank.

Suddenly my buddy got a hit that almost yanked the rod from his hands.

He set the hook with a whoop, and began to wrestle with what he assumed was a monster smallmouth. Minutes later he worked it alongside the boat and got a look it in the gin-clear water. He had hooked a big drum, not a big bass.

His grin immediately turned upside down. Again, he was thoroughly thrilled right up until he saw the fish.

I have a friend in East Tennessee who years ago invited me to meet him below Melton Hill Dam expressly to fish for skipjacks. He called and said they were stacked in the churning tailwaters. He suggested I bring a fly rod and box of bright streamers. We caught skipjacks until our arms ached.

On other trips he and I have flogged streams to a froth trying to catch a few foot-long trout that didn’t put up half the fight those skipjacks did. It’s all in the mind – in addition to trout having better PR agents than skipjacks.

In addition to fishing for skipjacks, I’ve also gone fishing expressly for carp. They are stubborn fighters, surging and lunging and hugging the bottom. They fight as hard as catfish, but without the barbs.

Speaking of catfish, there’s no better bait for them than skipjacks. I’ve got a package of skipjack fillets stored in the freezer, ready for our next catfishing trip.

Other than making great catfish bait, there’s no practical use for skipjacks, which is another reason why they – and other trash fish – are so much fun to catch:

You don’t have to take them home and clean them.

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