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'Tennessee tarpon' are fast and easy

Larry Woody, Outdoors Writer • Updated Jul 9, 2014 at 11:25 PM

It had been a slow morning on the Cumberland River as Bob Sherborne and I worked the craggy banks and creek mouths, casting for bass that evidently were in the midst of a major lockjaw epidemic.

Around mid-day we surrendered and puttered up to Old Hickory Dam to see if we could find some white bass hanging in the current.

Sherborne snapped on a Road Runner spinner and I selected a ¼-ounce jig with a chartreuse Twister Tail. I sailed the lead-head into the churning water, gave a couple of jerks, and something socked it hard.

The reel screeched, the rod bowed, and a silver rocket exploded from the swirling foam. The two-pound fish danced across the water on its tail, did a couple of back-flips, nose-dived, and bored deep into the swift current.

In the back of the boat, Sherborne was busy with a similar battle.

The skipjacks were feeding, and the action was fast and furious.

Skipjacks, officially classified as Shipjack Herring, are also known as freshwater river herring and Tennessee Tarpon. With their brilliant silver scales and bony jaws they indeed resemble miniature tarpon, both in appearance and fighting spirit.

Many fishermen turn up their noses at skipjack, but nobody can deny their tenacious battling ability. I’ve heard many an angler whoop with excitement when a mystery fish nailed their lure and tried to yank the rod out of their hands – only to groan with disappointment when a skipjack shattered the surface.

Why, I wonder?

Skipjacks are terrific fighters, especially on light tackle. Granted, they’re not good to eat, but in these days of catch-and-release, fewer game fish reach the table anyway.

If you’re going to toss a fish back, why not enjoy getting a good fight out of it?

I view the skipjack as a “fill-in fish” – a backup that’s most always available when preferred species are playing hard to get. On a lot of fishing trips, the skipjack is the last girl in the bar at closing time.

Would I trade a Caney Fork rainbow for a skipjack? Or swap Dale Hollow smallies for Tennessee Tarpon? Or forsake Kentucky Lake crappie and Reelfoot’s bull bluegill for a helping of herring? No, of course not.

But when nothing else is biting, a skipjack beats catching, well, nothing else.

I once made a trip to Melton Hill Dam one spring day specifically to fish for skipjacks. An East Tennessee fishing buddy called, said the boils were full of the fish, and he was having a ball catching them on a fly rod. I drove up and met him there the next morning. Casting streamer flies in the tailrace, we caught bruiser skipjacks until our wrists ached and our forearms cramped.

It was fun, and isn’t that supposed to be what fishing’s all about?

Granted, skipjacks can be a pest when you’re after white bass, crappie or sauger and a school of ‘jacks moves in and takes over. But I've always found it hard to complain about catching too many fast-hitting, hard-fighting fish, just because they happen to be the wrong species.

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