Fishing for skipjacks is one of the best ways to enjoy a day outdoors
It's not very big or good to eat, but the beautiful skipjack herring puts up a fight all out of proportion to its size. (Photo courtesy of Keith ''Catfish'' Sutton)
As far as I can tell, there are only two good reasons to fish for skipjack herring. Neither has anything to do with the fish’s culinary qualities, for skipjacks are about as edible as bicycle tires. Size is no attraction, either. The world-record – a 3-pound, 12-ounce skipjack caught in Tennessee’s Watts Bar Lake in 1982 – was colossal. Skipjacks are not exceptionally beautiful, nor challenging to catch.
Why fish for skipjacks, then? First of all, skipjacks are extraordinary bait for giant catfish. Their flesh contains dense concentrations of scented oils, and these oils are highly enticing to flatheads, blues and channels.
It matters little how you present the bait – live, dead, whole, cut, filleted. Hungry cats gobble up skippies like a toddler eating chocolates.
Perhaps the best reason to fish for skipjacks, though, is simply because it’s pure, unadulterated fun. Hook one of these silvery, streamlined fish, and the reason for its name becomes immediately apparent. It fights strongly against hook and line, jumping like a miniature tarpon. Tussle with one on ultralight tackle, and you’ll be amazed that so small and slender a fish exhibits such sporty qualities.
The skipjack herring (Alosa chrysochloris) is closely related to shad and alewives. Anglers know it by many nicknames, including nailrod (my favorite), river herring, golden shad, river shad, skippy and blue herring.
When seen skipping across the water, pursuing the small fishes that comprise most of its diet, its symmetry and color catch the eye. The iridescent blue-green back and silvery sides flash in the sun.
Skipjacks inhabit open waters of large freshwater rivers and occasionally wander into brackish and salt waters along the Gulf Coast. They range from the upper Mississippi River Valley to the Gulf, and from Florida to Texas.
The species is highly migratory, moving about continuously in large schools. Until recently, it was believed to be anadromous, migrating up rivers from the sea to spawn in fresh water. It’s now known to be entirely a freshwater form, but fishermen report distinct upstream runs in spring.
Most skipjacks are an incidental catch for anglers pursuing white bass, saugers and other panfish. But many who catch them this way discover that fishing for skippies, specifically, can be just as much fun as chasing more popular game fish.
A long, sensitive ultralight spinning combo amplifies the enjoyment of skirmishing with these pint-sized pugilists. The average skipjack weighs a pound or less, so 2- to 6-pound-test line is ample.
Light line also permits long casts with the small lures that work best – jigs, spinners, streamers and tiny topwater plugs. Small, live minnows also nab them.
Jigs (1/64- to 1/32-ounce) are perhaps the most commonly used skipjack lures. Small white bucktails are favored by skipjackers on the lower Mississippi River, where these little scrappers are abundant. But style is of little importance it seems, for skipjacks just as readily strike tube jigs, curly-tail jigs, marabou jigs and other designs. Two or more jigs are often fished tandem on the same line, and multiple catches on a single cast are common.
The tailwaters below big-river dams serve up some of the best skipjack fishing, especially in spring when lock-and-dam structures hinder the skipjack’s upstream migrations. Enormous concentrations assemble in these reaches, and at times, the water’s surface flashes like a mirrored globe twirling above a disco dance floor, as schools of skippies caper in the swirls. A fortunate fishermen may land dozens, perhaps 100 or more, in a single afternoon spent casting around lock walls, power-generation channels and wing dikes.
River junctions also are skipjack hot spots. The boiling eddies created when two big delta rivers converge seem especially attractive to these fish, perhaps because this type of water also attracts enormous concentrations of small food fish.
Large schools of skipjacks often churn the surface of the swirling water as they pursue young-of-the-year shad in late summer and early fall. Here, the largest skipjacks often are found in association with white bass, small stripers or other game fish, an additional bonus for the lucky angler.
I remember a week spent on a houseboat moored just upstream from the confluence of the White and Mississippi rivers in Arkansas. We spent most of our time fishing for the monster catfish that call this world home. But each morning at dawn, we motored to the juncture of the two vast rivers and fished for skipjacks.
If there’s a more beautiful sight than a thousand skipjacks flashing like fireflies in the glow of a Mississippi River sunrise, I’ve never seen it. It started slowly at first, a skippy here, another there, gamboling on the water’s surface.
Every now and then a little spritz of elfin shad would spurt from the water with a skipjack close behind. Then as the sun rose and that rich tangerine light saturated the river bottoms, the skippies rose, and the water’s surface became textured by their dance. Leaping, flashing, leaping, flashing – thousands upon thousands of them gorging on the rivers’ great bounty of shad.
Sometimes it lasted an hour or more; sometimes only a few all-too-brief minutes. But each day we were there, and each day we cast to boiling schools of skipjacks as they did their dance. When we had enough to bait our trotlines that day, we’d stow the rods and take in the extravaganza. And when it was over, we always wished it wasn’t.
Some anglers never outgrow the stage where catching big, powerful sport fish is all that matters. For them, fishing has no meaning unless they catch a limit of bass, trout, stripers or other “meaningful” fish – the bigger the better.
For others, though, fishing is an end unto itself. It clears the mind and soothes the soul. It matters not what kind of fish are caught, or how many, or how big. These folks are out to have fun, to relax, to take in the outdoors. And, for them, the simpler pleasures are enough to satisfy.
It’s for this latter group that skipjacks were tailor-made. They’re not good to eat. They don’t get very big. They have no status. But fishing for skipjacks is among the best of all ways to enjoy a day outdoors.