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Don't skip the skipjack

Skipjack herring aren't good to eat, but their high-jumping ways make for fun fishing by Keith Sutton | June 15, 2008 at 3:04 a.m.

— 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. A trophyclass skippy is one in the 2- to 2-1/2-pound range. Skipjacks are not exceptionally beautiful, nor challenging to catch.

W hy f ish for sk ipjack s, then? First of all, skipjacks make great baits for catfish. Their f lesh 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, f illeted. Hungry cats gobble up skippies like a toddler eating chocolates. Heavyweight striped bass gorge on skipjacks, too, and live herring bait is hard to beat when you're after a trophy-class striper or hybrid striper.

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 skips across the surface of the water like a miniature tarpon, leaping again and again and again. 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, river herring, golden shad, river shad, skippy and blue herring. When seen skipping across the water, pursuing the small fish that comprise most of its diet, its symmetry and color catch the eye. The iridescent bluegreen back and silvery sides flash in the sun.

Skipjacks usually live in open waters of large freshwater rivers. They inhabit all the big rivers of the Natural State, including the entire length of the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers and portions of the White, Red, Black andOuachita. A visit to any of these streams this month will provide fun opportunities for catching lots of skipjacks if you go about it the right way.

A long, sensitive ultralight spinning combo amplif ies 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 many rivers 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, like those along the Arkansas and Ouachita rivers, serve up some of the best skipjack fishing, especially in May and June 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 f loor, as schools of skippies caper in the swirls.

A fortunate fisherman 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 f ish, 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 southeast 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 ofthe 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 closebehind. 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, wealways 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" f ish - 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.

Tri-Lakes, Pages 131, 132 on 06/15/2008

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