03/05/10 — Spring is the perfect time to catch jackfish

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Spring is the perfect time to catch jackfish

By Mike Marsh
Published in Sports on March 5, 2010 1:46 PM

Growing up North Carolina's piedmont, I had never experienced the thrill of catching a chain pickerel. Although a few live in waters west of the fall line, most of these great game fish inhabit tannin stained waters of the coastal plain.

In 1971 I was a student at Wayne Community College and my best friend was Phil Stone, who hailed from Lumberton. On a chilly spring day, he suggested we take a stab at jackfish. I had caught redfin pickerel, but they were only 10 inches long. What Phil knew and I was about to find out was that chain pickerel, Esox niger, could grow quite a bit heftier.

We bought wire leaders, something I've learned since are unnecessary to land the fish because their teeth are more like daggers than razors. With a bucket of minnows, we headed to Stevens Millpond.

My tackle box had been run over by my mother's car. Even Umco's best aluminum tackle box was no match for a Buick Electra 225, so I carried surviving tackle in a molasses pail. I had a Zebco 66 spincast reel mounted on a matching fiberglass rod. Phil pegged me as an inept angler because of my tackle. Spinning reels were just coming into vogue with the invention of Garcia's Mitchell series. But such reels were beyond the financial reach of a college student who was supporting himself by trapping and setting trotlines.

Phil impaled a minnow under the dorsal fin and cast it into the water. It sat only a moment before the cork float "sank." Letting the fish run a few feet to swallow the minnow, Phil set the hook hard. A 2-pound chain pickerel leaped from the water. He landed the fish and put it on a stringer, avoiding the ice pick teeth.

Copying Phil's technique, I landed my first small jack. Over a couple hours' fishing, Phil showed me the bleeding tails of some jackfish, telltale signs the fish were spawning. Perhaps they were fighting over territory or were participating in what to a human eye would seem an incredibly abusive procreation ritual. But Phil said early March was when the fish were most aggressive because of the spawn.

We caught eight fish and the last one I hooked was a monster. We estimated the fish to weigh 5 pounds. The fish jumped several times with my heart racing harder at every leap because I knew he was going to spit the hook. But the gold wire hook held as the fish tired.

We took our jackfish home and filleted them. The small Y bones of a jackfish are the reason anglers don't adore them for their delicately flavored, white meat. (As top predators, jackfish are now subject to consumption advisories due to mercury). Scoring the fillets with a knife 3/8-inch apart allowed sizzling peanut oil to penetrate the meat, frying the bones to a crisp. We ate the fillets, bones and all.

I've hooked jackfish in water bodies across the coastal plain while fishing for bass, catfish, bream and other species. It's a thrill every time one takes the bait or lure, jumping high into the air with what it thought was prey in its teeth. I've even had panfish taken by chain pickerel while they were being reeled to the boat.

On March mornings when skim ice slinks across the water, the journal of my memory harkens back to that day. Phil admitted I was a more accomplished angler than he figured he wouldn't judge anyone by his tackle box again.

Now, when I get jacked up for jackfish, I launch a one-man boat or canoe into a millpond or coastal creek. Rather than a minnow, I tie on a Mepps Comet spinner. Sometimes I use a stickbait made by Rapala or Rebel. Whatever the lure tossed, a piscatorial gauntlet has been cast. If there is a jackfish lurking beneath that murky mirror, the challenge is accepted by a fish with the markings of chain mail and the battle enjoined.