Pickle: Gotta have skipjack bait

Catfish anglers can catch skipjack herring on Sabiki rigs in areas with clear, shallow running water.

A recurring theme from both the Mississippi and Tenn-Tom anglers is the importance of using river herring for bait when attempting to catch catfish, particularly trophy-sized blue cats. The hands-down favorite is skipjack herring, a.k.a. skipjack shad.

Skipjack reside in the rivers year round but can be more difficult to catch at certain times of the year.

“If I can’t get skipjack, I’d just as soon not fish,” said Jay Pickle, who along with his dad Pat, catches the bait they use to tame Mississippi River cats. “You can try live bream, pond perch or goldfish and you’ll catch a fish or two but nothing like the skipjacks.”

Like catfish, anglers can find skipjack herring living in the current waters that flow through and around the river dikes. Bait is caught by hand, using rod and reel, hook and line. One important aspect to catching herring is that they feed by sight, so water clarity is an issue. Without clear water, it’s hard to get the herring to bite a hook.

“These old runouts, wing dams, or old lakes draining, anywhere you’ve got running, shallow water that is clear enough to see is a good place to catch bait,” said Pickle. “We use a Sabiki rig and just bounce it along the bottom.”

Some anglers find that cooler weather is a better time to catch bait and will often stock up and freeze any supplemental bait for use later in the year. Care is needed to freeze the skipjack properly, insuring it is viable when thawed for later use.

“Moisture will make the herring mushy and then it won’t stay on the hook,” said Brian Barton, a fishing guide at Pickwick Lake. “I make special herring fishing trips in the late spring when the herring are spawning.

“I keep the bait alive and then quick freeze them in vacuum-sealed bags with a lot of salt. I turn the freezer down as low as it will go and suck all the moisture out, salt the fish and that tends to keep it solid until I need it.”

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Phillip Gentry is a freelance outdoor writer and photographer who says that if it swims, walks, hops, flies or crawls he’s usually not too far behind.