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Out There: Oh, the joys of nailing skippies

I called them the "Blues Brothers." Monroe and Grover Tidwell love catching blue catfish, so it only seemed appropriate.

I hitched up with this pair of fun-loving Florence, Ala., catmen in October 1999. I was in Alabama for a conference, had some free time and asked the local tourism folks if they knew anyone who might take me catfishing on the Tennessee River.

A few hours later, we three were catching bait below Wilson Dam.

My Blues Brothers buddies are good at what they do. They often catch catfish weighing 50 pounds or more, and they do it using fresh skipjack herrings for bait.

That's what we were catching in the Wilson Dam tailwater — skipjacks. And while the catfishing part of the trip was fun, the bait catching was even more fun.

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.

Hook one of these silvery, streamlined fish (not to be confused with the much larger black skipjack or skipjack tuna of saltwater notoriety), and the reason for its proper name becomes immediately apparent. It skips across the surface of the water like a flattened stone, leaping again and again and again — a miniature tarpon of sorts.

The skipjack is beautiful, as well. When seen racing 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 saltwaters along the Gulf Coast.

They range from the upper Mississippi River Valley to the Gulf and Florida to Texas.

In the waters below Wilson Dam in Alabama, 1- to 2-pounders are as common as ants at a picnic, and occasionally you'll catch one that pushes the 3-pound, 12-ounce world-record mark. (Yes, there is an international standard for skippies.)

After anchoring their boat below the dam, Grover and Monroe showed me their simple technique for catching these little dynamos.

Tie on a tiny Reflecto spoon, cast it in the fast-moving water below the dam, let it sink and get ready for action.

On every cast, a skipjack nailed the lure, and every skipjack raced and leaped, providing fish-a-minute fun on the light tackle we used. In two hours' time, our trio landed some 300 of these glistening speedsters.

And when the Blues Brothers proclaimed we then had enough bait to go catfishing, I protested. Catching skippies is addictive.

A long, sensitive ultralight spinning combo amplifies the enjoyment of skirmishing with these pint-sized pugilists. Most skipjacks weigh 2 pounds or less, so 2- to 6-pound-test line is ample.

Light line also permits long casts with the small lures that work best — spoons, jigs, spinners, streamers and tiny topwater plugs. Small, live minnows also nab them, and, where permitted, anglers often use sabiki rigs, a multi-hook saltwater rig with several tiny flies that skippies find irresistible.

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.

Fortunate fishermen may land dozens, perhaps 100 or more, during a couple of hours 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.

The same thing happened when I joined the Blues Brothers to fish for skipjacks. When it was over, we 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.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net.