Fishing for Jack Salmon in mid-January is not all that fun and fun. In the midst of the longest cold snap north Alabama has seen in decades, I was sitting in a boat in the middle of the Tennessee River freezing my toes.
Jack Salmon, actually Sauger, seems to sting the most on the colder, gray days of winter on his way upriver to spawn. This is the time of year when they congregate under the river dams. I know for a fact that there are many Saugers in the tail waters of Guntersville, Wheeler and Wilson dams because I have caught so many of them in those waters.
Although the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has dams in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia, I know little of the Jack Salmon who has slipped through the Alabama locks and currently resides in Tennessee.
This particular morning I was trying to pour coffee from the thermos into my mug without spilling it on my bait and was trying to avoid tangling my line that was at the bottom of the pot under my feet. Attached to the end of the line was a large one-ounce blue and chartreuse stencil with a medium-sized minnow.
We were about 2 miles downstream from Guntersville Dam, near the mouth of the Paint Rock River. The water was a bit high but not high enough to hurt the fish. As we looked for a place to start drifting with the current, we counted 26 boats anchored where they were fishing.
Most of the fishermen used the same type of bait as me and fished 35 to 40 feet deep. Every few minutes someone in one of those boats would bring a Jack that weighed between one and three pounds. Alabama’s record was over five pounds, caught with the same type of bait he was using.
I remember the first Sauger I ever caught when I was a kid. My Uncle Grady, on my mother’s side, and I were fishing under the Guntersville Dam, along the wall that separated the turbines from the spillways. Raindrops hit us in the face as the wind blew the mist from the turbines into our face.
I don’t remember the month, but I can still see that 12-year-old shivering with cold and trying to pretend he wasn’t freezing. My discomfort only lasted a few minutes because we immediately started fishing and forgot about the cold. They were unlike any other fish that had ever fished before. They were shaped like a cigar or torpedo with large brown spots on each side. Their mouths were also full of needle-sharp teeth. My uncle said that Jack Salmon was the best fish in the river to eat. He was correct!
We used live minnows weighing two ounces to carry the bait to where the fish were being held, near the wall of the dam’s wing. In those days we didn’t use fish baskets to store our catch, but after a few hours our string was full and we ran out of bait.
Over the years, I have fished many times for Sauger, a member of the perch family. Sometimes I was lucky and caught some, sometimes not. If you can take the elements and really, really want to fish for these fish, head to the Tennessee River in Alabama. You will find Jack Salmon under any of these three large dams.