Skipjack Herring

"I think it's a big bass!" the grizzled, silver-haired man said as he fought with an invisible tugging force at the end of his line. Suddenly, the fish left the confines of the Tennessee River with an arching leap into the air. "Dang it!" the fisherman disgustedly exclaimed as the beautiful iridescent fish splashed back into the water. "It's a skipjack."

He fought the fish for a couple of minutes- clearly enjoying the challenge of landing it. Finally the fish was free of the water, the man retrieved some pliers from his tackle box and removed the hook from the its mouth. The fisherman then did something that puzzled me- with clear disgust- he tossed it back into the water. Being the curious person that I am, I asked him why he was so upset with his catch. He looked at me like I was an alien or worse- a Yankee. "Skipjack are trash fish. You can't eat 'em. But you can use them for bait." And with that bit of instruction- he promptly ignored me and went back to fishing.

Upon returning home, I began researching this fish known as "Skipjack." Its full common name is Skipjack Herring. The Skipjack Herring's scientific name is: Alosa (Latin definition: 'shad') chrysochloris (Greek definition: 'A Golden Green'). Other common names include: Blue Herring, Golden Shad, Green Herring, River Herring, Skipjack, Skipjack Shad, Skippy, Tennessee Tarpon, and Hickory Shad.

Cool. A herring like fish lived in the river near my home. I had no idea.

Skipjack are so named because they jump out of the water. A lot. When caught by an angler they will leap frenzilied from the water repeatedly in a crazed but valiant attempt to become free. Even though these are excellent fighting fish, (an ESPN columnist described the Skipjack's fight to catching a miniature tarpon) sportsman do not purposely try to catch Skipjack. However, there is an exception to anglers targeting these jumping fish. Monster catfish hunters will catch 100-300 Skipjack Herring a day for use as catfish bait. An ESPN contributor wrote an article for the ESPN website describing this very activity on a guided fishing trip in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. (link to ESPN article)

And that worried me- the catching of 100-300 fish in a single day- by a single person. Not for food, but for bait. That seems like such a waste. For instance, consider the following article from Wisconsin regarding the Skipjack Herring becoming endangered in their waters. And consider this: when the Skipjack becomes extinct in their waters, two other lifeforms will disappear as well. Two types of mussels are close to extinction along with the Skipjack from Wisconsin waters: the ebony shell (Fusconaia ebena ) and elephant ear (Elliptio crassidens), for which the skipjack is the sole host. Mussel larvae cling to the herring's gills until they mature. (Article)

There are plenty of lessons in the history of man to teach us that no matter how abundant life may appear, it can be killed off. Forever. Consider the demise of the Passenger Pigeon:

The Passenger Pigeon, once probably the most numerous bird on the planet...Their flocks, a mile wide and up to 300 miles long, were so dense that they darkened the sky for hours and days as the flock passed overhead. Population estimates from the 19th century ranged from 1 billion to close to 4 billion individuals. Total populations may have reached 5 billion individuals and comprised up to 40% of the total number of birds in North America (Schorger 1995). (source)

Up to 5,000,000,000 Passenger Pigeons- gone. Forever. A quick reminder of the sheer quantity of 5 billion. It would take a person 155 years to count to 5 billion, assuming they counted non-stop 24 hours a day- averaging 1 number per second. (source) Again, 5,000,000 Passenger Pigeons gone- in just over 100 years.

Life is interconnected. Consider the disappearance of the honeybee:

One of the biggest concerns is the environment. Some scientists fear an elimination of a complete species, the honeybee, or maybe bees in general. Bees are vital for the pollination of plants and flowers. Not just honey would be affected, but the future of many plants would be in jeopardy. This could affect general world health, not just food prices but also the ecosystem in general. Numerous scientists speculate not only would the bee species become extinct but also various other animal life as well. (source)

Even the lowly Skipjack Herring that my fisherman despised has an important place in life- maybe even our own. At least the fisherman that I had met had the sense to practice catch and release. If only more fisherman had the same good sense. Individual actions do make a difference. (Sidebar: I'm not against the use of fish as food or bait (when it is enviromentally feasible). But I am against the senseless waste of catching 100-??? for use as bait.)

The Skipjack Herring is no "trash fish". I'm reminded of a childhood response to an insult hurled my way: a common retort was "God don't make no trash!"


me and my camera said...

Your title photo is very beautiful: colourful and vibrant!

me and my camera said...

As I began reading your mention of the Skipjack Herring, I started wondering about a fish found in this area that spends several years along the Atlantic coast before returning to its freshwater source upriver to spawn in the spring. So I did some quick research. Gaspereau: also know as a Branch Herring, Grayback, Alewife, ... quite similar looking to the photo on your post. I have a photos of one on my nature blog in the side bar. Your post is very interesting and promted me to do some research too.

Thank you for your comments left on my blog.

April said...

A very interesting and sobering article on the Skipjack and our fragile environment. The Chinook Salmon are in trouble as well.

Nature Nut /JJ Loch said...

Great post and photo. I have never seen a skipjack herring and enjoyed learning about it.

I don't like the waste either.

Great writing!!!


brucesc said...

Well, I'm going to be late for an appt because of all four of your blogs--all of which I found so interesting! I would love Piper Cub, I know!
Your photo galleries are terrific--wonderful macro work. Loved the pelicans too. I was surprised at all the, what I think of as ocean shore birds, that are at your lake.
I admire you wife too--are any of the eight kids in nine years twins, I hope?
Thanks for visiting my blog too and we do have a lot in common--I even lived in Alabama--but it was in the '30s--in Auburn!

Anna Simpson said...

Very well done. Great photographs you've got there.
You've got lots of informative information, well done. A very interesting read. Keep up the great work.

Chris said...

Neat article and great action shot of the fish on the line. Very important news to ponder!

Sandpiper said...

I've been having fun going through your blog today, Daniel, and have really enjoyed it. Your photo galleries are wonderful! Thanks for the fun!

Deftik said...

This is a beautifully written piece, I caught one of these fish a few years back and were in awe of them like you were yourself. I was shocked to find very minimal information about them online, but thanks to your well written essay on them, I can no longer say no one shares my feelings

Rog said...

When people catch 100 skipjacks for bait, they freeze them and use them in the future.

I'm a little concerned by your concern that that is too many fish to harvest.

If it was, I'm guessing the fisheries biologists would put a limit on these fish.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the practice of catch and release I practice it often I only keep what I can eat. I fish for catfish in the Miss. River and use Skipjack for bait as well as other shad. I do not agree with wasting any kind of wildlife no matter if it is deer or fish. I understand why people get mad also when they hear of someone catching three hundred of these fish at a time but I could fish all year or more on three hundred of these fish. I do not have a very close source for catching them so when I do get to go for them I catch a good many never three hundred and freeze them. I am very respectful of our fisheries and wildlife by ways of conservation and picking up other peoples trash that I hate to see. So I am not trying to pick a fight or cause controversy with anyone but letting you know how I use these fish and others.

Anonymous said...

The skipjack will get eaten eventually anyways, wether naturally or fed to catfish by anglers, correct? I can see where you are coming from but they hatch by the millions all along the entire river system from ohio south, i think there will not be a shortage any time soon ,, thank you for your article, very good

Anonymous said...

So instead of a fishman catching and using the skipjack for catfish bait it would be better for the skipjack to just naturally die or get eaten and become catfish food? If someone is able to catch 300 skipjack a day then they are in no danger of being extinct in that area.

Animals, fish, and birds have all come and gone before humans even walked the planet. When one species dies out another one pops up to take its place. That's how nature works.

Now if the fisherman were catching 300 skipjack a day and just throwing them on the bank to die since they are trash fish, then you would have a valid complaint about it being a waste. But when a human, who is a part of nature, uses the fish for bait to catch other fish then it is not a waste, it is nature in action.

Corey said...

It's interesting that fish are uniquely considered "trash fish" if they can't be eaten, while other animals aren't treated this way. We don't speak of bluebirds and sparrows as "trash birds" because they aren't useful as food. To me, the Skipjack is a beautiful, hard-fighting fish - a game adversary and s fish to appreciate regardless of what it tastes like.

Ben said...

I think you miss the point on the 100 to 300 per day those fish in most areas can only be caught for about 1 month out of the year with any kind of size. Most catfish anglers spend a few days in the spring to catch bait for the entire year. This season ive caught 350 and i will not waste any of them i will use them all year until next spring when the freezer is empty.

Daniel Spurgeon said...

Good point, Ben. Thanks for the comment!

Nathan said...

There's a reason these fishermen catch 100+ skipjacks in a day to go fishing and it's not to be wasteful. Nobody is using 100 skipjacks in a day to catch catfish (or stripper) BUT you seldom run into a huge school of skipjacks so when you do, you simply catch as many as you will need for the year and then freeze them. Usually it's just in the Spring when anglers actually target skipjacks because that's about the only time you can catch them. This is because they are schooling and running upriver to spawn. Anyway, you use those 100 - 300 fish slowly throughout the year to fish for catfish by thawing and using only what you need. 100-300 is enough fish to last you for the entire year easily. It's not wasteful at all and the number of skipjacks used compared to shad is just a drop in the bucket. Skipjack form HUGE schools like all Herring do, and those schools cannot be depleted by an angler catching 100, 300, or even 1000 in a day. Please also remember that anglers are only catching Herring that are big enough to target crappie jigs....the vast majority of skipjacks are tiny zooplankton eaters and anglers do not target them. So for every one fish removed there's another 10,000+ or more of all sizes that will never be affected.