Fishing for Jack Salmon in the middle of January is not all fun and frolic. In the midst of the longest cold spell 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, seem to bite more in the coldest, grayest days of winter on their way upstream to spawn. This is the time of year they congregate below the dams in the river. I know for certain that there are plenty of Sauger in the tail waters of the Guntersville, Wheeler and Wilson dams because I have caught many of them in those waters.
Though the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has dams in Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia, I know little of the Jack Salmon that have slipped through the Alabama locks and currently reside in Tennessee.
This particular morning I was attempting to pour coffee out of the Thermos into my cup without sloshing it over my bait and was trying to avoid tangling my line which was in the bottom of the boat under my feet. Attached to the end of the line was a one ounce large blue and chartreuse jig tipped with a medium sized shiner minnow.
We were about 2 miles downstream from Guntersville Dam, near the mouth of the Paint Rock River. The water was a little high but not enough to hurt the fishing. As we hunted for a place to begin drifting with the current, we counted 26 boats anchored in spots where they were catching fish.
Most of the fishermen were using the same type of bait I was using and were fishing 35 to 40 feet deep. Every few minutes someone in one of those boats would bring in a Jack weighing about one to three pounds. The Alabama record was over five pounds, caught on the same type bait I was using.
I recall the first Sauger I caught when I was a kid. My uncle Grady, on my mother’s side, and I were fishing beneath the Guntersville Dam, down by the wall that separated the turbines from the spillways. Droplets of water hit us in the face as the wind blew mist from the turbines in our face.
I don’t remember the month, but I can still see that 12 year old boy shivering in the cold and trying to pretend he wasn’t freezing. My discomfort only lasted a few minutes because we immediately began to catch fish and forgot about the cold. They looked unlike any fish I had caught before. They were cigar or torpedo shaped with large brown spots on each side. They also had a mouth full of needle sharp teeth. My uncle said Jack Salmon was the best eating fish on the river. He was right!
We used live minnows with a two ounce weight to get the bait down to where the fish were holding, near the wing wall of the dam. Back in those days we didn’t use fish baskets to hold our catch, but after a few hours our stringer was full and we were out of bait.
Through the years I have fished many times for Sauger, a member of the perch family. Sometimes I was lucky and caught a few, sometimes I didn’t. If you can stand the elements and really, really want to catch these fish, then head for the Tennessee River in Alabama. You’ll find Jack Salmon below any of these three large dams.