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South Georgia's Late-Summer Jackfish

South Georgia's Late-Summer Jackfish South Georgia's Late-Summer Jackfish
By Bill Vanderford

Sweat was pouring down my forehead as I plodded through the timeless swamp adjacent to the Ogeechee River near Rocky Ford, Georgia, while making my way back toward the dirt road where my 1940 Ford was waiting. The rope that held the gunney sack around my body was digging into my waist from the weight of the squirming load of jackfish and red-finned pike within its burlap confines. It had been another successful day of fishing the sloughs off the main river that had been left when the water from the heavy rains had receded. These small ponds were loaded with trapped fish, and I had developed a way to catch my share.

The little Johnson Century reel mated to a 4-foot plastic rod with a Presca Perch spinner had lured and landed plenty of big jackfish and more than a dozen tasty red-finned pike for the evening meal. I knew that my father and mother would be proud and happy, and I had enjoyed a day of beauty and excitement as I stalked, cast, and watched the explosive strikes of the smaller members of the pike family in less than a foot of clear, dark tannic acid water.

Though this and many other similar outings happened when I was growing up around Bulloch County during the 1950’s, the swamps of the Ogeechee and many other South Georgia rivers and creeks haven’t changed that much since my youth. If one isn’t afraid to wade or canoe in those swampy areas, small spinners and top water lures will still result in a good catch of pike.

Most southerners know that the jackfish is really the quite common eastern chain pickerel, but few have even seen a red-finned pike or its cousin the grass pickerel. Though I have no recent pictures of red-finned pike or grass pickerel, I’ll try to paint a mental picture of this exciting fish.

The red-finned pike and grass pickerel, which go by such names as banded pickerel, mud pickerel, bulldog pickerel, little pickerel, or grass pike, are the smallest members of the pike family. These species are abundant in all the swamps, rivers, and creeks in the southern part of our state. In fact, these fish prefer areas of dense submerged vegetation, and may even burrow in mats of fallen leaves during the cooler months of the year.

The red-finned pike has a thicker body and a considerably shorter snout than that of either the grass pickerel or the jackfish. The back of a mature red-finned pike ranges from dark brown to almost black with 20 to 35 olive to dark-brown vertical bars. the belly is pale-amber to pure white, and other than the dorsal fin, the other fins are normally reddish in color.

Though generally paler in color, the markings on a grass pickerel are similar to that of the red-finned pike. Vertical bars, however, may be more numerous on the grass pickerel, and the fins are amber to grayish with black leading edges.

Regardless of which species of pike one encounters, the result is always an explosive strike and a valiant battle. One must remember, however, all of the pike clan possess razor-sharp teeth, so never stick your fingers into their mouth. Needle-nosed pliers are a necessity when unhooking these scrappy swamp dwellers. Nevertheless, if you happen to venture into the southern part of our state and run across any of the blackwater streams, pull a bright-colored spinner quickly across any shallow opening, and you may begin a love affair with these little-known Peach State predators!

Find out more about Bill Vanderford on his website, or drop him an email at [email protected]

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