Growing up on the Plateau, I thrilled to tales old-timers told about catching jackfish.
The long, slender, toothy fish – a finny cousin of musky and Northern pike – lurked in deep, cold pools in the Obey River and Daddy’s Creek.
They were hard to hook and, once hooked, harder to land.
Catching a big jackfish would get your picture in the paper.
One of the Crossville Chronicle photos was of my Uncle Bud, proudly holding a big jackfish he wrestled out of Daddy’s Creek.
I wanted to get my picture in the paper too someday, just like Uncle Bud.
First, I had to catch a jackfish.
That’s what boyhood buddy Tom Thurman and I set out to do one memorable morning in the lazy summer of ’64. It was our final footloose summer before going off to college.
We figured it could be our last chance to catch a jackfish.
To catch a jackfish you first have to catch the bait. We waded into a shallow riffle, dropped worm-baited hooks in the gurgling water, and jerked out a dozen 6-inch creek chubs – ideal jackfish bait.
With our chubs in the minnow bucket, we walked down a mossy trail that ran alongside the creek leading to a deep pool. We baited our hooks and cast the wriggling chubs into the emerald depths. Then we sat down to wait.
I had heard my uncles talk about waiting hours for a jackfish to take the bait. I figured Thurman and I were in for a long morning.
Instead, minutes later, my line gave a sudden tug and then began to move upstream. I had a bite. Thurman quickly reeled in to get his line out of the way. I carefully picked up my bait-casting rod, took in the slack, and set the hook.
The pool exploded.
A three-foot-long jackfish rocketed from the water, tail-danced across the surface, and plunged back into the depths.
The rod bowed and line screamed off the reel. I’d never hooked anything so big and powerful. I was accustomed to six-inch bluegills and stunted farm-pond bass.
Now I had a monster on the line.
The big fish raced up and down the pool, jumping and thrashing. After what seemed like an hour, but was probably closer to five minutes, the jackfish began tire and I led it toward the bank and Thurman netted it. Only half of it would fit in the little trout net.
My hands were shaking as I cut the line and put my fish on a rope stringer. Then we headed home. When you’ve caught the fish of a lifetime, it’s time to go.
Back in town we dropped by the Chronicle to show editor Donald Brookhart (for whom I would write one day) what we had caught. Donald snapped our picture and it ran on the front page a few days later.
I still have the faded clipping from over a half-century ago: two serious-looking kids holding a big jackfish.
The jackfish are gone now, victims of poaching and pollution and a vanishing habitat. Daddy’s Creek is about dried up, and the few pools that remain are no longer big enough to hold a jackfish, even if one still existed.
It’s sad, but it also makes our fish special because there will never be another one like it. Just as there never be another magical summer day like that one, so very long ago.