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By Larry Woody, Outdoors Writer

Some time back I wrote a Lebanon Democrat column reminiscing about the jackfish that vanished from the Cumberland Plateau streams I fished as a kid.

The column caught the attention of Mark Thurman, Region III Fisheries Manager for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Mark emailed to say the jackfish are back – hatchery-raised and TWRA-stocked.

“The evidence is pretty strong,” he says, “that the hatchery muskies are the same Ohio River Basin strain as jackfish.”

My great-grandfather James Van Winkle told of catching jackfish in the late-1800s. I caught three, the last in the summer of 1964.

Photo courtesy of Tennessee State Archives
Jackfish, like this one in an old photo, once were endangered.

By the mid-1970s jackfish were declared “endangered.” Some old-timers claimed they were extinct.

In the 1980s the TWRA began stocking muskellunge (musky) in the streams once inhabited by jackfish.

Generations of Plateau fishermen once caught jackfish from deep, cold pools in Daddy’s Creek, the Obed River and a few other streams. The fish grew to be several feet long and were famous for their ferocity.

My biggest jackfish measured three feet. It was literally the fish of a lifetime, because in ensuing years jackfish virtually – if not entirely – vanished from Daddy’s Creek.

Steam-filling silt, pollution run-off from farms and development and rampant poaching took a toll.

In response, the TWRA began a restoration program, releasing hatchery-raised muskies in Daddy’s Creek, the Obed, Collins, Emory, Calfkiller and Caney Fork rivers.

The muskies, raised in a Kentucky hatchery, were 10-15 inches when released. Mark says they can reach a length of 36 inches in three-to-five years, depending on forage and water conditions.

In 2010 the stocking was suspended because TWRA studies showed the muskies were reproducing and self-sustaining.

Are the stocked muskies identical to the native jackfish?

As I told Mark, the jackfish I caught as a youngster didn’t resemble precisely the muskies I later caught in Wisconsin and Canada, or the photos of muskies caught in Tennessee – including a state-record 43-pound 17-ounce monster in 2017 in Melton Hill Reservoir.

The muskies’ elongated body, fins, scale pattern and jaws of needle-sharp teeth look identical to a jackfish, but the latter seemed thinner, and the coloration was slightly different.

DNA testing could determine how close – or identical – the hatchery-raised musky is to native jackfish, but there’s no way to obtain a tissue sample from an authentic jackfish.

Since 2000, 331 muskies have been released in a 30-40 mile stretch of Daddy’s Creek alone, in addition to hundreds more stocked in other Plateau streams.

The streams’ water quality has improved, and poaching seems to have ceased. That gives stocked muskies a chance not just to survive, but to thrive.

That in turn gives today’s anglers a chance to catch a ferocious fish like the ones caught by frontiersmen, and like the one I caught 55 summers ago – one that still makes my hands shake to think about.