Larry Woody, Outdoors Writer
News of a state-record musky caught in Melton Hill Lake last month brought back memories of one I caught over a half-century ago in Daddy’s Creek on the Cumberland Plateau.
Musky – short for muskellunge and sometimes spelled as “muskie” – are known as jackfish in parts of Tennessee, where they are native to some of the region’s streams.
They are elusive and hard to catch. Up North musky are called “the Fish of 10,000 Casts” because that’s about how many casts have to be made to get a strike.
Back when we fished for jackfish in streams like Daddy’s Creek and the Obey River, we didn’t do a lot of casting. Our technique consisted of catching a bucket of creek minnows in the shallows, putting one on a hook, and casting it into a deep pool in which jackfish often lurked.
You cast out your bait, then sat down and waited.
Sometimes a smallmouth would take the minnow. Or a rock bass. I once caught an ugly, two-foot-long salamander known as a mud dog or hellbender. Occasionally – perhaps once every half-dozen trips if you were lucky – a jackfish would bite.
I learned how to fish for jackfish from my Uncle Bud. He was an expert fisherman who could catch anything with fins. His photo would periodically appear in our hometown newspaper: Bud Hedgecoth holding another big jackfish.
I started tagging along with him about the time I could walk. I had about as much fun catching the bait as I did sitting quietly on the creek bank staring at Uncle Bud’s heavy bait-casting line disappearing into in a deep, dark pool.
By my early teens I was fishing alone or with boyhood buddy Tom Thurman. On my memorable jackfish trip I was fishing with Thurman, Nashville’s recently retired Deputy Attorney General.
It was a sparkling spring morning when we arrived at Daddy’s Creek. We caught a dozen creek chubs in the rippling shallows; then waded upstream to a deep hole of water which had produced several jackfish over the years.
We baited up and cast out, then propped up our bait-casting rods and sat down to wait.
It was a short wait. Within minutes something picked up my minnow and swam away with it.
I grabbed the rod, set the hook, and the pool exploded.
A three-foot-long jackfish came rocketing out of the water, toothy jaws agape, then plunged back into the depths. The strength of a musky is incredible. I hung onto my bowed rod, reel screeching, not sure who had caught whom.
I fought the fish for what seemed like an hour – but was probably only minutes – as it splashed and thrashed up and down the pool. Finally it began to tire and I led it to the bank where Thurman slipped a net under it. I had to wait for my hands to stop shaking before I could unhook it.
That week a photo of Thurman and me appeared in The Crossville Chronicle – a pair of skinny, squinting teenagers hoisting a big jackfish.
My fish was 37 inches long and weighed perhaps 15 pounds – far from the recently caught 43-pound state record. But it was the biggest fish I’d ever caught, a monster compared to my usual stringers of bluegills and farm-pond bass.
Over the years the streams I fished as a kid have gradually shrunk, their deep, emerald pools filling with sediment. I haven’t heard of a jackfish being caught in decades. I doubt there’s any left, other than some stocked hatchery fish.
It’s sad to think there are no more wild jackfish. But I will always remember the one I caught and the day I caught it – the thrill as vivid as if it happened yesterday.
Time can dry up streams, but it can’t dry up memories.
Melton Hill Musky Fishing Guide.