Backyard Brawlers

I’ve accepted the fact that I may never catch a giant trevally. I’d love to, of course, but I’m a realist. It’s unlikely that some tackle company or lodge will offer me an all-expenses-paid trip to Vanuatu, and when you write about fish for a living, you can barely afford a reel that would stand up to a G.T., let alone the flights, lodging and charter fees to hunt them off some remote atoll for a week.

I’m not exactly heartbroken; if I really need a fix, I’ll just go after American giant trevallies. Never heard of those? Sure you have. They’re called jack crevalle, and while a lot of people would sacrifice a limb to fly thousands of miles for giant trevallies, they’ll snub their noses at their underrated cousins right here in the lower 48.

Watching a jack crevalle destroy a topwater plug never gets old.

Pat Ford

Categorizing a fish as underrated is fraught with issues because it’s completely subjective. In the case of jacks, I’d posit that their reputation as poor table fare plays the biggest role in the general lack of interest in catching them. Conversely, I believe walleye are overrated. Despite everyone loving them when they’re slathered in hot sauce, I’d rather paint a tool shed than fish for walleye because they fight like an empty bag of panko breadcrumbs. When someone asks about my favorite fish, I answer based on sporting qualities and the overall fishing experience. If a few species also happen to be good to eat, it’s a bonus. This attitude has, however, upset some folks over the years.

One of my most memorable jack crevalle experiences was off Gulfport, Mississippi. An acre of fish in the 20- to 30-pound class was terrorizing schools of mullet in a shallow cove. It was one of the most violent blitzes I’d ever seen. When I laid a popper fly on the edge of the chaos, five jacks piled on top of one another to eat it, and the one that finally got pinned ran so fast we had to chase it down with the boat, or it would have dumped all the backing. My guide, eager to target speckled trout, reds and anything else we could bring back for supper, assumed I’d gotten jacks out of my system after landing that one, but there was no chance I was trading atomic bomb surface takes for popping corks and shrimp. We stayed with them until sundown, when my arms couldn’t take any more.

I understand that jack crevalles don’t grow as large as G.T.s, but I also know many people travel great distances hoping for a 100-plus-pounder and settle for fish in the more common 20- to 50-pound range. In terms of how they hunt, feed, and attack flies and topwaters, jack crevalles and trevallies are practically identical. Like G.T.s, they can also be found over wrecks and reefs, on the flats and in the surf from Texas to the Carolinas. Still, they are predominantly bycatch in this country — the fish that crashes your tarpon, snook, cobia or king mackerel party. If you invite redfish to the shindig, not only will jack crevalles break down the door, but lowly black drum might sneak in, as well.

While not as sexy as a red drum, the black drum is more than happy to crash the party and pounce on a fly or bait.

Pat Ford

Where I’m from in the Northeast, black drum are a big deal. Southerners laugh as hard about this as they do at our love of “bonita” — a.k.a. false albacore — but the spring spawning migration of black drum along the New Jersey and western Long Island coasts moves a lot of clams for local bait shops. The all-tackle world-record drum, landed in Delaware Bay in 1975, weighed an incredible 113 pounds. These fish move inshore during May and June, and their visit is fleeting. Because they come from the ocean, they’re “cleaner” than those caught elsewhere — black drum parmigiana and barbecued drum ribs are local favorites.

The impression I’ve always gotten while fishing in Louisiana and Florida is that the locals might keep a small black drum from time to time, but mostly in apocalypse-type scenarios when there was absolutely nothing else, including largemouth bass, to be rounded up for feed. Black drum that reside in Southern marshes are often muddy and full of worms, but here, too, value on the table overshadows their ability to pull.

Guides have scolded me on multiple occasions for wanting to take time away from throwing at small to medium red drum to cast at a big ol’ black drum cruising the bayou. A friend from Texas refers to them as “saltwater javelinas” in reference to a peccary species that’s considered a consolation prize for hunters aiming at wild boar. Truth is, these fish have saved many days when the more glamourous reds didn’t cooperate. They’ll gobble a variety of baits and test your mettle if you want to give them a shot on lures and flies.

You’d be hard pressed to find a more willing fighter in Southern waters than the great barracuda.

Pat Ford

Speaking of cooperation, barracudas are always game to chomp your live bait or smack a plug, but the general angling population doesn’t really like these fish, either. When you’re paying gobs of money for goggle-eyes or you have your mouth set on mutton snapper, I understand the hate. What I don’t understand is why more people don’t make dedicated ’cuda trips, because not only are they willing to bite when nothing else will, but you can tailor your approach to virtually any style of fishing.

Many years ago, I wound up on Capt. Tom Rowland’s skiff during a press junket in Key West. It was the middle of January, and despite the pleasant temperatures, the wind was whipping. The plan was to get after blackfin tuna, but with the fan cranked up, it wasn’t going to happen. Rowland asked if I’d ever gone “potholing” for barracudas. I had not, but I was intrigued by the method, and even more so when he told me it was one of his favorite ways to fish.

We cruised the edges of the flats scanning miles of sandy bottom. Any time we came across a depression, or pothole, that created a dark spot, we’d take turns ripping large, jointed swimbaits and topwaters over them. The water was so clear I expected to see the barracudas, but I couldn’t. They would suddenly explode on the lures out of nowhere. The 15- to 20-pounders we were catching that morning sent two reels to the trash bin after their guts were destroyed from the blistering runs. It was some of the most fun I ever had fishing in the Sunshine State.

“I would fly down here in the winter just to do this,” I told Rowland. “I can’t believe all the Midwest muskie guys aren’t in the Keys with their glidebaits after the lakes ice up. This is saltwater muskie fishing.”

“Nobody comes to Florida just for ’cudas,” he said with a laugh.

Perhaps they should, and not just because these underrated fish offer a chance to skirt the crowds and frustration that come with chasing A-list species in the modern age. Anglers should spend less time daydreaming about getting away and embrace what’s right in their backyard.