Okefenokee Swamp Jackfish, Fun And Simple As It Gets
Location, tackle and technique is all you need to know.
Deep in south Georgia, down in the grassy black water of the cypress-filled Okefenokee Swamp, you will find a long-toothed killer fish known in the textbooks as a chain pickerel. Down on the Swamp, they’re simply “jackfish” or “jack” for short. No matter what you choose to call them, bottom line is they are biting now, and they aren’t hook shy in the least, making it primetime for a bucket-list trip down to the Swamp.
I made several trips down to the Swamp while working on this story, and along the way I sought out the advice of Swamp regular, Ethan Riggins, of Hortense.
Ethan has been fishing for jacks in the Swamp with his Dad, Andy Riggins, for nearly 20 years, and he has amassed a wealth of knowledge when it comes to catching these toothy killing machines.
When I sat down to talk jackfish with Ethan for this GON story, the excitement in his voice quickly conveyed to me his true love for these fish and the Okefenokee Swamp they call home.
“Man they are slap fun to catch, and boy they fight hard,” said Ethan. “May is the best month to catch them, and you can bet your boat they are gonna be biting.”
I spent the next little while soaking up some of Ethan’s swamp fishing knowledge, and for the purpose of this story, I’ve broke down our conversation into a few categories.
Ethan has fished all of the major entrances to the Swamp but says when it comes to jackfish, the Folkston Entrance on the east side of the Swamp is his favorite place to fish.
“When that water temperature begins to rise quickly in May, the shallow waters in the lily pad filled lakes that branch off of the Suwannee Canal heat up super fast, and the bite is on. It’s me and my dad’s favorite area to target them,” said Ethan.
Ethan went on to say that the Canal itself harbors a large population of jacks, but the trick is to put your lure in the right places.
“Lily pad edges are your best bet, as are large sections of other types of vegetation,” said Ethan. “Those shady areas lure in warmouth and flier, two of a jacks’ favorite snacks. They will sit on the edges of those grassy areas and wait for an easy meal to kill.”
The lakes seem to harbor larger numbers of jacks, and according to Ethan, the Canal itself tends to harbor larger fish.
“I’d tell folks, if you make a trip down to Folkston with hopes of filling a cooler for a fish fry, fish the lakes. If you are hoping to tangle with a big, trophy-size jackfish, then focus on fishing the Suwannee Canal,” said Ethan.
Ethan said that you won’t find too many lures that a jackfish won’t eat, but he keeps his selection simple, opting for a couple of choices that have worked well for him consistently over the years.
“You won’t go wrong with a good inline spinner like a Rooster Tail or a minnow plug like a Rattlin’ Rogue. I’ve tried a bunch of lures over the years, but you won’t beat these two lures for jacks,” said Ethan.
Ethan started painting plugs in custom colors last year, and the venture has quickly evolved from a hobby into a busy small business operation.
“I’ve got about 20 orders or so from customers to do right now, and after that I’m excited to get to paint some new color plugs I’ve been tinkering around with the past little while for jacks. I’m excited to test them out this month as the water warms up,” said Ethan.
When it comes to colors, Ethan also keeps his selections fairly simple. For spinners, he prefers white, red and yellow. For plug fishing, he favors bright colors like orange, red or chartreuse, as well as shiny plugs in gold or silver.
Ethan fishes plugs and spinners in multiple sizes and says that normally the bigger the lure, the bigger the jack. For both lures, he says a 1/4-oz. size is a good place to start.
Ethan uses baitcasting gear for jackfish but says most any equipment in the medium to medium-heavy action works well.
“You don’t need a fancy rod and reel for this type of fishing,” said Ethan. “I grew up catching them on a Zebco 33, and it worked great. As long as you have a rod with some decent backbone to help set the hook and a reel with a decent drag in case you hook a big fish, you’re ready to catch jacks.”
With a gnarly toothed critter like a jack, line choice is an important topic if you’d like to get your fish and lure back to the boat. Ethan uses 12-lb. test mono most of the time to fling his lures and prefers to use a small steel leader most of the time.
“I use the small thin diameter leaders that you can get several in a pack at Walmart for a few dollars,” said Ethan. “They are about 6 inches long or so and don’t affect the action of your lure. Without a good leader, they will cut you off pretty regular.”
Sometimes when fishing plugs, Ethan opts for a mono leader to help his plug run right through the water. He ties on a small barrel swivel then attaches 6 to 8 inches of 40-lb. mono before tying on his plug. Ethan says that any monofilament line that is 40-lb. or bigger will hold up pretty well against a jack’s sharp teeth. Just be sure to check your leader after each fish you catch to ensure it doesn’t become frayed.
Jack Fishing Techniques
“If you think you’re already fishing fast, fish even faster. You won’t outrun a jack with your lure, but if you fish it too slow, you won’t keep a mudfish off of it,” said Ethan.
Ethan uses a steady, fast-paced retrieve for fishing inline spinners and a fast-paced twitching action to fish his plugs.
During the month of May, Ethan keys on the many lakes that branch off of the Suwannee Canal, making hundreds of casts a day and covering miles of water to find hungry fish.
“I can’t tell you that any particular lake is any better than the other,” said Ethan. “Year to year it’s different. To me, it’s all about keeping your lure moving and fishing hard until you find the fish. If you keep your lure on the grass edges, it won’t take long to get bit.”
Anytime Ethan catches a few fish pretty quick in a lake, it let’s him know more fish are likely holding in there, and he will proceed to pick it apart pretty good.
“It’s like any other kind of fishing we do, if your rod is getting bent, keep doing what your doing,” said Ethan.
Ethan’s favorite time of day to fish for jacks is first thing in the morning, but he says they tend to bite pretty well during the day since they often hold under the shade of thick grass they prefer to inhabit.
“Jack fishing is about as fun and simple as it gets,” said Ethan. “Keep your lure moving, focus on grassy areas and make sure they don’t cut you off. That’s all there is to it down here in the swamp.”
For those wishing to make a trip down to the Swamp in Folkston this month, keep in mind there is a $5 weekly parking fee. Visitors can also purchase a yearly pass for $15. A federal duck stamp also covers parking privileges at the refuge.
The refuge opens each day 30 minutes before sunrise, and outboards greater than 10 hp are not allowed. There aren’t any size restrictions on jacks, and each angler may keep 15 per day.
The east entrance has a restaurant that is open daily at lunch, a nice visitor center, numerous educational exhibits and several trails that venture into the Swamp.
Keep in mind you need a mask to enter any of the facilities buildings, including the restrooms. For more questions regarding the East entrance, you can contact the refuge at 912.496.7836 or you can visit their website at http://okefenokee.fws.gov.
For those wanting to reach out to Ethan about his custom painted plugs, or with questions about fishing the Swamp, you can find him on FB under Ethan Riggins.
Fryin’ Up Swamp Mignon
Ask any old timer from the Swamp, and they will tell you there is no finer eating than a freshly caught jack from the Okefenokee. Ethan says the fish can be bony, but if prepared right, the bones aren’t a problem.
Start by scaling the jack, then filet the meat leaving the skin on the fish. Use your knife to score the fish making a checkerboard pattern penetrating the filet without passing all the way through it. After doing this, you can batter, season and fry as you like.
Be sure to get the fish nice and crispy. The tiny bones cook away in the process, leaving what you’re sure to agree is the filet mignon of the Swamp.
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