Published on November 9, 2021

Leather jack: A fish that bites back

By Roy Edwards
The Bulletin

No, I’m not talking about a leather-jacketed outlaw biker. I’m talking about a little fish that will make you wish you had tangled with an outlaw biker.

A leather jack is a small silver-blue saltwater/brackish water fish with a light greenish back and yellow tail, rarely over eight inches long. It is quite handsome.

The reason to avoid him are three or four small triangular fins between the head and the dorsal fin and the two triangular fins on the belly. These little fins are hard and sharper than a surgeon’s scalpel. They do not cut deeply but can slice and stab in the blink of an eye.

These fins are the defensive armament for the leather jack, and they have two effects on a predator or human. The first is an anticoagulant - with the slightest touch, the resulting cut will bleed profusely for up to 30 minutes.

The second effect is a painful toxin that will take you to your knees. The book “Sport Fish of the Gulf of Mexico” describes the fish as follows: “Sharp spines on the dorsal and anal fins administer very painful puncture wounds.” It should read “excruciatingly painful puncture wounds.”

My first experience with a leather jack happened about 10 years ago. In early October, brother-in-law Roy Z., his wife, Gwen, Jan, and I were fishing from my dock under the lights on the lower San Bernard River.

The Golden Croaker run was in full swing. Fishing was good, catching was fantastic, and we were running short on bait. Roy Z. noticed several schools of Menhaden Shad in the river and commented that fresh-cut Shad would make excellent bait.

I got my Shad cast net, a 5-foot net with quarter-inch mesh. Using a larger mesh net will gill-trap Shad, and you will spend a lot of time pulling them out of the mesh – mutilating most of them. I also brought out a rectangular laundry basket - a great tool for sorting bait. On my first cast, I caught about six dozen Shad, which I emptied into the basket. Roy Z. started putting the bait we wanted into my live bait well.

As I prepared the net for the next cast, Roy Z. shouted a curse word. I had only heard him curse one other time in the 40 years we had been fishing together.

The other time was when he went to get a live mullet out of the live bait box, and a very large rat snake was coming up out of the river onto the top of the bait well.

Roy didn’t like snakes after what happened when he was in Vietnam. Asleep in his fire base bunker, zipped up in his sleeping bag, he was awakened by an Asian Mountain Asp (A.K.A. a two-step Charlie) slithering across his bare feet, inside his sleeping bag.

Roy was now sitting on the dock, tears rolling down both cheeks, holding his left hand, which was bleeding profusely. I gave him my handkerchief as a pressure bandage, but it was quickly saturated. I went upstairs and retrieved some wash rags. It took three saturated washrags to stop the bleeding. The leather jack laying at his feet was just over 2 inches long.

When he could talk, he said that this wound hurt as bad as anything he had experienced. “It feels like a dozen red wasps on steroids stung multiple times in an area that could be covered by a nickel.”
Roy served his country in Vietnam as a forward artillery observer. He spent a lot of time hunkered down in the jungle, way out in front of his troops, and he came home with four Purple Hearts and four Bronze Stars, but he said that the leather jack wound was worse than being wounded.

If you are handling Shad, and you see a little fish with a greenish back instead of a black back, that has bluish silver sides, and does not have the characteristic black spot behind the head, do NOT pick it up with your hand.

Pick it up with a pair of needle-nose pliers. Otherwise, you will regret your introduction to a leather jack.

(Write Roy in care of The Bulletin. Email: john.bulletin@gmail.com. Snail mail: The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton TX, 77516.)