WaterLine file photo

This leatherjack can give you a very unpleasant sting.

Massive schools of whitebait are migrating northward along Southwest Florida’s beaches. These fish are one of the Gulf of Mexico’s most basic prey species, and wherever they go a host of predators both small and large follow.

One of those predators is a smallish member of the jack family that many anglers despise, especially those who castnet their own threadfin herring to use as bait. The leatherjack (sometimes called a leather jacket or skipjack) does not pose an obvious threat. There are no large sharp teeth, massive spines or copious quantities of slime that make some other species targets of derision. What is it that makes them hated?

When a leatherjack feels threatened, it erects three short spines on its belly and five on it’s back. Many fish do this — it makes them harder to swallow (pinfish especially do this when handled). The leatherjack’s spines don’t seem quite long enough to prevent the fish being eaten, but they are very sharp. And venomous.


According to the Florida Museum of Natural History’s ichthyology department, the dorsal and anal fin spines are connected to venomous glands and can inflict painful wounds. Further, little is known about the properties of this venom.

Well, here’s what I can tell you about the venom’s properties: While I was taking this photo of a leatherjack I hooked on Caspersen Beach, I was jabbed lightly on the left palm by two of the fish’s spines. Although I was aware of the venomous properties, I wanted the photo anyway (specifically to show you, so you would know what to avoid).

The wounds were tiny — barely even pinpricks — and just deep enough to draw a microdrop of blood each. After about 15 seconds, my palm started to tingle. After about 30 seconds, it started to burn. The burning continued for about a half-hour; then my entire palm went numb. Feeling started to come back after about an hour, but it didn’t feel “normal” for about two days.

Imagine if I’d really gotten impaled by one of those spines.

Leatherjacks have bright greenish backs and look a lot like threadfins from above. If you’re not sure, there are two good ways to tell: Look for the lemon-yellow tails, which leatherjacks have and threadfins don’t. Also, if there are pelicans nearby but they’re not diving on the fish, that’s a warning sign. Pelicans avoid leatherjacks.

If you do end up with a netful of these fish, try to empty it over the side of the boat. If you have to handle them, leather gloves are a good idea. These fish thrash wildly, and if you pick one up barehanded it’s only sheer luck that will keep you from getting spined.

While you’re out mackerel fishing, you may hook a leatherjack. Most fish won’t eat them, so they’re free to associate with larger predators (although tarpon don’t seem to mind the spines). The best way to deal with this is with a hands-free dehooking tool.

Getting stabbed by a leatherjack probably won’t kill you (I said probably; remember, we don’t know much about the venom itself) but it sure can put a damper on your fishing fun. It’s just one more reason to be careful out there.

Contact Capt. Josh Olive at 941-276-9657 or Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com.

Contact Capt. Josh Olive at 941-276-9657 or Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com.


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