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About Chain Pickerel: Everything You Need to Know and Then Some

In some states, chain pickerel are popular sportfish, in others, anglers call them 'snakes' and regard them with equal apprehension

About Chain Pickerel: Everything You Need to Know and Then Some
About Chain Pickerel: Everything You Need to Know and Then Some

Callit the pickerel paradox.

Somesay pickerel outfight largemouth bass. Others claim they’re wimps.

“Bigpickerel are always caught in shallow water,” one magazine says. “Look for themin cool depths,” states another.

They’retough to catch; they’re easy to catch. They’re loners; they run in schools. Theyjump like tarpon; they never jump. They’re great eating; totally inedible. Disparitiesare common.

Truthis, few anglers take time to get intimately acquainted with the pickerel. Andthose who do typically use limited tactics in few bodies of water. Consequently,few folks ever become true pickerel-fishing experts.

Thosewho do agree on two things: pickerel are fun to catch, and they exhibit a widevariety of behaviors across their range. What works for pickerel in a Georgiaswamp may fail to produce in a Massachusetts millpond. Behavior observed in anArkansas trout stream may differ substantially from that in the brackish watersof coastal Virginia. Versatility is the key to successful fishing.

Threepickerel—chain, grass and redfin—inhabit the sluggish, weedy waters of NorthAmerica. They’re the smallest members of the pike family, which includesnorthern pike and muskellunge.

The chain pickerel (Esox niger) is the heavyweight of thetrio and the only pickerel with widespread status as a gamefish. It ranges fromeast Texas north to the Great Lakes and from Maine to Florida, inhabiting abroad spectrum of waters, from small natural lakes and tiny creeks to sprawlingman-made impoundments and big-river backwaters. Average size is 1 to 2 pounds.Common nicknames include jack, jackfish, green pike, chain pike and chainsides.

Pickerelresemble barracudas, with a long slender body and a prominent duck-billed snoutwith needle-sharp teeth. The “chain” part of the name comes from the pattern ofiridescent green “chains” mottling its sides. Chains also have a dark verticalbar, like a teardrop, extending downward from the eye.

Spawningis usually in late winter or spring, when the water temperature reaches 45 to50 degrees. Some populations also spawn in late fall or early winter. Severalhundred adhesive eggs are laid over submerged vegetation or bottom debris. Thereis no territoriality, nest construction or parental care associated withspawning.

Youngpickerels first feed on plankton, then larger invertebrates and finally onfish. Adults subsist almost exclusively on fish, although frogs and othervertebrates are occasionally eaten. Pickerel are sight-feeders, thus usually caughtduring daylight hours.

Weeds in quiet waters are tip-offsto pickerel hotspots. No matter what the season, pickerel will be in or nearaquatic vegetation in water with little or no current. In northern waters,attractive plants include coontail, pondweed and cabomba. In more southernparts of their range, look for them around cattails, bulrushes, button willows,elodea, hydrilla and water lilies. They also have a special fondness for darkhollows in cypress and tupelo trees.


Hidden in cover, the pickerel liespoised for ambush. When dinner approaches, the predator darts from its lair,gripping the victim with its sharp teeth before turning it head-down andswallowing. The pickerel then swims back to the same hideaway, where it liesmotionless until hunger, belligerence or territorial defense urges it out ofcover to strike again.

In spring, fall and winter, lookfor fish from the shoreline into 10 feet of water, in or beside weedbeds. Payspecial attention to quiet, out-of-the-way locations like slow, grassy riverbackwaters and shallow, weed-choked necks connecting backwater sloughs. Insummer, heavyweight chains seek cooler realms, often relating to long slopingweedlines in 10 to 20 feet of water near the top of the thermocline.

Tempt them with fish or fishlookalikes. A weedless, silver spoon with a trailing pork rind is an oldstandard, but small spinners, chugger plugs, slim-minnow lures, jigs, streamersand even plastic worms will elicit strikes. Cast parallel to cover, reelingwith a steady, moderate-speed retrieve; or, when using topwaters, cast topockets in weeds, let the lure sit until ripples subside, then twitch the lureagain, continuing to the boat with a twitch-and-stop retrieve.

Live minnows allowed to swimnaturally near cover sometimes take pickerels when artificials fail. Use a size4 to 1 fine-wire hook, attach a split shot or two a foot above it and add asmall bobber. Hook the minnow through the back, then work it in and aroundweedbeds. Live frogs hooked through a back leg and allowed to swim across weedtops are also first-rate enticements.

Whenthick weeds hinder an angler’s use of more conventional fishing techniques,pickerel can be caught by “skittering.” Skittering employs a 10- to 12-footcane pole, jig pole or fly rod and an equal length of line. A pork frog orstrip of fish belly is affixed to a stout hook, and the bait is jerked, orskittered, across broad openings in weed patches. If pickerel are present, they’llhit with frenzied, chomping charges.

Pickerel are the perfect fish fordiehards who refuse to put the rod away for the winter. They remain activeduring even the coldest weather, and in ice-fishing country, they’relong-established favorites. They bite so much better from November throughFebruary, when few other fish are stirring, many anglers consider this the besttime to go after them.

Four-to 6-pound monofilament line on a 5- to 6-foot, medium-action spinning rod isideal for chain pickerel—light enough so 1- to 2-pounders can strut theirstuff, yet strong enough to tame the occasional trophy. Despite their sharpteeth, wire leaders are rarely needed. Cut and retie when line gets frayed.

The world-record chain pickerel,caught in Georgia way back in 1961, weighed 9 pounds, 6 ounces. There’s a highprobability larger fish are lurking in prime waters. While largemouth bass,crappie and other popular sport fish are under ever-increasing fishingpressure, good pickerel fishing in many waters is still largely untapped. Thus,pickerel have an excellent chance to attain maximum size, especially in remoteoxbows, sloughs and swamps in southern parts of the range.

Makethis the year you give pickerel a fair try. Some days they’ll come easy; onothers they won’t. Some you’ll catch deep; some you’ll catch shallow. They maybe schooling; maybe they won’t. Some will fight like a tail-hooked tarpon;others won’t ripple the water. That’s the way with the paradoxical pickerel.

Onething’s for sure, though: give pickerel a try and you’ll discover they havemore to offer than you ever imagined.

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