January 28, 2022
- "Chain pickerel offer a good opportunity to tune up your fly casting before the spring season begins in earnest, and many of the waters they occur in are pretty and peaceful at this time of year."— Fly-fishing guide Rob Woodruff
Winter can be a challenging time for fly anglers, no doubt.
For trout guys out west, tailraces and small midge patterns can produce some action, not to mention BWO’s on cold and stormy days. In the Ozarks of Arkansas, streamers can bring a flurry of action, particularly when water temps get cold enough to cause a shad kill. And in certain portions of the Gulf Coast, the period from Christmas through Mardi Gras can provide some great saltwater action for the biggest bull redfish of the year.
Aside from that, options can be limited, particularly if you live miles from good trout water like I do, and a guided redfish trip near the Big Easy is out of the financial cards this year. With largemouths still weeks away from the spawn, the summer blitz of freshwater striped bass even further away, and bluegills not even thinking about making a saucer-shaped spawning bed, what’s a guy to do if he likes to fish with the long rod?
Simple, go looking for some jackfish, that’s what, or the chain pickerel as the species is better known to many. Unlike many other fish species stuck in the winter doldrums right now, the winter months are actually a great time to target these fish while everything else is curled up out deep.
In fact, chain pickerel—a toothy cousin of the northern pike and the muskellunge—actually head for the shallows to spawn as water temps approach the 50 degree mark. Where I live in North Texas, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department notes that can be anywhere from December through February, depending on the year and severity of the winter months.
"Late winter offers few choices to the fly fisherman in this part of the world," agrees Rob Woodruff, my longtime angling friend and a fly fishing guide who lives with his wife Jenny near the trout-rich White River and Norfork River in Arkansas.
DON’T OVERLOOK WINTER JACKFISH
For many years, Woodruff—who has managed the Blue Damsel Lodge on Montana’s famed Rock Creek and the El Pescador saltwater lodge in Belize—was a fly-fishing guide on East Texas’ famous Lake Fork, home to more 13-pound largemouth bass than just about any spot on the planet.
But come winter, he’d often load up his rubber raft and oars and head for some small waters near his Pineywoods home to target chain pickerel that just couldn’t say no to a fly in January or February.
"Yeah, the chain pickerel can get overlooked in this part of the world," he said. "(But) it’s a fish that pursues flies in shallow water, hits hard, fights hard, and even jumps on occasion."
Before I met Woodruff, I was first introduced to the East Texas jackfish when I threw a chartreuse spinnerbait into a tannic-stained regional creek that fed into famed Caddo Lake. At first, I thought I had a good largemouth at the end of my line. But when I got the feisty fish in that was pushing three-pounds or so, I was a bit perplexed for a moment, wondering how a northern pike had made it all the way to Texas.
Woodruff has seen that reaction more than once.
"The native range of the chain pickerel in Texas roughly follows Interstate 45 and points east," he said. "The population density and average size of the fish seems to increase as you head east."
That makes sense when you consider the historical range of the fish, which goes by the Latin name of Esox niger, a beautiful pike look-alike that features hues of olive-green or yellowish-browns on its back and sides, along with a creamy yellow or white underbelly, and interlocking dark bands on the back and sides.
Distributed along the Atlantic coast of North America from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia south to Florida, and then west through Gulf Coastal southern states, the species is surprisingly at home in the Ark-La-Tex region and the Sabine River and Red River drainages of that area.
In the Lone Star State, just about any East Texas water where bass are found is prime territory for chain pickerel. Lakes that hold these fish in Texas are Caddo Lake, Daingerfield State Park Lake, Lake Hawkins, Pat Mayse Lake, Lake of the Pines, and more. Lake Bistineau near Shreveport, La., is another good spot, according to Woodruff, as well as a number of waters in Arkansas.
"There are some in south Arkansas in those lakes that were once contiguous with Caddo," he said. "They are native to the Mississippi and its tributaries, so I bet just about all of those oxbows along the river and the lower White River have them. And they occasionally catch some big ones on the Little Red here too, from what I understand.”
FIND ‘EM IN THE SHALLOWS
The beauty of chain pickerel at this time of the year, for the fly angler, at least, is that they push up into shallow water from December through February as water temperatures fall toward 50 degrees. As they do so, they spawn when strings of sticky eggs are deposited on aquatic vegetation and then are fertilized. In the process, the chain pickerel will strongly attack a variety of lures and flies tossed into shallow water when little else is in the area biting.
In some regards, catching one on a fly rod is as simple as tossing a brightly colored fly into the tannic water near some vegetation.
"Streamers in white, chartreuse, yellow, and silver—and combinations, thereof—work well on most days," Woodruff said. "On some days, the fish seem to prefer darker colors like black, olive, and purple. And like one of your trips with me, sometimes, a black wooly bugger with an orange conehead can work wonders."
While a fly angler might want to head for Canada, Alaska, or the upper Midwest armed with 9-, 10-, 11-, or even 12-weight fly rods to tangle with big northern pike or muskies, Woodruff said that a 4-, 5-, or 6-weight fly rod will suffice for chain pickerel. In fact, you might even get away with using a 3-weight if you’re really into a good fight on ultra-light gear.
Whatever fly rod you choose, match it with a floating fly line, although Woodruff notes that on bright, sunny days, a sink tip fly line that can get a fly down is a good option.
"The tactics that you use are based on the weather and time of day you are fishing," he said. "During low-light periods like morning, evening and overcast days, look for pickerel to be in grassy coves and up on shallow flats that have a little vegetation. During these dark conditions, they’ll often be found hanging out in mere inches of water, right along the shoreline."
But on bright, bluebird days, the game changes, according to the longtime Orvis-endorsed guide—Woodruff was a finalist for the company’s Freshwater Guide of the Year award in 2011, 2013, and 2015, while his wife Jenny won the award in 2018—since you’re still looking for a little darkness in the water column.
"On those bright afternoon periods when the sun is shining, think summertime for bass," said Woodruff. "When it’s bright, just like a bass hiding in the shadows to ambush something, a pickerel is going to gravitate towards those areas that give them low-light conditions like deep water, the shade of shoreline trees, a vegetation line, or something like a lily pad field."
THINK LARGEMOUTH BASS
When Woodruff targets the fish species in a heavily vegetative filled zone, he often prefers a bend-back style fly.
"A bend-back design is often the best choice for working through a pad field or areas of grass, because you get a minimum of hang-ups," he said.
If the fish are gravitating toward deeper water, Woodruff says to think about where you would target largemouths in similar zones, focusing your efforts on drop-offs and sharp breaklines near vegetation. If necessary, add some weight to your fly or employ the sink tip to get down a little deeper.
Be forewarned that chain pickerel are feisty, hard fighters that can inflict damage on an angler who isn’t prepared for the critter’s front line defenses.
"Like their cousins, the northern pike and the muskellunge, chain pickerel are well equipped in the dental department," said the one-time commercial fly-tier who has several signature patterns to his name. "A pair of long forceps or a Ketchum Release is a must-have item if you’re releasing them. If you choose to use your fingers, be sure to pack a first-aid kit and don’t ask how I know."
Some fly anglers opt for wire leaders with chain pickerel, but in general, Woodruff hasn’t found that to be necessary, at least for the two- to three-pounders that he typically found in East Texas waters.
"I have found that 2X or 3X tippet, along with fastidious checking of your leaders and knots, is the best choice," he said. "Make it a habit to check your leader for fraying after every fish landed, no matter what the species, and even after every strike missed. That will help with chain pickerel, but it will also help you land more bass and trout, too."
HOW BIG IS A BIG CHAIN PICKEREL?
How big can chain pickerel get? The International Game Fish Association world record for the species is a 9-pound, 6-ounce specimen caught by Baxley McQuaig in Georgia back in February 1961. On the smaller end of the spectrum is the Texas all-tackle state record, a 4.75-pound chain pickerel caught in February 1996 by Robert Finch.
Other top chain pickerel catches from around the country include a 9-pound, 5-ounce specimen from Massachusetts in 1954; a 9-pound, 3-ounce record from New Jersey in 1957; an 8-pound, 1-ounce state record from New York in February 1965; an 8-pound behemoth from North Carolina in 1968 and another 8-pounder from New Hampshire in 1966; a 7-pound, 12-ounce bruiser from Virginia in December 1996; and a 7-pound, 7-ounce specimen in February 1991 from Tennessee.
On the fly-rod side of the record book, the IGFA lists no current world record weight for the species, but TPWD does list a state fly-rod record of 3.20 pounds caught on Christmas Eve 2003 from Caddo Lake by Clifford Herbert.
But for Woodruff, the pursuit of a record fish isn’t something he thinks about much, unless he’s on Lake Fork with a fly rod in his hand—he’s had several double-digit bass landed on the fly there and had a client once lose a behemoth in the 14-pound range—or if he’s on the White River seeking a monster brown trout with a streamer pattern.
Instead, the chain pickerel is the perfect fish for a time of the year when not much else is cooperating, a solid warm up act for what’s to come in only a few weeks.
"Chain pickerel offer a good opportunity to tune up your fly casting before the spring season begins in earnest, and many of the waters they occur in are pretty and peaceful at this time of year," said Woodruff.
Not to mention almost empty, a time on the calendar when a fly fisher can get outdoors on a nice winter’s day, let the fly line swish through the cool air, and hear only the sound of the wind and maybe a mallard drake chuckling as he flies overhead and thinks about heading back north.