Chain Pickerel Quest

Chain Pickerel Quest

I hadn't made two turns of the reel handle when a powerful swirl exploded on my in-line spinner and nearly twisted the rod from my grasp. For the next few minutes, a hectic scrap ensued, complete with a pair of picture-book pike-like leaps for freedom. Working the fish closer, I could see the definitive markings of an impressive chain pickerel. Long, green, and mean, it made several dashes for the depths before I got a net under it. After a quick photo, the 2-foot long "mini-pike" was sent on its way to thrill another angler.

Many fishermen, especially bass anglers, tend to scoff at chain pickerel and their predatory aggression. Big pickerel, those over 4 pounds, can wreak havoc on a spinnerbait or mutilate a shiner set out for trophy bass. Tournament bassers on the East Coast sometimes curse pickerel, while fly-rod and kayak enthusiasts praise them for their powerful strikes and fighting ability. For anglers in the Southeast dreaming of pike and muskies, chain pickerel fill the desire for catching toothy esocids.

Chain pickerel (Esox niger) are the smallest member of the Esox family that draws attention from anglers. Not to be confused with the smaller grass pickerel (E. americanus americanus) or the redfin pickerel (E. a. vermiculatus), chain pickerel can reach 5 to 6 pounds in prime waters with record-class fish from 7 to 9 pounds in most eastern and southeastern states where dark, tidal estuaries host abundant populations.

Characterized by chain-like markings on their long flanks, they display many of the same predacious characteristics of their larger cousins. Their native range extends from southern Maine south to central Florida and west to Louisiana, where they inhabit rivers, natural lakes, and streams east and south of the Appalachian Mountains. Some populations are found in lower Great Lakes tributaries and in cold lakes and ponds in upstate Pennsylvania and New York. Prime waters for large pickerel include Lake Hopacong in New Jersey; Virginia's Tidewater lakes Cahoon, Prince, and Western Branch; the Savannah River and adjoining tributaries in South Carolina; and smaller lakes and ponds of Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains region. Other excellent waters exist throughout much of the Mid-Atlantic and southeastern U.S.


Most of my encounters with pickerel have been in smaller, blackwater millponds and rivers of the Delmarva Peninsula, while seeking crappies or bluegills during early spring. Hectic battles on ultralight tackle often are the tale of the day. But at times, we've targeted them with medium-power spinning gear and 14-pound braided line, to wrestle them from emerging padfields. They tend to favor woodcover and vegetation, areas that allow ambush attacks on panfish or native golden shiners—their preferred forage.


Suspending jerkbaits in gold or ghost-shad patterns get their attention, as do in-line spinners such as Mepps Aglias or Blue Fox spinners in size #3 to #5. Unhooking toothy chain pickerel from treble hooks can be tricky and dangerous, as they're prone to wild gyrations even after capture, and are sometimes hooked deep. Keep longnose pliers handy, or else use a hook-proof fillet glove. Some pickerel anglers use barbless hooks on flies or jigs, making hook removal and release easier.


The teeth of chain pickerel are sharp and can easily cut thin monofilament. We often use a 14-pound fluorocarbon leader or attach lures directly to the braid mainline. I prefer braids from 14- to 20-pound-test in green. Use a ball-bearing swivel to attach rotating lures like an in-line spinner to relieve line twist. Plugs, jigs, or spinnerbaits can be knotted directly to the braid with a Palomar knot or a doubled four-wrap clinch knot. When using a fluorocarbon leader, check for abrasion after each catch and replace if necessary. Deep-hooked fish tend to rough up the leader, while snout-hooked fish often never touch the line.

Prime times for pursuing pickerel vary by latitude. Throughout much of their northern range, trophy chain pickerel are caught by ice fishermen on tip-ups baited with large shiners. Early spring spawners are often at their heaviest from January through March, with egg-laden females boasting full-bodied profiles.

In many open-water, mid-winter waters in the East, pickerel can be caught with slow presentations of minnow-tipped jigs below floats. Kayak anglers often access smaller guts and tributaries that harbor concentrations of mid-winter pickerel and extend their angling season with quality catches. Farther south, prime months can extend into early summer. But most pickerel fans concentrate on spring, or from late fall to early winter, for bigger fish.


A few years ago, my son and I encountered quality pickerel at North Carolina's Richmond Mill Lake while targeting trophy bluegills. It was late November, and most anglers had abandoned fishing in favor of hunting. We caught numerous pickerel in the 23- to 26-inch range on small jigs intended for monster bluegills. As often is the case, dynamite pickerel fishing can be had where other mainstream species such as bass or panfish dominate. A similar scenario occurs at Maryland's Deep Creek Lake and Pennsylvania's Lake Wallenpaupack.

On the table, pickerel are delicious, with firm, white flaky meat that qualifies well for baking or frying. Navigating the "Y" bones can be tricky, but the "five-piece" technique used on smaller pike works nicely on chain pickerel that exceed 20 inches. Other Y-bone removal methods covered in In-Fisherman's book Cooking Freshwater Fish also adapt well to fish of that size. With a little practice, fillets are easy to produce, and serve well in many recipes.

Their moderate size can be viewed as a drawback to pickerel as a sportfish. But for those who want the thrill and excitement of pike-like action, high-end table fare, and a chance to extend their fishing season by several months, the chain pickerel has a lot going for it.


Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

Recommended for You

This recipe for Steelhead Trout Niçoise Salad is heart healthy, paleo- and gluten-free diet friendly. Fish Recipes

Steelhead Trout Niçoise Salad Recipe

This recipe for Steelhead Trout Niçoise Salad is heart healthy, paleo- and gluten-free...

This is not your run-of-the-mill fish recipe! Buttery, savory pecans are seasoned up to make an irresistible and addictive crust for catfish fillets Fish Recipes

Pecan-Crusted Catfish Fillets Recipe

Emilie Bailey

This is not your run-of-the-mill fish recipe! Buttery, savory pecans are seasoned up to make...

Here's some important crankbait lessons from the big leagues. Bass

Deep Cranking Confessions from the Pro's

John Neporadny Jr - December 18, 2017

Here's some important crankbait lessons from the big leagues.

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Lowrance Enters Trolling-Motor Market with Ghost

Lowrance Enters Trolling-Motor Market with Ghost

Lowrance's Lucas Steward shows OSG's Lynn Burkhead what all of the fuss is about in the brand new Ghost trolling motor being brought to market by the Tulsa, Okla.-based fishing equipment manufacturer.

Tactical Changes for Smallmouths

Tactical Changes for Smallmouths

Doug Stange deploys an one unique in-line spinnerbiat option for smallmouths.

Mustad Skatter Shad Bladed Jig

Mustad Skatter Shad Bladed Jig

As Mustad continues to expand into an all-around tackle company, Reid McKinstry shows off some innovative features that make the Mustad Skatter Shad bladed jig a winner in big bass waters.

See more Popular Videos

Trending Stories

Several methods are available to estimate the weight of a fish. Some use length as well as girth Biology

Walleye Length To Weight Conversion Chart

Dr. Rob Neumann - January 03, 2017

Several methods are available to estimate the weight of a fish. Some use length as well as...

Now more than ever, understanding each category's strong suits is critical to choosing a powerplant that best fits your personal needs and preferences. Boats & Motors

2- Vs. 4-Cycle Outboard Motors

Dan Johnson - April 16, 2018

Now more than ever, understanding each category's strong suits is critical to choosing a...

To guide your carp quest, we've lined up the best carp baits that are easy-to-fish natural baits and commercial options. Other Fish

Best Carp Baits Today

Dan Johnson - June 29, 2018

To guide your carp quest, we've lined up the best carp baits that are easy-to-fish natural...

See More Stories

More Pike & Muskie



No one wants to travel to a big-pike nirvana and have to worry about catching fish. What if rules Pike & Muskie

Barbless Hooks for Healthier Pike

Doug Stange - April 15, 2018

No one wants to travel to a big-pike nirvana and have to worry about catching fish. What if...


Pike & Muskie

Spin Rig for Pike

Cory Schmidt - May 01, 2018

"It was the greatest guide bait of all time," proclaims Bill Lindner, anticipating my...



Jig and softbait combinations do a terrific job of triggering pike. They can be tempered to fish Pike & Muskie

Jig Combos That Work for Pike

Doug Stange - May 21, 2018

Jig and softbait combinations do a terrific job of triggering pike. They can be tempered to...

See More Pike & Muskie

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.