October 09, 2017
By Jim Gronaw
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.