Checking The Chain Gang
Although chain pickerel are found in waters as far west as Texas, the species is mainly a resident of the East Coast, with thriving populations in numerous lakes, ponds, reservoirs, and rivers of the Mid-Atlantic and New England states from Maine to Virginia. Chain pickerel (Esox niger) aren't generally held in as high regard as their bigger cousins, the pike and muskie.
Indeed, relatively few anglers target them. Call pickerel the Rodney Dangerfields of sportfish. No respect. That's unfortunate because pickerel are superb gamesters--plentiful, aggressive, good-looking, hard-fighting.
One reason for the lack of acclaim may be the average size of pickerel. Most weigh under two pounds. But specialists consistently catch much more impressive chains. The all-tackle record, for example, is a 9-pound 6-ounce Georgia whopper caught in 1961. You're not likely to match that size, but lesser trophies are within reach.
Plenty of 3- and 4-pounders await, and chances are always good for a 5-pounder. You might have to work hard and long for a 6-pounder or better, but such beauties exist throughout their range. And once you start hooking Moby chainsides, you'll have a much higher opinion of pickerel.
Chain pickerel and weeds go together. Masters of the art of ambush, pickerel lie in or just above aquatic vegetation such as milfoil, cabbage, and lily pads, often facing outward toward open water, watching for prey. When something edible appears, pickerel launch an attack in a deadly burst of speed. Anglers seeking chain pickerel, regardless of season, should fish weedbeds. Where weedgrowth is minimal, chainsides relate to available cover and structure such as fallen timber and rocks, or breaklines. But given a choice, the green and gold, long-jawed warrior is near vegetation, deep or shallow.
Winter--Chain pickerel remain active in frigid water, making them an ideal ice-fishing quarry. Many of the year's heftiest are pulled up through holes in hard water. Pickerel love live shiners of all sizes but 4- to 5-inch baits prove most attractive, particularly to larger specimens. Arkansas shiners, pond (golden) shiners, emerald shiners, chubs, and sucker minnows all appeal to them.
Send minnows down, and flags will fly. Roger Aziz Jr., master angler from Methuen, Massachusetts, favors February for the best chance at a trophy pickerel beneath crystal cover. At that time, pickerel move into two or three feet of water in weedy areas to prepare for spawning. Big egg-bearing females weighing 4, 5, and 6 pounds, are in a pre-prespawn mood. Even when spawning is completed, according to Aziz, huge chains remain near the same areas for weeks.
Spring--Chain pickerel are toughest to catch just after ice-out. Where they hide from late March through mid-April is a mystery even pickerel experts like Aziz haven't solved. Perhaps they slip into postspawn lethargy. As water temperatures rise into the high 50F range and low 60s, however, chain pickerel reappear in shallow weeds. By early June, about the same time aquatic weeds break the surface, they're going strong, striking viciously at various baits and lures, sometimes making a nuisance of themselves to anglers focusing on trout, bass, or pike.
This is topwater time. Whirring a buzzbait, bulging a spinnerbait, walking a Zara Spook, jerkin' a Baby Torpedo, or twitchin' an Original Floating Rapala elicits crashing takes. Pickerel attack with huge swirls and flying water--a truly spectacular strike, particularly if the chain is large. Crankbaits, spoons, in-line spinners, and jigs also produce, along with soft plastics of all sorts. But for anglers who enjoy surface fishing, June is topside time for pickerel.
Summer--In mesotrophic lakes and ponds, summer separates midgets from monsters. Small chain pickerel remain in shallow water, holding around lily pad beds or clinging to grass or reeds along shorelines. They are typically under two pounds, the size most anglers encounter. Larger chains--supersized specimens surpassing 4 pounds--are in deeper water. Heavy chains are fish of cool environs and deep structure. If you want a wall-mount chain pickerel, summer's the time to collect one. But to do so, you'll have to turn your back on the shallows.
The principal cool-water habitat is deep outside weedlines, the same edges that hold big largemouth bass. During July, August, and September, target trophy-size pickerel with three techniques: (1) trolling spoons, in-line spinners, shallow-running crankbaits, or stickbaits fished on leadcore line or off a downrigger 12 to 15 feet down along deep weededges; (2) flatlining deep-diving crankbaits; or (3) casting lures heavy enough to stay within the strike zone of deep-holding pickerel. Pickerel bite well on hot, hazy, humid days. The last two weeks of August through September are prime times for big fish.
Productive casting lures include 1- to 2-ounce spinnerbaits, 5/8- to 1-ounce jigs with large soft plastic trailers, and crankbaits that run 10 to 15 feet deep on a cast. Pickerel on deep edges also like 7- to 10-inch plastic worms whether Carolina-rigged, Texas-rigged, or mounted on a jighead. My pickerel-hunting partner, Chris Labucki, and I long favored Mann's Little George in 1/4- and 1/2-ounce sizes. We found that cavernous mouths easily inhaled these lures, resulting in good hooking. A homemade version with a large single hook, which we dubbed a jigspinner, solved that problem.
On days when pickerel prove particularly finicky, a jig rigged with a live shiner or strip of perch belly, a tapered slice of bluegill, or a crappie flank should produce. Regardless of lure or method, use a black 9-inch steel leader or strand of 30- or 40-pound-test monofilament to guard against bite-offs.
In lakes harboring deep-water forage like rainbow smelt and alewives, some chain pickerel leave deep weedlines in summer to suspend in the depths near baitfish schools. In those waters, trolling crankbaits, jerkbaits, spoons, or spinners near a pod of baitfish can be deadly. At Wononscopomuc (Lakeville) Lake and East Twin Lake in Connecticut and Stockbridge Bowl in Massachusetts, anglers trolling for trout in summer often catch 3-, 4-, and 5-pound pickerel. But on any given day, you're more likely to whack a whopper by fishing deep weedlines rather than trolling near bait pods.
Fall--As lakes cool, porker pickerel return to their shallow weedy haunts. But they're seldom far from deep water. Seems they simply rise up from the deep weedline to assume position in shallower sections of the same weedbed. At this time, shallow baitfish are the key.
Wherever bluegills, perch, or minnows congregate on shallow, weedy flats bordering deep water, heavy chains are nearby. In October, zipping a white, chartreuse, or black 1/4- to 1/2-ounce spinnerbait through schools of bait can provoke jarring strikes. In the colder water of November, a floating minnowbait twitched beneath the surface at a moderately slow pace works better.
Despite ferocious attacks and strong fights, chain pickerel are delicate. Big ones, in particular, do not withstand handling, and unless released quickly may die, especially in summer when surface water is warm. They're like big pike. Unless you plan to keep your catch, (they're extremely tasty though bony) unhook your fish at boatside, keeping it in the water as much as possible. A quick release assures survival, so a few quick photos are more than plenty.