Chain Pickerel Fishing Basics

News & Tips: Chain Pickerel Fishing Basics


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Chain pickerel will attack a variety of lures including crankbaits, stick baits, spinnerbaits and soft plastics.

I have heard the same statement many times while fishing the Ozark Highlands of Missouri and Arkansas. Friendly conversation is a part of the etiquette of floating fisherman on clearwater streams. Everyone is always anxious to share a fishing story, especially so if the conversation begins with an excited angler stating, "I just caught a Northern pike from that slough back there!"  

It's a common mistake among Ozark anglers. The chain pickerel is indeed a member of the pike family, but a much smaller cousin of the northern pike.

Chain pickerel thrive in swamps, marshes, ditches, oxbows, sloughs and backwaters of the Missouri Ozarks with quiet, clear water and abundant aquatic vegetation.  They are known to exist in Oregon, Shannon, Pulaski, Ripley, Dunklin, Texas, Stoddard, Wayne, Carter, Howell and Reynolds counties. In Arkansas chain pickerel thrive in streams and lakes in coastal lowlands, in the Delta region, the Arkansas River Valley and the foothills of the Ouchita and Ozark Mountains.  

As a child growing up in the lowlands of southeast Missouri, I made the Northern pike mistake as well when I caught a 9-inch grass pickerel from a stream on our farm. I envisioned myself catching the 50-inch pike of the north someday, right on our farm. Of course, that never happened. However, I had begun a lifelong love affair with the diminutive pike of our region.

After settling in the Ozarks in the early 1970s, I discovered chain pickerel. While on a three day trip on the Jacks Fork River, I eased my canoe into a slack water slough area choked with coontail moss and other aquatic plants. The water was crystal clear and I could see a sandy bottom through the greenery below the waterline. It looked like the perfect place to catch a monster largemouth bass.  

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Most chain pickerel caught in the Ozarks are 7-to-14 inches in length.

I tossed a 3-inch Mister Twister curly tail grub to an open pocket a few feet in front of me.  What I thought to be a small gar shot from the cover and inhaled my bait. The fight was on. The small fish vaulted from the water displaying red gills and a mouth full of teeth. I immediately thought "Northern Pike."  

I spent the remaining two days of my float trip on the Jacks Fork searching out habitats that would hold chain pickerel. I caught another dozen or so of the intriguing miniature pike on everything from plastic grubs to Rooster Tails. The largest was 16 inches, a real monster, or so I thought. I became inextricably hooked on fishing for chain pickerel.  

It didn't take me long to learn that chain pickerel do grow much larger, up to 4 or 5 pounds. In fact, the Missouri state record chain pickerel weighed in at 5 pounds one ounce. It was caught by George Burlbaw in October of 1976 below the Clearwater Dam spillway.  

In the early 80's I joined outdoor writer friend Bob Todd on canoe fishing trip into the ditches and swamps of Mingo National Wildlife Refuge in the delta region of Missouri. Cypress swamps and really big cottonmouth moccasin gave me plenty to look at between every paddle stoke. We were looking for bass and hoped to catch the unusual "flyer" a small panfish species.  

As we neared an ancient cypress log stretching from a bank with shallow water out to much deeper water, I hurled a giant double-bladed spinnerbait to the target. The spinnerbait thumped the log about 5 feet from the shoreline. I let it sink. My rod darn near shot from my hand at the strike. "Huge bass," I huffed to Todd. Just then a long, slender fish of 20 inches tail walked across the surface slinging water and moss in every direction.  

"That would be a huge bass if it was in fact a bass," Todd laughed. "It is a big chain pickerel though," he said just to console me a bit. I couldn't have been happier.

Chain pickerel spawn from late February to early March. They lay sticky eggs, which adhere to vegetation. Pickerel parents do not end their young.  Offspring hideout in the thickest vegetation in the areas, which their parents inhabit.  

Chain pickerel are very aggressive during the spawn but difficult to hook. I learned that lesson while fishing the Current River with a park ranger. We could clearly see pickerel hiding in the pockets of aquatic weeds. Every time we tossed a minnow near a fish, the pickerel would charge from cover, snatch the minnow sideways, rather than by the head, cart it away from the nest area and promptly spit it out.  Frustration mounted as we repeated the scenario over and over. Figuring a bet would improve our hook -setting skills we laid some money on the line. I lost by one 11-inch fish, the only one hooked for the day.  

My interest in chain pickerel peaked when I heard about a troop of veteran chain pickerel fishermen near Van Buren, Missouri, who regularly landed 3-to-5-pound chain pickerel during the winter months from Current River. I reasoned that the nearby Eleven Point River, which is my favorite, should also house some bruiser pickerel.  

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Author Bill Cooper caught this monster 28-inch chain pickerel on the Eleven Point River and released it — it may have been a state record.

My wife, Dian, and I love the Eleven Point and make several trips their each year, usually to trout fish. We set up remote deer camps there as well, along the western border of the Irish Wilderness. We boat upriver to get away from the crowds.  

We regularly catch rainbow trout right in front of our camp, but I always make a river run to a couple of sloughs to tangle with the toothy chain pickerel which reside there.  

We trap our own minnows while on the Eleven Point, selecting the biggest specimens in hopes of luring bigger fish. After one successful minnow trapping excursion we had the largest minnows we had ever trapped — up to 5 inches. Trout took to the big baits quickly. With dinner in the boat and night fall approaching, we had decided to motor back up river to our deer camp. As Dian began reeling in her line, her rod arched heavily. A long, slender fish vaulted skyward. The pickerel measured 22-inches, the largest I had ever seen.  

Intrigued by the fact that the fish came from a deep pool in the middle of the river, I surmised there might be more. I picked up my heavy baitcasting rod, tied on the biggest hook I had with me and impaled a 5-inch minnow. Less than a minute after the cast to the same area where Dian had hooked her big pickerel, my rod went down. The long, thick fish which erupted from the water began a new page of pickerel fishing for me. I found the Leviathans of the chain pickerel world.

The fat bellied pickerel measured an even 28 inches and was more than likely a state record fish. I photographed it and released it rather than have to leave the river and go jump though the hoops that are necessary to verify a state record fish. A friend of mine caught a 27 7/8 inch pickerel a month later from a U.S. Forest Service lake which weighed exactly 5 pounds. That fish had an empty stomach and had not fed. I had released a record for sure!