If you're looking for a change of pace from the usual fishing for bass, trout and panfish fare, here's an overlooked gamefish you might want to have a go at — the chain pickerel.
Although its distribution covers the entire eastern half of the U.S. and Canada, very few anglers target this quarry. That's a shame, because it's an intriguing gamefish — fascinating looking, a good battler and challenging to catch. If you want to wade through the bones, their flesh is actually quite tasty. But most anglers who do target "chainsides" are content to simply capture them and turn them loose unharmed.
One of the most appealing things about pickerel is you can catch them year round. I've caught them all 12 months of the year, even once through the ice.
But whether you try to catch pickerel through the ice or in open water, it helps to understand a bit about the behavior patterns and unique traits of this lean, prehistoric-looking fish. Learn something about the unique personality of the pickerel and you'll be rewarded with a heavier catch at the day's end.
Understanding the Pickerel
Pickerel are the smallest members of the pike family, with northern pike bigger still, muskies at the top of the heap. The world record chain pickerel was caught in Georgia in 1961 and weighed 9.6 pounds. A 4-pound fish or one measuring over 24 inches would be a trophy catch anywhere.
The pickerel's appetite is voracious and the fish is built like a killing machine. Its teeth angle backwards in the mouth, so any victim caught with a quick lunge finds escape impossible. Pickerel consume frogs, mice, insects and small snakes, but their overwhelming favorite food consists of other fish: minnows, chubs, other pickerel and panfish.
One time I caught a 4-pound pickerel that fought rather sluggishly for its size. When I worked it in close and scooped it into the boat, it soon became clear why — it had a 6-inch long sunfish swelling its stomach!
The range of pickerel stretches from Texas and Florida straight north into Canada. The fish inhabit ponds, natural lakes, black-water rivers and large impoundments. They particularly favor acidic and tannin-stained waters with lots of vegetation.
For the most part, pickerel are homebodies and loners. They'll hover motionlessly in one spot, often next to weeds, brush or timber and lunge out to ambush hapless baitfish or other creatures that swim by. The fish actually contorts its body into an S-shape as it prepares to strike, then hurls itself at the prey in a motion so fast it's sometimes hard for the human eye to detect. At other times, though, particularly as waters cool in fall and winter, they'll cruise in a small area in loose packs, stalking baitfish schools.
For the ambush feeding mode, good places to fish include shallow areas with weed beds, dock pilings, submerged brush, sunken logs and grassy banks. For cruising packs of pickerel, look for deep holes, points, dropoffs, as well as slow pools and backwater sloughs in rivers.
I've been a pickerel fan since I was a teenager and have found the fish can be caught with all three major angling methods: lures, flies and bait.
Below are the strategies that have produced for me over several decades of chasing chainsides.
The Live Bait Methods That Catch Pickerel
If you want to be sure to catch pickerel on a particular outing, bring a bait bucket full of minnows. Day in and day out, no tactic can hold a candle to live minnow fishing. This is an especially good method to turn to when fish are holding in deep water or roving in loose packs.
Minnows should be 2-4 inches long, either store-bought or those you've seined in a creek or caught with a trap.
I like to use light to medium weight spinning gear with 6-10 pound fishing line and a 6- to 7-foot rod. Fine wire fishing hooks are an advantage, since they can often be bent free when you hang up on bottom debris and logs. Sizes 1-2 are best. Attach a split shot or two 12 inches above the hook. If you want to leave the bait hovering in one spot longer, attach a float 2-6 feet above the hook. Impale the minnow lightly through the back for drift fishing, through both lips from the bottom up for casting or drift fishing.
If the wind is blowing lightly, drifting is a great way to present minnows to pickerel. Let 30 to 50 feet of line out and drag the bait behind the boat. When a fish strikes, feed line for a few seconds, then reel up all slack and jab the hook home. Setting up quickly increases the odds the quarry will be pierced in the lip, making it easer to return to the water without injury.
If the wind is calm and drift fishing isn't an option, troll slowly with an electric motor. Alternately, try anchoring next to cover such as stumps, logs, bridge pilings, weeds and channel edges and cast the minnow towards the structure. You can either slowly retrieve the bait or let it suspend beneath a bobber near the cover.
Tactics With Lures
Artificial lures can score on pickerel at any depth. For fish holding in deep water, try weedless spoons like the Johnson Silver Minnow Spoon, diving crankbaits and jigs tipped with pork dressings. However, shallow water is where lures really shine at catching chainsides. Here you're targeting fish laying in ambush next to weeds, logs or brush, waiting for a minnow to swim by. The water depth can be anywhere from 4 feet to as little as 12 inches! In this situation you can often see as well as feel the strike, making the fishing especially exciting.
Topwater lures such as wobblers, prop lures and poppers will all score on thin-water pickerel, particularly if the water is dingy or a bit ruffled with wind. If it's clear and still, however, sometimes these big, loud lures will actually spook the quarry. If you find that happening, switch to more subtle, sub-surface offerings.
Thin-minnow lures are particularly good choices in sizes from 3-5 inches. They can be delivered gently and have a realistic, shimmying action. Spinnerbaits, spinners and weedless fishing spoons with pork or plastic dressings are also good. Though the fish tend to chew them up a bit, soft plastic jerkbaits are excellent for fooling pickerel.
A moderate to fast retrieve is most effective, but at times it pays to slow down. Steady motion is typically best, but sometimes an erratic, jerky retrieve entices strikes from reluctant fish.
Fly Fishing for Pickerel
You won't find a lot of long-rodders out on lakes and rivers pursuing pickerel, but this tactic can be surprisingly effective. Since pickerel are often found in shallow water, it offers a perfect way to present frog or insect imitations close to stumps or logs and twitch them temptingly or suspend streamers next to a weed bed and strip them back seductively like a struggling baitfish.
An 8- to 9-foot long, 7- to 8-weight fishing rod and a floating weight forward or bass taper line is perfect. Add a 5- to 9-foot tapered leader like the RIO Toothy Critters with an 8-10 pound tippet like the ORVIS Superstrong Plus and you're set.
Summer and early fall are great times to try topwater flies. Go with spun deer hair, cork or foam poppers imitating frogs, mice or large insects in sizes 1/0-4. Drop them down as gently as possible next to fallen logs, brush piles, weed beds or points, let the ripples dissipate, then nudge them gently. If that doesn't draw a lunging take, wait a few seconds before beginning an erratic, twitching retrieve.
With bass you'll usually draw a strike after the first twitch or not at all. Pickerel are different. Sometimes they might follow a surface fly halfway back to the boat before nailing it with a spray of water.
In spring, late fall and winter, streamer flies like Cabela's Classic Wooly Bugger Fly Assortment are the best choice for fly fishing action. Since minnows are the favorite pickerel food, patterns such as the Zonker, Clouser Minnow, Marabou Muddler, Woolly Bugger, and Lefty's Deceiver are deadly in sizes 2/0 to 4.
Deliver these next to cover or work them over points and dropoff edges. Let them sink 12-48 inches, and then begin a stripping retrieve. Keep the rod tip low to the water and pull 6 to 12 inches of line at a time in sharp spurts with pauses in between the jerks. That lets the fly suspend and dart temptingly, like a real minnow would.
If the water is over 5 or 6 feet deep, try using a sinking-tip line or adding a split shot a foot ahead of the fly to get it down in the strike zone. In general I use a slightly faster retrieve for pickerel than bass, but sometimes in cold water they'll nail a streamer just crawling along at a snail's pace. On occasion it even pays to just use a steady hand-twist retrieve.
Whether you choose flies, lures or bait, don't overlook the chain pickerel. Once you've caught a few, you'll realize there's something special about this fish that will keep you coming back for more.