“You’re betting me $100 that you can catch a fish in one cast?” the security guard asked incredulously. Now I’ve never been much for gambling, but this was back in college when all moral scruples are set aside for beer money. So, when the security guy saw me standing at the campus pond with a fishing rod and told me that I wasn’t going to catch anything, I saw an opportunity and made the bet. I had a lot of faith in the pond’s residents and not actually having $100 at the time seemed a trivial point.
When I cast my Rooster Tail spinner into the center of the pond, it was immediately set upon by at least three chain pickerel. I hooked and landed one of the fish in about 30 seconds, winking at the guard as I took the five proffered $20 bills from his hand. Then I walked back to my dorm with the fish, wondering which beer would go best with pickerel fillets cooked on a hot plate.
The Lake Snake
In many fishing circles, chain pickerel have a bad reputation. Often called “lake snakes,” they’re viewed mostly as a trash fish or simply a nuisance. Some anglers even go so as far as to kill them as a pest. Several times I’ve come across a pile of frozen pickerel carcasses while ice fishing, which I assume were tossed there to decrease the surplus population of “bait-stealers.” But they didn’t always have this bad reputation.
In the past, chain pickerel were considered a valuable gamefish with dozens of articles and tons of gear dedicated to pursuing them. Somewhere along the line though, the fish suddenly became blacklisted. According to MeatEater Senior Fishing Editor and pickerel enthusiast Joe Cermele, this change was due to the rise in popularity of bass fishing.
“In my opinion, the shift in pickerl’tude occurred as technical bass fishing grew in popularity, which really began in the 1980s,” Joe told me. “It was during this era, thanks in part to the idolizing of competitive bass anglers, that fewer weekend warriors thought of largemouth as something to target with a shiner under a bobber. Instead, they automatically associated their pursuit of bass with having the latest and greatest lures, rods, and skill sets that emulated the tournament bass pros. With trophy bass becoming so coveted, pickerel just became something that got in the way and subsequently cost you fancy bass lures.”
Chain pickerel remain among America’s most underrated gamefish. Not only are they easy to find, but if an angler is willing to pick around the bones, they also make for excellent eating. When hooked, pickerel also possess energetic fighting capabilities that make them a complete dark horse. Catching them is like watching a flyweight fight in the UFC. It may not get the same hype as the heavyweights do, but when the bell rings you know you are in for some fast-paced and surprisingly brutal action.
The Red-Headed Stepchild
Chain pickerel (Esox niger) are the among the smallest members of the Esocidae or pike family, though they are slightly larger than the two subspecies of American pickerel, redfin (Esox americanus americanus) and the grass pickerel (Esox americanus vermiculatus). Just like their larger relatives, the northern pike and the muskie, pickerel are an ambush predator with a big duck-bill-like mouth full of razor-sharp teeth. Though they don’t grow nearly so large as the other members of their family (the record chain pickerel is only 9.6 pounds) they do share the same bad-ass attitude. In fact, pickerel can be far more aggressive than the pike or the muskie. A smaller, more vicious doppelgänger, they’re basically Mini-Me from the Austin Powers movies.
Pickerel will kill and eat almost anything they can fit in their mouth, from baitfish, frogs, and mice to small snakes and turtles. Pickerel are such aggressive feeders that they have been known to wipe out all other fish in the waters in which they reside. When this happens, they’ll simply start eating one another.
The chain pickerel’s willingness to eat does turn off some anglers who consider them too easy to catch. However, as pickerel grow larger, they tend to feed less often, just like pike and muskie. So, targeting larger pickerel is actually quite challenging, with a 20-incher being just as trophy-worthy as a 40-inch pike or muskie.
How to Find Pickerel
Chain pickerel are distributed across most of the eastern half of North America. Populations can be found from East Texas to northern Florida, the Great Lakes to the coast and all the way up to Nova Scotia. So, chances are that no matter where you live in that region, there is a chain pickerel swimming around somewhere within a short drive.
Pickerel live in a wide variety of water bodies, from small streams and boggy swamps to giant lakes. They are most prevalent though in acidic and stained water with a lot of vegetation so the best places to find them are in ponds and the backwater sloughs of larger rivers.
Good places to look for pickerel in these areas are the shallowest water around weed beds, submerged logs and brush, and around boat docks. Basically, anywhere the fish can hang out and be well camouflaged, waiting to ambush their prey like a berserk aquatic ninja.
How to Catch Pickerel
Two of the best things about pickerel are that that they are available year-round and choosing tackle for them is simply a matter of preference.
In the winter they can be caught through the ice by jigging with bright and flashy spoons or on tip-ups baited with shiners. In summer and fall, the pickerel’s aggressive nature and indiscriminate palate makes them susceptible to lures such as crankbaits, spinners, and even soft plastics. During late summer they will also absolutely crush topwater lures like the jitterbug. Fly anglers can also have a lot of luck catching pickerel on a variety of small streamers.
The absolute best time to go fishing for pickerel is the early spring. This is their pre-spawn time and the fishing can be incredible with larger pickerel looking to pack on calories. Plus, they are often the only fish anglers can even legally pursue during this time of year, making them perfect to scratch that pre-trout/bass season itch.
Whatever method you choose, be it live bait, lure, or fly, remember that chain pickerel should always be pursued with caution. For once you start catching them, the pure awesomeness of this little pike may change you angling perspectives forever—but it’s worth the gamble.
Feature image via Joe Cermele