Although its distribution covers the entire Eastern half of the United States and Canada, very few anglers target chain pickerel. That’s unfortunate, because pickerel are intriguing gamefish and fun to catch!
One of the most appealing things about these fish is you can catch them year-round. I’ve caught them all 12 months of the calendar, even under the ice. In fact, these lean green fish bite particularly well in winter.
Pickerel are the smallest members of the pike family, with northern pike bigger still, and muskies at the top of the heap. The world record chain pickerel was caught in Georgia in 1961 and weighed 9 pounds, 6 ounces. A 4-pound fish or one measuring over two-feet long is definitely a trophy catch anywhere.
The pickerel’s appetite is voracious. The fish is built like a virtual 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 bulging in 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.
For the most part, pickerel tend to be 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. At other times they’ll cruise in a small area in loose packs, stalking baitfish schools.
For the ambush feeding mode, try fishing these spots: weed beds, dock pilings, submerged brush, sunken logs, and grassy banks. For cruising packs of pickerel, pinpoint deep holes, points, drop-offs, and slow pools and eddies in rivers.
I’ve been a pickerel fan since I was a youngster and have found the fish can be caught readily with bait or lures. Here’s a rundown on the top tactics to use.
Live Bait Methods
If you want to increase your odds to catch pickerel on an outing, bring live 2- to 4-inch shiners. 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.
I like to use light- to medium-weight spinning gear with 6- to 10-pound-test line and a 6- to 7-foot rod. Fine wire hooks are an advantage, since they can often be bent free when you hang up. Sizes 1-2 are best. Attach a split-shot 12 inches above the hook. If you want to leave the bait hovering in one spot longer, attach a float 2- to 6 feet above the hook.
If the wind is blowing lightly, drift fishing is a great way to present minnows to pickerel. Let 30- to 50 feet of line out behind the boat. When a fish strikes, feed line, reel up all slack and jab the hook home. Setting up fast increases the odds the fish will be pierced in the lip, making it easier to release.
When there’s no wind blowing and drift fishing isn’t an option, troll slowly with an electric trolling 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
Artificials can score on pickerel at any depth. For fish holding in deep water, try weedless spoons, diving crank baits and jigs tipped with pork dressings.
Shallow water is where lures really shine at catching chainsides, however. Here you’re targeting fish laying in ambush next to weeds, logs or brush, waiting in ambush for a minnow to swim by. The water depth can be anywhere from four 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.
Top water 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, aggressive lures will actually spook the fish. If you find that happening, switch to quieter sub-surface offerings.
Thin-minnow lures are particularly good choices in sizes from 3- to 5 inches. They can be delivered gently and have a realistic, shimmying action. Spinnerbaits, spinners and weedless spoons with pork or plastic dressings are also deadly on pickerel.
As a rule, moderate to fast retrieves are 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.
Whether you choose lures or bait, don’t overlook the chain pickerel. Once you’ve caught a few, you’ll realize there’s something unique and special about this fish that will keep you coming back for more. And you’ll find few other gamefish more cooperative during the heart of winter than ‘ol chainsides!
Consult your fishery department for the best pickerel bets in your state.
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