Chain pickerel are easily one of the most underappreciated species of gamefish, especially in their native range. When bass anglers hook a “slime dart” instead of the bucketmouth they’re targeting, they groan before brutally manhandling the poor pickerel in an effort to get it off the line as quickly as possible. Stocked trout anglers get mad that these warmwater fish are competing with their precious coldwater salmonids, despite the fact that pickerel are the indigenous fish in many stocked waters.
In contrast to what many anglers say, chain pickerel are a worthy sport with appetites as ferocious as their larger Esox cousins. While pickerel are aggressive year-round, I have found them to eat bigger lures and flies in the spring compared to other times of year. This is especially fun since most species this time of year can only be caught with finesse techniques.
Another anomaly of chain pickerel is that they hold in relatively shallow water in early spring, while most other species are hunkered down in the depths. If you can find the weeds, you’ve found the pickerel. Baitfish move into the shallows during the warmth of the day to sun themselves, so pickerel wait to ambush in emerging vegetation. Shallow points near deep water are frequently the most productive, as they give both the predator and the prey refuge when the temperatures dip again overnight. Run a lure or fly over submerged vegetation, and you’re sure to at least get a follow.
In early spring, baitfish will school near the surface in huge pods. Why these fish school up, I honestly do not know, but I suspect it is either to sun themselves or feed on emerging midges. Whatever the case, their little dimples on the water’s surface reveal the location of the pod, which invariably will have a few pickerel waiting just outside the group to attack. Toss your offering close to the pod, and try not to snag the baitfish in the process.
Lure and fly selection for chain pickerel is about as basic as it comes; just pick something with enough size and flash to piss the fish off. My all-time favorite lure for pickerel is a Texas-rigged pearl fluke, which enables me to fish it around grass and weeds. Subtle twitches of the rod tip will cause the lure to jerk-and-jive, sometimes breaching the water like a dying or schooling baitfish.
Another productive favorite of mine is a jointed hard swimbait. Baitfish are at their largest this time of year before they spawn in the spring, so large baits imitate the forage well. While fishing with large swimbaits for bass is anything but a numbers game, most pickerel will eat a swimbait if presented correctly. This is a great bait to throw around schooling baitfish, especially the larger ones like bluegill.
Of course, anything flashy will also draw a pickerel’s attention. As I mentioned in last week’s post, in-line spinners are a great early-season searchbait that will catch just about anything that swims. Similarly, spinnerbaits, the beefier cousin of in-line spinners, can also be productive, although I must admit I have less confidence with them than I do other lures. When pitched to a weed bed and slow-rolled, spinnerbaits can bring the bigguns out.
Fly selection is similar to the lures of conventional gear. Big, meaty streamers frequently work, although some better than others. Jerk-style craft fur baitfish are one of my favorites, as they effectively imitate the action of my favorite lure, a soft plastic fluke. Using a jerk strip, craft fur baitfish will dart from side to side and flow with lifelike accuracy.
Another standby is a good, old-fashioned wooly bugger. The number of times I have caught pickerel on wooly buggers when targeting my first bass or stocked trout of the year is evidence enough that this fly catches these toothy predators.
Many anglers worry about the strength of their tackle when fishing for members of the Esox family, but I find it unnecessary with chain pickerel. Steel leaders are over-the-top, and take away from the action of most lures and flies. I’ve lost more smallmouth bass to nicked line than I have pickerel. In fact, many of the pickerel I catch are on an 8-pound test nylon leader when fishing for other species. When I am specifically going after pickerel, I do add a little strength to my line, but not as much as most. I find 14-pound test to be plenty in most cases, and will even go down to 12 if using a light lure.
During the springtime, you can find me chasing after pickerel more than any other time of year. One of my favorite pickerel waters contains just five species: chain pickerel, yellow perch, bluegill, pumpkinseed, and golden shiners. The lack of other top-level predators, namely bass, allows the pickerel in this pond to grow large and numerous. In the early months of spring, the water is perfect for pickerel fishing, chock-full of submerged vegetation and schooling baitfish. Come late spring, however, and the pond is choked with weeds and is just about unfishable.
So is the case with many top-notch pickerel fisheries, and anglers miss out by not chasing these fish while they can. There is no excuse to not fish for pickerel – if you have fishing gear, then you have what it takes to catch them. Lures and flies for any species will work for chains, not just the ones mentioned above. Besides, if it doesn’t get the fish to commit, watching a pickerel sit motionless, staring at an angler’s offering is one of the most exhilarating experiences in all of fishing. Just hold on, because when they do take, they are anything but gentle.