Common Name: Chain Pickerel, a.k.a. Chained Lightning
Scientific Name: Esox niger
Appearance: Fading from dark olive at the top to pasty yellow on the bottom, with green blotches and black, serpentine markings on their sides, Pickerel are further distinguished by their scaly gill covers and a dark, vertical line beneath their eye.
Distribution: Especially popular game fish in the northeast United States, pickerel range from Maine to the Great Lakes and down along the Mississippi River. Commonly found in lakes with dense vegetation, pickerel are the smallest members of the pike family, and generally do not share the same waters as their larger cousins – pike and musky. Despite their popularity as gamefish, they are considered troublesome by trout fishermen and hatchery managers for their tendency to decimate nearby trout populations.
Spawning: Pickerel spawn at least once and sometimes twice per year. The first spawn takes placeimmediately after ice-out, which can be anywhere from December to May, depending on local conditions (in southern waters that do not freeze, spawning takes place closer to December/January). Occasionally, particularly in warmer waters, pickerel will spawn again in mid-summer.
Pickerel spawn randomly, scattering their eggs – which stick to vegetation -into heavily weeded areas at depths of anywhere from a few inches to 4′. The unprotected fry will survive off their yolk sacs and plants for the first week or so, during which time they are prey for birds, amphibians, and other fish. Those pickerel that manage to survive gradually move on to eating minnows and eventually larger fish.
Angling: Though they can survive in cooler water, chain pickerel prefer warm (60 to 80 degrees fahrenheit), slow-moving rivers and densely vegetated lakes (they do especially well in the swamps of Florida). Rapacious feeders, pickerel will eat most anything smaller than themselves (and occasionally creatures very close totheir own size) including insects, birds, frogs, mice, snakes, minnows, sunfish, catfish,trout, and evenother pike. Pickerel are extremely territorial, and anything they cannot eat they will attack and attempt to chase off. For all these reasons, they are frequentlyintroduced into watersto manage the populations of other species.
Pickerel hunt inthe shallows around sunrise and sunset, moving into deeper, cooler water during the day should temperatures exceed their preferred range. Bottom feeders, smaller pickerel will skirt the edges of weeds and structure while larger pickerel oftenl lie motionless deep in the vegetation or beneath obstructions, making an effective presentation somewhat difficult.
Live minnows are as close to a sure-fire pickerel bait as any,with brightly-colored artificial lures being the next best option. A minnow on a bobber floated over weedbeds or else an artificial bait moved in a life-like fashion over the weeds on spinning tackle (a “hopping” motion usually works best, taking care to avoid tangling it in the weeds) make for the best presentation. Though they are wary of anything that moves in an unconvincing manner, pickerel can be counted on to strike a properly presented bait within ten to fifteen minutes. If you fish one spot for longer than that without success, you might want to make your next cast elsewhere.
A pickerel strike is fast, fierce, and unmistakable, with the fish biting hard and immediately swimming away at top speed. If the hook is not set immediately,a pickerelwill usually swallowingit deep into their stomach, beyondall hope of safe removal. Heavy-duty line is necessary, lest the pickerel’s sharp teeth snap it off.
Apart from its trophy potential, pickerel meat makes for a flavorful, if bony, meal. Be sure to carefully skin the fish (the skin has a somewhat unpleasant taste) and de-bone it to the best of your ability before cooking.