Thursday, March 20, 2014


        As days lengthen and snow melts, outdoorsmen and wildlife alike prepare for the arrival of spring.  The former takes stock and organizes his gear, waiting for the bass fishing that traditionally kicks off the new season.  But as water temperatures climb out of the 40s and rise towards 60, an overlooked game fish, a true predator with a temperament as lion-like as March’s prevailing winds, is lurking in the shadows of more “sporting” fish in impoundments across the state, ready to spawn, and eager to take a lure or fly.

The Fish

        The chain pickerel, Esox niger, is a native of the eastern United States’ rivers, lakes, ponds, swamps, marshes, oxbows, and backwaters.  The smallest member of the pike family and the only member found throughout Virginia, the pickerel is a long, articulated swimmer with sharp teeth and an oversized gullet. Similar in appearance to the northern pike, its distinguishing feature is the vertical black mark through its eye.

The author's brother shows off a  nice late-winter pickerel.
Photo by Matt Reilly.
        Pickerel spawn in the early spring—March—when water temperatures stabilize around 50 degrees.  From their staging grounds in shallow water (two to four feet deep), the females broadcast ribbon-like, adhesive eggs onto emerging vegetation, brush piles, or logs, where they remain attached, unguarded until they hatch one to two weeks later.

        This brief window before and during the spawn can draw jolting strikes from the slender submarine.  As ambush predators, pickerel will relate strongly to cover such as grass and wood and engulf passing meals with a flick of their articulated bodies. 

        Pickerel are opportunistic feeders, and will ingest anything that will fit in their wide mouths, making them excellent targets for fishermen looking for sport early in the year.  They feed mostly on small fish, but crayfish, snakes, worms, mice, ducklings, birds, and frogs have all fallen victim to the pickerel’s toothy vice-grip.

        For that very reason, many farmers and property owners who permit anglers to fish their farm ponds require the immediate disposal of pickerel caught and landed, to protect the future generations of other more “peaceful” game fish.  This opinion is a cliché, in my mind, but one that should be rightfully followed if fishing such a landowner’s waters.

        As a native species, pickerel have inhabited Virginia’s waterways for ages; and it is the humble opinion of this writer that such a balance is disrupted by the presumably constructive management technique of disposing of the fish.

Fishing Techniques

        My first encounter with a pickerel was as a young boy.  I was fishing a local lake with my dad and one of his old friends when a small spinner tossed to a shallow bank drew a vicious strike.  The line went tight and rocketed out from the bank towards deeper water; but by the time I could bend my rod under the weight, the line fell limp, and my spinner was lost forever to a mystery fish.

        I lost that first fish to the pickerel’s sharp teeth; and though I would like to say I have not repeated the tragedy since, I cannot; for it is a risk involved in the pursuit of such a fish.  Therefore, line choice should be the foremost concern of a pickerel angler.

        Six- to eight-pound line on a medium rod is strong enough for a pickerel’s fight; but a strong, abrasion-resistant leader in the 10- to 20-pound range is a must. Even wire leaders intended for big game “toothy critters” like musky and barracuda aren’t out of the question.  A pickerel ambushing a lure will often engulf its faux meal completely, leaving the length of line immediately above the lure susceptible to its sharp teeth, often resulting in a cleaning-severed line.

Hairwing flies like the Mickey Finn in sizes 4-8 are very effective on pickerel.
A wire leader will prevent line break.  Photo by Matt Reilly.  
        Lures and flies for targeting pickerel are a secondary concern.  Any pattern or imitation that adheres even slightly to the fish’s wide and indiscriminate diet is effective, though the most productive imitations will resemble baitfish.  Attractor patterns such as spinners, spoons, and brightly-colored jigs are also top-producers in the pickerel world; and fly anglers will do well with bucktail streamers and poppers. Swimbaits, wacky-rigged stickbaits, and in-line spinners are regular members of my pickerel fishing arsenal. 

        Work these lures close to submerged logs and weed beds in waters inhabited by pickerel before and during the spawn, and you might just raise a fish looking for a fight.  After the initial strike, the fish will utilize their long bodies and powerful tail to evade your efforts, but fight them carefully—their teeth amplify the threat of excessive pressure on the line.  Once landed, be prepared with a pair of hemostats or pliers for extracting the hook while keeping your hands and fingers clear of the needle-like incisors.

        While the bass spawn traditionally signifies spring, pickerel spawn now, and provide unsurpassed sport on light tackle.  Don’t overlook this worthy and sporty game fish.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Monday, March 17, 2014


I'd like to take a moment and dedicate a post to one of my favorite, and one of the area's more relevant and popular, outdoor blogs, written by friend and associate Ed Felker of Northern Virginia.

        Ed began writing Dispatches From the Potomac in December of 2011, and has since gained quite an impressive and dedicated following, as well as several sponsors.  As a graphic designer and artist, Ed fills the site with quality, visually-appealing content.  Expect regular story updates regarding all aspects of the outdoors in Virginia--especially kayaking, fly fishing, and hiking--each featuring his two favorite K-9 companions, Finn and Winnie, affectionately known as "Team Orange."

        In his "free" time, Ed serves as a Director on the board of the Mason Dixon Outdoor Writers Association, but is also quite active within the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association.  After first shaking hands with Ed at the 2014 annual Virginia Outdoor Writers Association membership conference, I was struck by the man's welcoming personality.

        Check out his blog by clicking on the link above or in the left sidebar.  Look for my "Guest Blogger" post.

        Thanks again, Ed, for helping me grow my audience.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


        Cabin fever sets up its final blow.  It’s been cold, snowy, dreary, for two months.  The fisherman that holds the reins in my brain is facing impending implosion, when, for a brief spell, the clouds lift.  30s turn into 60s, and the resulting breeze turns the air crisp and comfortable.  It seems as if spring is right around the corner, and, to those residents of the underwater world, that means calorie-packing for the approaching spawn.  This spells good fortune for my fish-craving psyche.

        Every year the same pattern is repeated.  A warm snap in the third or fourth week in February signals a seasonal change for bass and other spring-spawning fish as the water temperature begins climbing towards 60 degrees.  With every day of warm weather, they are reassured that the spawn is indeed approaching; and they take their staging positions on ledges with access to deeper water adjacent to flats and shallow coves.

        The fish know they must eat.  Spawning rites expend valuable energy—energy fish don’t have after three months of winter lethargy.  Their posterity depends on a ravenous diet.  This makes late winter one of the best times to catch a big largemouth.

        At first, I found taking advantage of this pattern easy—accidental.  When the air turns warm in February, I know I have to fish.  After a winter of tough, intermittent fishing opportunities, my sanity depends on it.

        This seasonal event is the beginning of the bass fishing season, and, likewise, spring, on my calendar.  Every year that date finds me on the banks of my favorite farm pond.

        Cumulous clouds billow in an evening sky that keeps me cool as it flows through the open windows of the truck, bumping over a long dirt road in rural Fluvanna County.  The pond shimmers when it comes into view, as a slight breeze blows from the west, against a shallow point where grass mats in the summer.  Wind traps small aquatic shrimp and plankton in the emerging grass, which attracts baitfish and, in turn, predator fish.  An abundance of food makes this staging ground perfect for the fish and a hot spot for my fishing efforts.

        I make a point of bringing someone along on such occasions, to prove to them that the largemouth’s year begins in late February, soon after “ice out.”  My brother, Phillip, was my subject this year.

        In less than 20 minutes of fishing, the first fish had revealed itself.  Phillip tossed a small swimbait to a submerged log.  In short order, the water erupted with the mouth of an oversized bass.  With a violent headshake, the fish freed himself of the hook and left my brother expressionless and convinced on the grassy bank—the bite was on.

        Without hesitation, I pitched a soft plastic finesse worm tight to the log, in settling ripples.  Tick, tick.  A sweep of my spinning rod brought the lakebottom to life.  After a short, lively fight, I lipped a feisty largemouth and lifted him from the water.  Spring had sprung.

        We continued fishing the banks of coves three to six feet deep, each of us landing several fish.

        The breeze ceased as we approached the shallow point that’s choked with grass in warmer months.  From past experience, I knew where several submerged stumps speckle the periphery of the grassbed.  I placed a cast far out along the edge and began a slow retrieve.

        I crawled my lure over a stump and let it flutter down to the lakebottom, but it was intercepted on its descent.  As my line trailed out into the water, I set the hook with a sweep and grunted at the power returned from the end of the line.  A hefty fish boiled in the shallow water, surged for deeper water, then headed for the surface.  I kneeled and exerted downward pressure on the fish.  His head wouldn’t break the surface if I could help it.  He surged right.  I steered his head left.  Throwing the fish off balance, I gained line to the reel, and Phillip landed a thumb in his mouth.

        We traded.  I got the fish, Phillip got the rod.  A camera caught my “grip and grin;” and I lowered the first big fish of the year to the water.

        Many will leave their hats hung and their rods unstrung, claiming that bass fishing is a sport for warm spring days and summer evenings.  Late winter can be one of the most productive times of the year to target big bass.  But this time of year, timing is everything.

Originally published in The Rural Virginian

Monday, March 3, 2014


It's been a crazy week.

        I have been truly blessed by many over the past few days, and have had the opportunity to meet countless friendly new faces, ones that I know will remain friends and associates for a long time to come.  I owe deep thanks to the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association and the members of the Sportsmen For Responsible Energy Development (SFRED) coalition--Trout Unlimited, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and the National Wildlife Federation.

        Starting last weekend, the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association, a wonderfully supportive group of which I have remained a part for the past three years, selected my essay entry as a winner in the VOWA-Bass Pro Shops High School Essay Contest; and I was invited to the annual conference, along with four very talented student writers.  This honor I have received for the second time now, first for "The Homecoming," and most recently for "Every Dog Has His Day," and I can not begin to describe my genuine gratitude.  Many of the members of VOWA are true icons in Virginia's outdoor literary tradition.  Their approval is truly humbling.

Left to right:  Victor Harangozo, Michael Gates, Matthew Reilly, Secretary of Natural Resources Molly Joseph Ward, Khoa Tran, Caroline Armstrong.  Photo by Rob Thomas.
        I attend the annual VOWA meeting every year for the excellent speakers and networking opportunities that it offers.  The majority of my opportunities for growth have been products of this meeting, and I would urge anyone interested in outdoor communications--be it writing, photography, blogging, videography, etc.--to surround yourself with and learn from this group.

        Among the acquaintances I made this year were Clarke C. Jones, author of Virginia Wildlife's Off the Leash; Phil James, local Albemarle County historian and columnist for the Crozet Gazette; Ed Felker of Dispatches From the Potomac; and Sally Mills, editor of Virginia Wildlife.

        Next up, a trip to the Nation's capital sponsored by the Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development (SFRED), with three high-caliber teenagers--Rebecca Brown of Conrad, Montana, Haley Powell of Rock Springs, Wyoming, and Jarred Kay of Flagstaff, Arizona.  Our hosts were charismatic, enthusiastic SFRED leaders Chris Wood, Brad Powell, Corey Fisher, and Keith Curley of Trout Unlimited; Ed Arnett of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and Kate Zimmerman of the National Wildlife Federation.  

Left to right:  Haley Powell, Jarred Kay, Matthew Reilly, and Rebecca Brown.
Photo courtesy of Mrs. Brown.
        In this context, we were swept through Washington's bustling infrastructure, always on schedule.  Influential conservation officials awaited our arrival at various corners of the city.  Mary Wagner, Associate Chief of the US Forest Service; Sally Jewell, US Secretary of the Interior; and congressmen from each represented state were all generous enough to sacrifice time from their complicated schedule to receive who they so emphatically dubbed "the next generation of leaders in conservation."  From socializing with the others, I feel I can speak for all involved--the pleasure was all ours.

Haley Powell (left) and Rebecca Brown (right) with Secretary Jewell.
Photo courtesy of DOI.
        Chris Wood, CEO of Trout Unlimited, and his wife Betsy hosted the last evening's wrap-up dinner in their warm and welcoming home.  What do a bunch of conservation biologists and outdoorsmen talk about at dinner?  Fishing was the main subject, but elk hunting had something to do with it.

        Thanks VOWA and SFRED, the US Forest Service and the Department of the Interior, and thank you Woods, for inviting us into your home.