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

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