Gerald Almy: Top tactics for chain pickerel

Gerald Almy

If you’re looking for a fish to go after in the middle of winter, it would be hard to find a better quarry than the chain pickerel. Pickerel are fun to catch and bite even during the coldest weather.

In Virginia the ponds of A.P.Hill Military Reservation and tidal rivers east of I-95 are the top picks. The Chickahominy River and lake are also great spots to try.

Pickerel are the smallest members of the pike family, with northern pike bigger still, muskies at the top of the heap. A 4-pound fish or one measuring over 24 inches would be a trophy catch anywhere. In Virginia that would qualify for a citation award from the Game Department.

The pickerel’s appetite is voracious. The fish is built like a killing machine. Its teeth angle backward 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.

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 partially digested 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 are 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, good places to fish include shallow areas with weed beds, dock pilings, submerged brush, sunken logs and grassy banks. For cruising packs of pickerel, look for deep holes, points, dropoffs, and slow pools and eddies in rivers.

I’ve been a pickerel fan since I was a teenager 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 be sure to catch pickerel on a particular outing, bring live 2-4 inch minnows. 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 spin gear with 6-10 pound line and a 6-7 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 2-6 feet above the hook.

If the wind is blowing lightly, drifting is a great way to present minnows to pickerel. Let 30-50 feet of line out behind the boat. When a fish strikes, feed line, reel up all slack and jab the hook home. Setting up quickly increases the odds the quarry will be pierced in the lip, making it easier to release.

If the wind is calm and drift fishing isn’t an option, troll slowly with an electric 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 crankbaits 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 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.

Topwater 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.

Thin-minnow lures are particularly good choices in sizes from 3-5 inches. They can be delivered gently and have a realistic, shimmying action.

Spinnerbaits, spinners and weedless spoons with pork or plastic dressings are also good. Though the fish tend to chew them up a bit, soft plastic jerkbaits are excellent for fooling pickerel.

A moderate to fast retrieve is 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 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.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.