A buddy and I were bass fishing on an oxbow one September afternoon, when a long, sleek fish followed my lure to the boat and sort of milled around as if waiting to see what would happen next.
"That's a chain pickerel," my friend said. "Stick your lure back down in front of him and circle it around. See what happens."
I did as he suggested. The pickerel pounced on the lure and immediately went airborne. It was something to see, because the pickerel jumped several times only three feet from the boat.
Until that day, I'd never fished intentionally for pickerel. Few anglers do. Most pickerel are caught by accident while fishing for more popular fishes.
After that memorable battle, however, I studied up on chain pickerel and began fishing for them on purpose.
I quickly learned that pickerel are fish of contradictions. In some states, they're popular sport fish. In others, anglers call them "snakes" and regard them with equal apprehension.
Some say pickerel outfight largemouth bass; others claim they're wimps.
"Big pickerel are always caught in shallow water," one magazine reports. "Look for them in cool depths," another states.
They're tough to catch; they're easy to catch. They're loners; they run in schools. They jump like tarpon; they never jump. They're great eating; they're totally inedible. Disparities are common.
Truth is, few anglers take time to get intimately acquainted with pickerel. And those who do typically use limited tactics in few bodies of water. Consequently, few folks ever become true pickerel-fishing experts.
Those who do agree on two things: pickerel are fun to catch, and they exhibit a wide variety of behaviors across their range.
What works for pickerel in a Georgia swamp may fail to produce in a Massachusetts millpond. Behavior observed in an Arkansas trout stream may differ substantially from that in the brackish waters of coastal Virginia. Versatility is the key to successful fishing.
Three pickerel — chain, grass and redfin — inhabit the sluggish, weedy waters of North America. They're the smallest members of the pike family, which includes Northern pike and muskellunge.
The chain pickerel (Esox niger) is the heavyweight of the trio and the only pickerel with widespread status as a game fish. It ranges from east Texas to the Great Lakes and from Maine to Florida, inhabiting a broad spectrum of waters, from small natural lakes and tiny creeks to sprawling man-made impoundments and big-river backwaters. The average size is 1 pound to 2 pounds. Common nicknames include jack, jackfish, green pike, chain pike and chainsides.
Grass pickerel (Esox americanus vermiculatis) and redfin, or barred, pickerel (Esox americanus americanus) are miniature replicas of their cousin. They rarely exceed 15 inches or a pound but provide great sport on ultralight tackle.
Except for transition zones in the northern and southern extremities of their ranges, redfins are found in the Atlantic drainage system and grass pickerel in the Mississippi and Great Lakes drainage system.
Grass and redfins specimens often are referred to as hammer-handles, mud pickerel, bulldog pickerel and little pickerel, and both spurn large, open waters, preferring to remain in swamps, bayous, sloughs and ditches. They're rarely as accessible to anglers as the bigger chain.
Weeds in quiet waters are tip-offs to pickerel hotspots. No matter what the season, pickerel will be in or near aquatic vegetation in water with little or no current.
In Northern waters, attractive plants include coontail, pondweed and cabomba. In more southern parts of their range, look for them around cattails, bulrushes, button willows, elodea, hydrilla and water lilies. They also have a special fondness for dark hollows in cypress and tupelo trees.
Hidden in cover, the pickerel lies poised for ambush. When dinner approaches, the predator darts from its lair, gripping the victim with its sharp teeth before turning it head-down and swallowing.
The pickerel then swims back to the same hideaway, where it lies motionless until hunger, belligerence or territorial defense urges it out of cover to strike again.
In spring, fall and winter, look for fish from the shoreline into 10 feet of water, in or beside weedbeds. Pay special attention to quiet, out-of-the-way locations like slow, grassy river backwaters and shallow, weed-choked necks connecting backwater sloughs.
In summer, heavyweight chains seek cooler realms, often relating to long sloping weedlines in 10 to 20 feet of water near the top of the thermocline.
Tempt them with fish or fish look-alikes. A weedless, silver spoon with a trailing pork rind is an old standard, but small spinners, chugger plugs, slim-minnow lures, jigs, streamers and even plastic worms will elicit strikes.
Cast parallel to cover, reeling with a steady, moderate-speed retrieve; or, when using topwaters, cast to pockets in weeds, let the lure sit until ripples subside, then twitch the lure again, continuing to the boat with a twitch-and-stop retrieve.
Live minnows allowed to swim naturally near cover sometimes take pickerels when artificials fail. Use a size No. 4 to a size No. 1 fine-wire hook, attach a split shot or two a foot above it and add a small bobber. Hook the minnow through the back, then work it in and around weedbeds. Live frogs hooked through a back leg and allowed to swim across weed tops also are first-rate enticements.
When thick weeds hinder an angler's use of more conventional fishing techniques, pickerel can be caught by "skittering."
Skittering employs a 10- to 12-foot cane pole, jig pole or fly rod and an equal length of line. A pork frog or strip of fish belly is affixed to a stout hook, and the bait is jerked, or skittered, across broad openings in weed patches. If pickerel are present, they'll hit with frenzied, chomping charges.
Pickerel are the perfect fish for diehards who refuse to put the rod away for the winter. They remain active during even the coldest weather and, in ice-fishing country, they're long-established favorites.
They bite so much better from November through February — when few other fish are stirring — that many anglers consider this the best time to go after them.
Four- to 6-pound monofilament line on a 5- to 6-foot, medium-action spinning rod is ideal for chain pickerel — light enough so 1- to 2-pounders can strut their stuff, yet strong enough to tame the occasional trophy. Despite their sharp teeth, wire leaders are rarely needed. Cut and retie when line gets frayed.
For the much-smaller redfins and grass pickerel, ultralight tackle is preferred. Little pickerel and chains rarely inhabit the same waters, so there's no worry about losing a big fish. Use scaled-down lures and smaller baitfish, and fish the same haunts.
The world-record chain pickerel stands at 9 pounds, 6 ounces — a standard that's stood since 1961. There's a high probability larger fish are lurking in prime waters.
While largemouth bass, crappie and other popular sport fish are under ever-increasing fishing pressure, good pickerel fishing in many waters is still largely untapped. Thus, pickerel have an excellent chance to attain maximum size, especially in remote oxbows, sloughs and swamps in southern parts of the range.
Make this the year you give pickerel a fair try.
Some days they'll come easy; on others they won't. Some you'll catch deep; some you'll catch shallow. They may be schooling; maybe they won't. Some will fight like a tail-hooked tarpon; others won't ripple the water.
That's the way with pickerel — fish of contradictions.
One thing's for sure, though: Give pickerel a try and you'll discover they have more to offer than you ever imagined.
To contact Keith Sutton, email him at email@example.com.