The hunt for winter pickerel
Chuck Thompson, front, and Joe Bruce pose with a pair of Severn River pickerel taken on fly and spin tackle. (Bill May photo)

Cold weather is not without its compensations on the fishing front. Some hardy types are venturing into the Chesapeake and experiencing good action for stripers at such places as Point Lookout and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel (CBBT). Likewise trout fishermen are having some success at places like the Gunpowder River and the streams of Western Maryland.

But while these fisheries continue in limited ways in winter, pickerel fishing booms. Some of the best pickerel waters are the Magothy and Severn Rivers on the Western Shore and the ponds and rivers of the Delmarva Peninsula. As long as these waters and launch ramps are ice free, pickerel fishing can continue through winter into late spring. (Maryland regulations mandate a closed season for keeping pickerel in tidal waters between March 15 and April 30.)


Boating and Safety. However, cold weather and cold water call for great caution; frostbite and hypothermia are real threats. With today's layered winter clothing, anglers can usually deal with winter temperatures — but that's only if they can keep dry. So boating is even more of a critical safety issue. I am not recommending cold-water canoe and kayak fishing to anyone. I know some do it, and I wish them well, but it is dangerous.

Sea worthy boats 14 feet or more could be safe choices — in good weather conditions — with bigger generally better. Such boats should be equipped with all required safety gear including floatation devices, flares, noise-makers etc. I also recommend informing others of when and where you'll be on the water and have a sufficient communication device, whether cell phone, VHF radio, or something else. Boaters still need to be cautious, avoid bad weather and be aware that even patches of "skim ice" can damage a boat's hull.

Temperatures and ice conditions aren't the only weather factors. Moving tides are usually critical in rivers, with perhaps, falling tides being preferable. Though this is anecdotal, our group of fishermen have noticed that pickerel often seem to respond negatively to riffled waters. So low winds are desirable for fishing and boating.

Tackle, Lures, Baits. After years of experimenting with "panfish" rods I have settled on 7-foot, medium-light spinning rods, matching reels with top quality 15-pound test braid and/or fusion lines and a 5-foot leader of 20-pound fluorocarbon or monofilament to try to prevent cutoffs from the toothy pickerel. Some cutoffs occur despite these heavy leaders.

In open waters, like most of the rivers, preferred lures are 1/8-ounce, wire hook, unpainted jigheads, dressed with either bucktail skirts or thin, curlytail, minnow-shaped plastic grubs in white, chartreuse or natural colors. Sometimes we attach a clip-on, small offset spinner in silver or gold to the jighead. The jigs hang up occasionally, but usually a steady pull will open up the wire hook to free the lure. Then the hook can be bent back to shape with thumb pressure or with fishing pliers.

In rivers or ponds with a lot of woody cover or remnants of lily pads or spatterdock, Texas-rigged flukes, 3- to 4-inches long in the jig colors above are better choices.

Fly fishing can be effective, using 6- to 8-weight rods, floating to intermediate-sinking lines and 5 to 7-foot leaders with the recommended 20-pound test tippets. Clouser minnows patterns, two to three inches long, in the above colors can imitate the action of the jigs and unweighted streamers like Bendbacks and other patterns will also work.

Often the most effective technique in any pickerel waters is fishing a 2- to 4-inch live minnow lip-hooked on a small jig or shad dart with a wire or gold-colored hook. This can be fished as a jig or suspended beneath a small float. This rig can also take perch, crappie and bass.

Techniques. The basic technique I learned from Chuck Thompson and Joe Bruce is simple. We quietly approach coves off the mainstem river with the gas motor then maneuver around piers and pockets along shorelines and rip-rap walls with an electric bow motor. Pickerel are shallow water ambush feeders, so think accordingly. Look for dropoffs along open shorelines, the backs of coves, fallen trees and piers — anything with cover and/or a breakline. Cast right up against the shoreline and retrieve slowly back to the breakline, often the most productive perch and pickerel water. If that doesn't work, move deeper. Pilings and piers provide prime cover, and always work creek mouths, back eddies created by tides at the bend of the river and deeper waters near boathouses.

Pickerel aren't school fish, but they seem to hang in groups, so often one can take several to a half dozen or more in a small area. So it pays to keep moving and searching.

Pickerel are also known for following a lure or bait, so it pays to fish all the way back to the boat. Often strikes come right at boatside as the lure or bait begins to lift, but the pickerel usually followed it out from shallow water.

Joe and Chuck fish jigs and plastics with "the Magothy River crawl" retrieve, basically slowly dragging the jig along bottom, lifting and shaking the lure in place before slowly cranking the reel and pausing again. This works with the jig and minnow combination, too. Rod angle is critical, as I learned the hard way when I was seriously outfished on a recent Severn River trip with Chuck and Joe. Keeping the rod high, at least 45 degrees above the surface, greatly facilitates this retrieve and allows feeling a pickerel taking the lure or bait. Sometimes a pickerel hits hard, but often the take is extremely subtle, sometimes just a slight tic (often seen with the line), sometimes a simple pause or stop.

So winter pickerel are definitely worth a try, but not worth dying for. Pick your time, prepare, and enjoy.