Bill May: Tips for finding, and fishing, winter pickerel

Bill May: Tips for finding, and fishing, winter pickerel
Joe Bruce with a typical winter pond pickerel he took on fly tackle and his articulated bullethead fly. (Bill May photo)

As pickerel fishing gains in popularity in our area, more anglers pursue them and we’re learning more about their habits and ways to catch them. But first, a word of warning.

Safety in Cold Weather

Ice and cold water are dangerous. Obviously it is unwise to try to use a small boat, canoe or kayak as an ice breaker. A more common problem is ice on the boat ramp, which makes launching and picking up the boat hazardous to impossible.


Kayaks, canoes and other small boats so popular these days are especially risky. Getting wet, especially falling in the water can be fatal. The shock of sudden immersion can lead to cold water shock, which can induce a heart attack. Hypothermia can quickly cause exhaustion to the point of near paralysis, making escape from the water difficult to impossible. So beside wearing appropriate clothing — a dry suit or wet suit is preferable — a floatation vest with a whistle should be worn before launching, and one should not venture onto the water without another person in another boat that stays within visual and shouting distance.

I also recommend carrying a spare set of clothing in your vehicle and not venturing too far from your ramp and vehicle.

Seasonal Patterns

Pickerel can be taken year round, but generally the best fishing is from October through May. In many waters pickerel go deeper and/or bury themselves in weed and pad fields in warm water. I have caught pickerel by working a light spoon over duckwort beds and holes in pad fields in mid-summer. The fish explode through the thin cover from the cooler water below and strike at the movement. Often they miss, but it’s an exciting way to fish.

As waters cool and pads and weeds die down, pickerel become more accessible. They may be along the edges or in holes in weeds and pad fields but often are at some distance, since it is believed the breakdown of the vegetation depletes oxygen. But pickerel usually still relate to structure, like breaklines, any kind of woody structure, piers, breakwaters, etc., and they can be found in water as shallow as less than one foot.

Pickerel move often throughout the year responding to structure and temperature, but, more importantly, relating to baitfish. As a result, while pickerel are not school fish, they are often found in groups, so fishing quietly can produce a half-dozen or more from one small area. Yet they can remain in a favorable area for some time. The lesson is to start fishing proven spots or types of locations, but keep moving if there is no action.

This pickerel took a bucktail jig in a tributary of the Severn.
This pickerel took a bucktail jig in a tributary of the Severn. (Bill May photo)

We have consistently found it difficult to catch pickerel where surface waters are riffled by wind or boat traffic; however, they can be taken from calmer, sheltered areas. It’s also common in cold weather to find fish more active if waters warm a bit late in the day.

We’ve also found it productive to change our approaches as waters cool. Our typical go-to lures are 3 ½ to 4-inch flukes in natural colors or white, rigged Texas-style to slip through cover. As vegetation dies down, we can switch to rigging these lures with open hooks. As waters continue to cool fly fishing with a floating line and an unweighted articulated fly is often more productive. (See for articulated streamers that have proven so effective.) Later we switch to intermediate sinking lines with the same fly. The colder the water, the slower the retrieve should be.

Plug fishermen can find success with 2- to 4-inch floating/diving lures such as a Rapala in silver, gold or yellow perch finish. As waters cool switch to suspending lures with the same colors and characteristics. Rapala’s Countdown and X-Rap Countdown and the Suspending Rattlin’ Rogue are good examples.

Short, heavy “bite” leaders, like 30- to 40-pound mono or fine, nylon-coated steel wire can help avoid bite offs when pickerel slash at moving lures or flies.

Joe Bruce admires a big pickerel that took his articulated bullethead fly.
Joe Bruce admires a big pickerel that took his articulated bullethead fly. (Bill May photo)

A classic pickerel fishing rig is a live minnow attached to a shad dart or 1/16th to 1/8th-ounce jighead cast and allowed to sink or suspended below a small float then slowly retrieved. This rig only gets more effective the cooler the waters and also takes bass and panfish. (Live bait may be harder to get in winter; Clyde’s Sports Shop, 410-242-6108, is a good source.)

Gulp Alive! Minnow in 2 ½ and 4-inch sizes can be an effective substitute for a live minnow and a 2- to 3-inch Power Grub is another, less effective substitute.

These patterns reverse as waters warm again in spring. With any of the above rigs, slow trolling can be an effective way to scout open water to locate pickerel.

River Fishing

For years I have fished the Magothy and Severn Rivers in winter with Chuck Thompson and Joe Bruce from Chuck’s 23-foot boat. We used mostly 1/8th and 1/16th-ounce jigheads bucktailed or plain with 2-inch twister tails slowly working them along bottom in a retrieve known as “the Magothy River Crawl.”

White perch and pickerel were the main catches with yellow perch, bass and even an occasional carp as bonus catches. For some reason, probably water quality, this fishery failed this fall and winter.


But here’s the good news. Veteran guide Kenvin Josenhans (; 443-783-3271) leads trips January through March on the Pocomoke River running through the scenic Great Cypress Swamp. Using his 20-foot boat and similar tackle and techniques described above, his clients take crappie, pickerel, yellow perch and bass, including, each year trophy pickerel of 6 to 7 pounds. I plan to try this.

Pickerel can provide a good fishing experience and break from the woes of winter in numerous Delmarva Peninsula waters.

Just use common sense and observe the above safety precautions, including planning for the drive to the waters.