It's time to give pickerel a try
I hoist one of several pickerel I caught recently. Chain pickerel are active now during the pre-spawn and can be caught on a variety of methods. (Jim Gronaw photo)

I had only made a few casts with my trusty Mepps spinner when the lure stopped dead in it’s tracks. As if it might have been snagged on a log, except the log began to move.

I was ready — I had 15-pound braid and a short length of 14-pound test mono to act as a shock leader. Although the fish I had hooked didn’t challenge that line at all, it was none-the-less a long and aggressive member of the pike clan … a chain pickerel, that measured just shy of 24 inches. It gave me a few streaky runs for the money and gyrated like a miniature tornado before allowing me to hoist it up on the bank.


Just the day before I had seen a much larger pickerel, perhaps 27 or 28 inches and thick as a brick, cruise up and inspect my 5-inch swimbait before slipping off in another direction. Discouraged but not defeated, I returned to the scene of the near-crime and made good with a smaller fish on a smaller lure.

Before the day was out, I would hook six pickerel and land five, including another nice one at 23-inches. Along the way, a pair of decent, late-winter largemouth bass clobbered my spinner, one of which pushed 4-pounds. It was the last day of February and I had somehow regained a little redemption from the previous day’s skunking. By the time I left the lake the winds had died down and the temperatures had inched up.

Spring peepers were loud and long and I spotted an unusual winter guest, a red-winged blackbird. It was overcast by then and time to call it a day — a good day!

A lot of anglers don’t like chain pickerel. They have teeth, they are slimy, they can cut off your $12 crank bait and cut you and make you bleed. Bass fishermen, in particular, almost universally hate chain pickerel as they can interrupt many bass tourneys and give anglers a false impression of hooking into a big bass.

But the chain pickerel strikes with aggression, leaps high and fights hard and, if the Y-bones are removed, can provide excellent eating with firm, white flesh. Over the years I have come to appreciate this smaller cousin of the more popular northern pike. Here in Maryland and some southern Pennsylvania waters, pickerel can be one of the earliest fish to become active and strike lures.

I used to run to far away waters to target pickerel, but in recent years that is no longer necessary. They have been a mainstay of Loch Raven Reservoir for a few decades now and more recently there has been an emerging population of them seen at Liberty Reservoir as well. Clearly, somebody put them in Liberty and they are now attaining sizes of over 5 pounds.

I have fished for them at Deep Creek Lake and caught them at Broadford Lake, Herrington Manor Lake, Pinchot State Park, and in many Eastern Shore ponds, rivers, and spillways where it is a native fish and at the top of the freshwater food chain.

If pickerel are following but not striking your swimbaits, scale down to a #3 Mepps spinner in gold or silver to provoke an attack.
If pickerel are following but not striking your swimbaits, scale down to a #3 Mepps spinner in gold or silver to provoke an attack. (Jim Gronaw photo)

Chain pickerel average around 17 to 18 inches, but many waters are capable of producing fish that exceed the two-foot citation standard and as long as 30 inches, which would be considered an exceptional trophy throughout much of its native range. The Maryland record is currently 8 pounds, and came from a Wicomico County pond three winters ago.

They spawn when water temperatures reach the low to mid 40-degree mark and broadcast their eggs on weeds, shallow sticks, and brush, and can be caught throughout the spawning phases on a number of shallow running lures like swimbaits, spinners, suspended jerkbaits or on fly-rod gear with large, bulky streamers.

Old school tactics that are still productive today are simple shad dart and minnow combos suspended with a bobber at 3 feet. We have also done well with 1/8th ounce brightly colored hairjigs fished over the tops of dead/dying weeds in a variety of lakes.

Tackle options are simple if you want to target pickerel. We like medium or light spinning gear with 14- or 20-pound braid and a clear monofilament or fluorocarbon leader of 14-pound test that is 16 to 20 inches long. A small barrel swivel unifies the two and prevents line twist when retrieving spinners. Using this setup I have never had a toothy pickerel bite off a lure or a bait. Preferred lure options are Mepps spinners from #3 to #5, swimbaits from 4 to 5 inches and Rapala floating or shallow running minnow baits from 3 to 5 inches. Many other baits, including live minnows, work well.

But I like the slam and the bang of the bite. Don’t be surprised if you find pickerel, even big fish, in water merely 18 inches deep. Weed bed edges are a great place to start looking for them. Logs, brush, snags and submerged wood of any kind could be potential hotspots for pickerel.

With their chain-like markings, toothy maw and lightning strikes, pickerel can be a lot of fun. Before all the other “glamour species” get active, give these toothy critters a try and a shot on the plate.

Beware of the sharp teeth of these fish. A gripper tool and long hemostats make un-hooking chores easier and safer.
Beware of the sharp teeth of these fish. A gripper tool and long hemostats make un-hooking chores easier and safer. (Jim Gronaw photo)