Prime time for pickerel fishing is now, and it will continue for the next six months — as long as waters aren’t iced over.
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. (Maryland regulations mandate a closed season for keeping pickerel in tidal waters between March 15 and April 30.)
Loch Raven, now closed until spring, is an excellent spot.
Temperatures and ice conditions aren’t the only weather factors. Moving tides are usually critical in rivers, with perhaps, falling tides being preferable. Sunny afternoons with calm waters are prime time, but pickerel tend to sulk when waters are wind-riffled.
Pickerel are shallow-water ambush feeders, so think accordingly. Look for drop-offs along open shorelines, the backs of coves, woody structures like fallen trees and piers, edges and holes in pad fields or any other cover and/or breaklines. Cast right up against the shoreline and retrieve slowly back to the breakline, often the most productive pickerel water.
Also try creek mouths, weedy flats, back eddies created by tides at the bend of a river and deeper waters near boathouses.
Pickerel aren’t school fish, but they seem to hang in groups; often one can take several to a half dozen or more in a small area. So it pays to keep moving and searching. One effective way is trolling from a boat moving by drifting with slow tides or winds, paddling or by use of an electric motor. Use a floating Rapala or one of the other light, shallow-running lures, flies or baits listed below.
Since pickerel are known for following a lure or bait, it pays to work any cast or trolled lure or bait 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 shallower water.
Boating and Safety
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 only if they can keep dry. So boating is even more of a critical safety issue. I am not recommending cold-water kayak fishing to anyone. Some would argue that special clothing like dry suits, wet suits or other equipment suffice. I hope they’re right; I’m not dying to find out. Sea worthy boats 14 feet or more could be safe choices –- in good weather conditions — and bigger could be better.
Such boats should be equipped with all required safety gear including flotation devices, flares, noise-makers etc. I also recommend informing others of when and where you’ll be on the water and have sufficient communication devices, whether cell phones, VHF radios or something else.
Approach all waters to fish as slowly and quietly as possible. Be aware that many of those Delmarva ponds are loaded with stumps.
Tackle, Lures, Baits
Ideal conventional tackle is medium-light spinning or casting rods, matching reels with quality 15-pound test braid and/or fusion lines and a bite leader to avoid cutoffs. I used to use a 2-foot section of 20-pound fluorocarbon or monofilament joined to the line via a pair of Uni knots. In recent years I’ve moved to 30 or even 40-pound mono and even fine, nylon coated wire. These are joined to the line via Albright knots with Figure 8 Knots in the wire and Homer Rhode Loop Knots in the others to attach lures or baits.
A lot of bass lures take pickerel, but small, subtle one are usually better. In open waters some preferred lures are Rapalas, 1/8-ounce, wire hook, unpainted jigheads or “horsehead” spinner jigheads dressed with either bucktail skirts or thin, curlytail, minnow-shaped plastic grubs in natural colors. Sometimes jigs hang up, but usually a steady pull will open up the wire hook to free the lure. Then the hook can be bent back to shape.
In rivers or ponds with a lot of woody cover or remnants of lily pads or spatterdock, Texas-rigged, paddletail flukes, 3 to 4-inches long in white or natural colors are a better choice.
Pickerel experts fish jigs and plastics with “the Magothy River crawl” retrieve, basically slowly dragging the jig or paddletail lure along bottom, lifting and shaking the lure in place before slowly cranking the reel and pausing again. Move the paddletails just enough so the tails wobbles. This retrieve works with the jig and minnow combination, too.
Rod angle is critical. 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 in the line rather than felt), sometimes a simple pause or stop.
Use a 7 or 8-weight rod, matching floating line with an 8-foot leader including the 2-foot bite tippet. The most effective fly has been an unweighted 3 to 4-inch white or chartreuse streamer tied on a weedless hook, worked slowly through woody structure or the remnants of pad fields. Bruce’s articulated bullethead darter is a prime example. Again retrieve the fly slowly, allowing it to flutter down on pauses.
Often the most effective technique in any pickerel water 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 and most of the lures above can also take perch, crappie and bass.) I took my best pickerel, 5 ½ pounds, on a small minnow attached to a shad dart.
Cold water pickerel are worth a try, but are not worth dying for.