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The Chain Pickerel

For many years one of my favorite fishing forays was to head off to the Saint Lawrence River with some friends to fish for northern pike. We would fish from the break of day until sunset, and our goal was to see how many pike we could catch and release over three or four days of fishing.

If you are into fishing, you are well aware that “northerns” are long, narrow-bodied fish with a mouth full of very sharp teeth, and you definitely need to use great care when retrieving your lure. They are great fighters when hooked and lots of fun to catch, but unfortunately, much of our Pennsylvania waters do not have northern pike, or they generally don’t exist in great numbers.

Enter the chain pickerel. The chain pickerel is also in the pike family, and it’s very similar in shape — long and narrow, and it too is well equipped with plenty of sharp teeth. The name comes from the chain-like pattern on the sides of the pickerel. Whereas northerns can reach lengths well into the upper thirties and more, chain pickerel generally range in the teens and, on occasion, will get into the twenty-plus range.

Like the northern pike, the chain pickerel is also a willing combatant and can be a lot of fun to catch. While they can be made into a meal, most people don’t bother because, like all the Pike family, they are very boney.

A chain pickerel’s diet consists mainly of fish, but it will also eat insects, frogs, mice, crayfish, and anything else they can get into their toothy mouth. Because of their diet, many of the same lures or baits that one might use for bass fishing also attract pickerel.

Certainly, live minnows would work well, but any number of artificial lures would probably be a better choice.

Spinners, spoons, surface plugs, crankbaits, spinnerbaits, an assortment of jigs, and soft plastics rigged Carolina style or Texas rigged can all be very productive.

Even the fly fisherman can nab pickerel on streamers and even surface presentations like poppers that are normally used for bass.

My wife and I recently hit an area lake in search of bass; Sheila fished lead head jigs with soft plastic grubs, and I fished mostly wacky rigged soft plastics. We each caught a good number of largemouths, but we also ended up catching and releasing forty chain pickerel.

Many of our local lakes hold chain pickerel; I have even taken an occasional pickerel in the river. Look for pickerel in clear, quiet water, often around heavy weed cover. Lily pads in two or three feet of water are good places to pitch a lure; it often pays to fish with a weedless lure for that reason. While they seem to prefer water in shallow bays and weedy shorelines — don’t neglect deeper, open water. While working six to ten feet of water for bass recently, I was also hooking into a good number of chain pickerel.

It’s probably a good idea to have a net along in the boat to make landing and releasing easier. It’s also a good idea to have a pair of needle-nose pliers handy to reach into that toothy mouth to loosen hooks. Chain pickerel are usually very feisty when you get them up next to the boat, and the slimy coating makes it difficult to grab onto them.

Above all, keep your hands and fingers clear of all of those razor-sharp teeth, or you may have to cut your fishing trip short.