Chain Pickerel are very common in most waters that contain panfish on the eastern seaboard. They go by a few different names depending on where you find them. They may be called jacks, jackfish, gun fish, federation pike or southern pike if they don’t go by their proper name in your area. Found from Canada to Florida and west to the Mississippi drainage, chances are they are swimming in your favorite panfish hole. Pickerel are often an accidental catch by anglers pursuing other species, many people like myself target them specifically. Pickerel are great sport on a fly rod. They take a variety of flies including topwater patterns. They often strike flies viscously, are powerful fighters on light tackle and often take to the air.
Pickerel are not as popular with anglers as their larger cousins the northern pike and muskellunge. Many anglers have a strong disdain for these fish, which is something I have never been able to understand. I often hear the complaint that they prey on more popular game fish and they mistakenly think that by eliminating them they will improve the fishery for their preferred species. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our warm water ecosystems need a balance of prey and forage species and pickerel fill an important role as a predator. This spring, in particular, I have come across some pickerel heartlessly thrown up on the bank to die. What a waste of a great game fish!
These toothy scrapers can live up to eight years and grow up to 30” long. The world record was a 9lb 6oz giant caught in Georgia in 1961. Here in my home state of New Jersey, the record is 9lb 3oz, so we grow them pretty big up here as well. I’m certain that some waters in my home state have the potential to produce the next world record, though both records are over 50 years old so maybe the days of these giant pickerel have passed us by.
In addition to the chain pickerel, there are also two smaller species the grass and the redfin pickerel. Because of their diminutive size, they are not often sought by anglers. Redfin pickerel are common in my area with the state record be caught less than 5 minutes from my home. They can be found in the same waters as their chain sided cousins.
All species of pickerel are ambush predators that rely heavily on sight to catch their prey. They will lie motionless in cover then explode violently to secure their meal. They are lightning fast when they need to be but can also be incredibly stealthy sometimes rising like a submarine behind a fly to give it a closer look. Because they are ambush predators, they will always be found near cover. Aquatic vegetation is their preferred cover, but if it lacks in their habitat, they will also orient themselves to other structure types like wood or stone. When it comes to pickerel, the thicker the vegetation, the better. They will lie concealed then burst from cover to take their prey or your fly! They can be found in water depths only inches deep along the shoreline to submerged weed beds in 20-30 feet of water.
Chain pickerel feed on a wide variety of organisms including fish, frogs, mice, crayfish even birds. I once saw a healthy specimen leap from the water and take a redwing black bird that was hanging on a reed inches above the water. Juvenile fish will feed on aquatic and terrestrial insects as well. If they can fit it into their large, tooth filled mouth, they will try and eat it. Like other members of the pike family, their appetites sometimes exceed their abilities. On more than one occasion I have come across a dead pickerel that attempted to swallow a fish almost as large as itself!
Because of their expansive appetite chances are you have flies that will be attractive to them. Streamers, especially ones with a bit of flash in them are irresistible to pickerel. But more subdued offerings like a standard black or olive Woolley bugger have taken countless numbers of these fish. One of my favorite warm water patterns, the James Wood Bucktail is particularly attractive to these fish. Topwater flies are probably my favorite ways to target pickerel. All of your standard and not so standard bass bugs, frogs and mice patterns will work. A weedless fly is almost a necessity because of where these fish like to hang out. On one of my local lakes, a large dragonfly pattern cast to the edges and in pockets of lily pad fields will take pickerel all summer long. You will often see these fish jumping clear out of the water to take air borne insects.
Although I often hook these fish while fishing for panfish on two and three weight rods, If I am specifically targeting them I prefer a rod in the 5 or 6 wt range. A heavier rod makes it much easier to cast the larger more wind resistant flies that are attractive to pickerel. Some folks use a wire tippet to eliminate bite offs, but I usually fish with a short bite guard of heavy mono. I may lose a fish now and then, but I think I get far more hooks ups. Pickerel have excellent eye sight, and that wire leader may be a put-off.
I prefer to use barbless hooks when fishing for pickerel. Once again, I may lose a fish now and then, but pickerel tend to take flies very deeply. They also have a mouth full of razor sharp teeth. Besides being easier on the fish, it is also easier on me. One more than one occasion I have found my fingers engaged with the business end of this fish, and the result is always bloody! A fish grip tool that grabs the fish by the jaw is a handy item to have on hand when dealing with these toothy critters. I keep such a device permanently attached to my kayak for dealing with chance encounters with these toothy predators.
If you are looking for an exceptional meal, pickerel are excellent table fare, though they are a little tricky to clean to ensure a boneless fillet. Pickerel have a set of Y-bones that run down their sides that will result in a mouth full of bones if you fillet them in the usual fashion. The method I use results in five boneless fillets. Click this link, if you are interested in learning more about this method of filleting.
If you have not chased pickerel with a fly rod you're missing out on a lot of fun; their explosive topwater takes will get your adrenaline flowing. They are acrobatic hard fighting fish that will have you begging for more. Give chain pickerel a try, all I ask is that you treat them with the respect they deserve.