Long, lean and equipped with a mouthful of needle-sharp teeth and a nasty attitude, the chain pickerel, sometimes called the water wolf, is the acknowledged king fish of winter. Most other Tidewater species become sleepy and lethargic at lower temperatures. The water wolf seems energized by the chill.
This past winter season was so frigid and foul that I never managed a single dance with these sly devils. I remedied that recently on the first decent day in months.
With the water still cold, the fish are grouped to feed on spawning perch and herring. As the water warms, the pickerel will spawn, then spread out in singles and melt into thicker cover.
We fished the Eastern Shore, but you can find pickerel higher up in most of the tributaries and creeks around the Chesapeake.
These members of the pike family are ambush predators. You’ll sometimes encounter them cruising in open water, but this time of year it’s more productive to target trees fallen into the water (laydowns), submerged brush, piers, the shorelines of coves, the edges of floating debris, jetties and rocky edges.
We were using a small gold spoon with a lip-hooked bull minnow. The flash of the spoon — plus the undulating action it gives the minnow as you slowly retrieve — draws smashing strikes. Pickerel will hit either a minnow or a spoon alone, but the two in tandem are especially deadly. As another benefit, the metal spoon generally keeps your line away from the teeth of the fish so you don’t need a leader. Anglers also employ spinner baits such as large Rooster Tails, Mepps, smaller sized Rat-L-Traps and similar crank baits. Our gear was light, six-foot spinning rods with four- and six-pound line.
Give and Take
We had action as soon as we hit the water. My buddy Moe had the first fish, a big one, right next to us after a considerable battle. During the fight, it managed to open the small snap securing Moe’s lure. With a couple of headshakes at boatside, the fish escaped with my friend’s six dollar spoon sparkling from the edge of its smile.
Mine was the next hookup, and it felt like a real giant. It came away from the shore pulling deep with steady pressure and passed by us, unconcerned, on the way out to open water. I wasn’t sure it knew it was hooked.
I increased the drag tension as the fish slowly pulled out line. Only then did it shake its head for the first time. My line went slack. Retrieving my spoon and ravaged minnow, I could only surmise that my hook point had never penetrated the fish’s mouth. When the beast suspected deception, it had simply spit out the offending morsel.
We kept at it through a subsequent slump, finally hitting pay dirt an hour later while working submerged brush. After landing three nice fish, we keyed on similar structure along the shoreline and drew regular strikes and frothy battles over the next four hours.
The iridescent green rockets occasionally went airborne, clearing the surface and giving us a good look at their lethal profiles and fearsome dentures. Our fish that day averaged about 20 inches; we stopped counting after 15 splashing encounters.
A 24-inch pickerel is citation-size and gives an outsized battle. A 14-incher is rather lightweight though still a legal keeper.
Chain pickerel will continue to haunt submerged structure and cruise the tributaries and impoundments until the end of April, or as long as the white perch runs last, so you can still get in on the action.
Take a net as pickerel are impossible to handle without one. They are also extremely slippery. You can control them somewhat in the boat by gripping them by the eye sockets (it doesn’t harm their eyes). It’s probably best to leave them in the net until they’re unhooked and ready for release. Never forget about their teeth, which are needle-sharp and abundant.
A Poor Meal
The down side to the pickerel is in its table quality. It’s got lots of bones, many very fine. The fish are far more valuable swimming than in the frying pan.