|Late Winter Fishing for Prehistoric Pickerel
The Magothy River was free of ice, and the water was as clear as gin, pushing visibility to six feet. Conditions were in stark contrast to earlier weeks when ice sheets blanketed the creeks and rivers. But a warm spell cleared enough of the ice to allow for a pickerel fishing sojourn, a much-needed respite from winter's tenacious grip.
At this time of year, it is not uncommon to enjoy a 60-degree day only to see the mercury plummet to the 30s or below the next day. Let caution guide you, as icy waters can be extremely dangerous.
Regardless of climatic conditions, any fly fishermen will tell you that few things compare to a bone-jarring strike or the live-wire sensation of a taut fly line that connects our land-bound selves to the aquatic world of our quarry. And the first fish of the season is simply sweet reaffirmation for fishermen that other outdoor pursuits pale in comparison.
Like many anglers, over the last several winters I intensified my pursuit of chain pickerel, and after each outing I find myself more captivated by the ferocious-looking fish, which appears more prehistoric every time I catch one. With its green-bronze body, pickerel is sheathed by a mace pattern that extends from the gill cover to its caudal fin. It has a crude jaw, like a junk-yard dog, with sharp, ragged teeth. Pickerel are fast growers, and given that this fish was pushing 20 inches and full bodied, it was probably nearly full grown for this area. If the conditions are right, they may max out at nine pounds and 36 inches, but fish in the 15- to 20-inch range are more common here.
Taking a tip from other pickerel chasers, I like to tie a heavier fly to create better jigging action that agitates pike into aggressive strikes. Voracious feeders, pickerel lurk in grass beds and fallen timber to ambush unsuspecting prey. Over the last several years, chain pickerel populations in the Severn and Magothy Rivers have increased, mainly due to resurgence of underwater grasses like wild celery and red head.
Fly gear is an exciting and challenging way to land a toothy pickerel, and it need not be elaborate for most conditions. A five- or six-weight outfit loaded with a sinking or sink-tip line works well. Leaders six- to eight-feet long are sufficient. It's fun to experiment with variations of proven standards like Clousers or Deceivers to create your own flies. Many anglers prefer fly patterns in an all-yellow Half-and-Half tied on a standard shank hook (#1 to 2/0). Pickerel eat minnows (like mummichogs and killifish) as well as other fish, such as young white and yellow perch, so your flies should resemble them.
Whatever your gear preference, pickerel are accommodating and tough, which is a great combination in any angler's book.