The Sporting Life
by Dennis Doyle
The Wolves of Winter
Chain pickerel keep fishermen sane in cold weather
The big ones are solitary and lethal. Patiently stalking their quarry, they attack without warning in slashing, violent rushes that seldom fail. The smaller and medium-sized individuals will often travel in loose packs, lurking around the types of cover that conceal their presence and attract their prey.
They are far more numerous here in the Tidewater than you might suspect, for few of us venture out during the colder months on the waters where these finned creatures rule.
The chain pickerel has many colloquial names; water wolf is one of the more apt. They also answer to grass pike, river pike, green pike, jackfish and chainsides. Its scientific name is Esox niger. A handsome game fish, it is eagerly aggressive.
I have seen them take snakes and small ducks in the summertime. There are stories perhaps fanciful, perhaps not of young muskrats and other small animals falling prey to the larger fish. I’m surprised that Tidewater barracuda has not become one of their many aliases.
They are long, slim, toothy and muscular. Colored a dark, luminous green over a tinted pearl underbelly, they have a distinctive chain-mail pattern covering their flanks that provides excellent camouflage and the source of their common name.
Pickerel can grow to 36 inches in length, but the average size is more in the 18- to 24-inch range. They are somewhat active most of the year, but it is their dominating presence during the coldest winter months that endears them to a devoted group of hardy anglers. In January and February, they are the only gamefish in town.
Light spinning tackle strung with six- to 10-pound test monofilament is the most ideal tool for hooking up and duking it out with this strong fighting fish. A.J. McClane, one of the more accomplished journalists of the angling experience, was fond of referring to them as “chained lightning.” Tangle with one once, and you will recognize how accurate his description is.
These next two months are my favorites for hunting chain pickerel. I usually choose calm sunny weather and a spinner bait as my searching lure. The 1⁄6-ounce Rooster Tails that I use for summertime white perch work well, as does a #3 silver Mepps spinner dressed with squirrel tail. Middle-of-the-day moving tides on either side of the flood are best. Avoid low water conditions.
Their many pointed teeth, arranged in a long smirking mouth, are designed for grasping rather than severing, so I don’t bother with a leader, though I do suffer the occasional cutoff. A short section of 20-pound mono or flurocarbon leader will ensure against this.
Small swimming plugs like the Rattle Trap and Rapala Countdown are also excellent lures, but the front treble hooks ought to be removed, and the barbs of the remaining treble should be mashed flat. The fight of a pickerel is especially violent and twisting, and these hooks can cause unwanted wounding to a valiant fish.
The deadliest bait for pickerel is a large shad dart, or small jig, tipped with a bull minnow. Fished typically under a bobber and cast to the kind of ambush structure they favor, it will quickly determine if the fish are present. This is one bait they can’t seem to resist. Retrieve it in a slow, irregular pattern with frequent pauses, or troll it slowly behind a quietly moving boat.
Their favorite brackish water territories are in the shallow, middle and upper reaches of virtually all the Bay tributaries. They prefer to prowl the waters under and around fallen trees, old piers, pilings, weeds and any floating debris or driftwood. They can also be found near similar structures in most of the freshwater lakes and ponds throughout Maryland.
A 61⁄2-pound fish is the record for the Chesapeake, and Johnson’s Pond in Salisbury boasts the freshwater mark of seven pounds four ounces.
Tablewise they are not ideal fare. Although possessed of a firm, sweet, white flesh, they have a multitude of fine bones throughout their musculature, making them a chore to clean and tedious to eat. This makes them perfect candidates to be released to fight again, one of the many fish in our rich waters that are too precious to use only once.
Fish Are Biting
Rockfish season has closed in the Chesapeake, although it remains open oceanside. White perch are available in deep water, schooling over hard bottom throughout the winter. Fish bloodworms on bottom rigs and #4- to #2-sized hooks. Pickerel will be cruising the shallows up in the tributaries, particularly on warmer days. The minimum size is 14 inches, and you may possess up to 10 fish in tidal water, five in non-tidal waters.