Chained Lightning, Pickerel on Fire
By Dennis Doyle
It was a sudden relief when my line came tight and the rod in my fist bowed down toward the 19-foot Mako’s gunnel. My buddy Sam had already landed two of these beasts, was hooked up with a third and I’d begun to fear that I had lost my touch. Out on the broad creek the muscular flank of the big chain pickerel with my lure firmly in his jaw churned a bright, watery tantrum under the morning sun.
That lively tussle was just the beginning of a memorable outing on a day that had not begun particularly well. Just 24 hours prior I had secured the winter cover over my skiff in advance of a mass of predicted rainstorms and wind headed our way and suffered a resultant bout of despondency. That was compounded by the subsequent dawning of the most mild and beautiful day so far this fall.
Landlocked and without a chance of any angling adventure I was totally surprised by a morning call from Sam, a fellow angling fanatic, offering a boat ride. Noting that it was kind of him to include me, I grabbed a few light casting rods and headed out the door.
Sam had discovered quite the pickerel bite, and with some friends, had already caught and released a surprising number of citation sized fish over the last week as well as some early arriving yellow perch. Sam and I would attempt to do it yet again and experienced an incredible degree of success.
My next pickerel was a twin of the first but this one attacked as soon as my small, paddle tail jig touched the water. For over the next hour both Sam and I were constantly hooked up with a quantity of super aggressive chain pickerel plus a few chunky yellow perch. Altogether it was a totally unexpected bonus for a season that I had feared was mostly over.
The pickerel is an especially handsome fish, long, lithe and marked on its sides by green iridescent chain patterns; it is a member of the pike family, and a close cousin of the powerful northern pike. Like the northern, it has a large mouthful of needle-sharp teeth but since they are intended for grasping their prey rather than cutting, a 10- to 20-pound mono leader is all that is necessary to reliably bring the fish to hand.
Pickerel, incidentally, are also possessed of a vast quantity of small, floating pin bones, that are almost impossible to excise. Thus, anyone even slightly adverse to fish bones in their dinner will turn these rascals loose to swim and bless some other angler with their slashing and often aerial dances.
An ambush predator preferring the fresher portions of the Bay’s tributaries, the pickerel loves to attack swimming plugs such as the Rapala X-Rap, Mepps Spinners and soft, paddle tail jigs in the 3- to 5-inch varieties. Another virtue of this fish is that the colder the water, the more active it becomes. Indeed, February, when it tends to follow schools of early spawning yellow perch, is often the most productive month for locating and tangling with this assassin.
It traditionally lurks near tree laydowns, docks, submerged brush piles, drifting leaf rafts and any structure that obscures its presence and from which it can launch sudden attacks. A net is handy in landing these critters, and since they rely on a slippery coating to protect their bodies, a wet rag will cause the least damage in handling them for release.
The rockfish bite, when the wind dies, continues on in the fall tradition with lively action going on mostly at the mouths of the tributaries. Look for birds and match the size of the baitfish they are eating. When that’s not happening try bouncing jigs in white or chartreuse on deep marks with lip hooked minnows added for flavor. It’s getting ever colder and stripers start focusing on smell to direct their hunts. The pickerel bite has started up in fine fashion and on light tackle these guys are the best. Try smaller paddle tail jigs, spinner baits, crank baits and minnows, lip hooked on small jigs under a bobber. There are still some nice jimmies not yet under the mud and now you can wait until the sun warms up the water a bit before you go out. As they warn in Game of Thrones, “winter is coming,” and it’s going to be nasty, get your water fix in while you can.