The King of Wintertime Fish

    Not long ago and, of course, in the dead of winter, a good friend of my wife’s had returned to Annapolis from Paris with her new husband, Jean Francois. My lovely spouse informed me that JF had heard about the great fishing around the Chesapeake and she had volunteered me to take him out on an impromptu expedition. It was barely above freezing. What the devil was I to do?

     The next morning, once the sun had come up and dispelled the thin layer of ice that had formed over our vehicles, Jean Francois, an athletic six-footer, and I met, launched a canoe at a nearby tributary beach and climbed aboard. There is only one sure quarry in the depths of winter around Annapolis and that is the toothy king himself, the chain pickerel (Esox niger).

     With visible breath and trembling fingers, I gave JF an ultra-light, six-foot spin rod adorned with my favorite lure for local headwaters, a gaudy Rooster Tail spinner bait. We then paddled slowly around the shoreline, pausing at every dock and drooping or downed tree, every submerged bush and the remnants of abandoned piers or pilings poking through the surface.

     Casting our lures as close to the structures as we dared, we soon drew some interest and of course, it was the Frenchman who had the first strike. As he eagerly pulled the struggling assassin closer to the boat, I cautioned my new friend not to try to land it by hand. Not only was it adorned with beaucoup de sharp teeth but its long, lithe body was so slippery that it was impossible to grasp.

      Snatching the handsome, iridescent green devil out of the chilly waters with a long-handled net, I deposited it onto the deck for JF to admire—as I breathed a sigh of relief. 

     Producing a fish on the Bay during the depths of winter can be a daunting task unless you target the chain pickerel, also known as pickerel, grass pike, jackfish and chain sides.

      The pickerel is a unique and distinctive fish. Although it is available all year long, it is particularly active during our coldest months. Since the brutal temperatures kill off a great deal of dense aquatic vegetation that makes fishing for the pickerel a chore, it is also a convenient time of year to target this fish. 

     The pickerel is long and slender, colored in various shades of yellow-green marked with lateral patterns resembling the links of a chain. It has a large, duck-like mouth filled with prominent, pointed teeth and a big dorsal fin located well aft its forked tail fin. It is a swift, ambush type predator feeding on small fish, frogs, crabs, rodents and virtually any small critter that it encounters in its domain.

      There are usually a lot of these rascals about in the fresher portions areas of our tributaries. Because they have a lot of fine bones in their long, lean structure, most anglers simply return them to the water after they are landed. A few, patient aficionados, however, are aware that their firm, dense white meat is worth some extra effort.

     After the fish is eviscerated, beheaded and cut into sizable chunks, the meat can be steamed, cooled, then picked. The bone-free bits, rather like picked crab meat, can then be mixed with some scrambled egg, minced onion and a spoonful of mayonnaise with some salt, pepper and dill added, fashioned into fish balls, rolled in panko crumbs and fried golden brown. You’ll find they are well worth the effort.

      The minimum size per DNR regulations for both tidal and non-tidal waters is 14 inches with a 24-incher being a citation fish, but they can reach up to 36 inches on occasion. Pickerel are fierce fighting fish and the possession limit is 10 fish. Since its teeth are pointed rather than sharp-edged, a steel leader is unnecessary and a short length of 10 to 20-pound mono or fluorocarbon will generally protect from cut-offs.

     Big, citation-sized pickerel are haunting the smaller, fresher Bay waters, picking off small baitfish dulled by the low water temperatures. They are also cruising the deeper pools for the smaller male yellow perch already staging for the spring spawn. 

     The outlook for other fish is also surprisingly bright. At ocean side there is a bonanza awaiting wintertime boaters. Big migratory stripers are close offshore to Ocean City in actively feeding schools, great fishing if you can happen upon it at the right time. Along the rocky shallows, inshore tautog are making an impressive showing and biting on sand fleas and green crabs. Don’t sit inside on these few warmer days, head for the water and get some.