Fishing for chain pickerel is a fantastic choice if you want to go freshwater fishing in rivers and lakes. This member of the pike family is a popular fish for anglers in North America, with a flexible range of lures and baits to choose from to perfect your technique.
What Is a Chain Pickerel?
A chain pickerel (Esox niger) is a common fish in the pike family, related to the American pickerel. Its name comes from the pattern on its yellow-brown skin, which resembles a chain-link fence. When young they look almost black. These fish have several alternative names, including southern pike, grass pike, and jack fish.
The chain pickerel looks similar to a northern pike in its body shape and grows up to around 24 inches and weighing 4lb, or sometimes even larger. Differentiating them from northern pike, they have fully scaled cheeks and gill covers. With a diet consisting almost entirely of other fish, it responds to bait such as minnows and shiners. These fish stay under cover, aiming to strike their prey as it’s swimming toward them.
Where to Fish for Chain Pickerel
Chain pickerel can be found in many regions throughout the US and Canada. You can find chain pickerel from Nova Scotia and through the eastern states of the US, as well as into the southeast and south, including Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and into Texas. They are also present in Arkansas, Missouri, and Kentucky.
Chain pickerel are a freshwater fish that can be found in many locations, including lakes, ponds, and rivers of all sizes. They are also tolerant of brackish waters, which means they can be found in tidal rivers in southern states, as well as in Delaware, Virginia, and Maryland. These fish are active during the winter too, unlike many other Mid Atlantic freshwater fish, when you can find them in locations where baitfish are typically found, such as along channel edges. They also tolerate warmer waters and prefer around 75 to 80 degrees.
You can typically find chain pickerel under cover, where they will be hiding to wait for their prey to come along. This means that vegetated lakes, swamps, and backwaters are good places to spot them. They spawn in the late winter, in areas such as heavy weeds or flooded grasses, where there may only be a few inches of water. Some of the habitats where they might be spotted include cliffs and steep shore banks, under lily pads, in freshwater weed beds, and more. They can also be found in more open waters.
Although chain pickerel can be found in a wide variety of locations, they are most prevalent in places with lots of vegetation, particularly in acidic or stained water. Ponds and the backwaters of larger rivers are great places to look for them, including in shallow waters, around weeds and brush, and around boat docks too. Anywhere they could be hiding is a good place to check for chain pickerel.
Chain Pickerel Fun Facts
Chain pickerel can sometimes be seen as a bit of a nuisance. Some people regard them as being an undesirable fish to catch, and they are even sometimes called lake snakes. But they can be a fun fish to catch, and they’re also easy to find.
Chain pickerels can sometimes be confused with other subspecies related to it, including redfin pickerels and others in the pike family. This is partly because of the range of nicknames that the fish is given, which include federation pike, southern pike, and grass pike. It is also sometimes called a jack or jack fish in the southern states.
Chain pickerel will typically grow up to around 24 inches and 4lb but on rare occasions, they can get as big as twice that size. Commonly, they will weigh about 2lb but a 4lb chain pickerel is what you want if you’re looking for a trophy weight fish.
Chain pickerel are a popular gamefish but generally fished more for their aggression rather than size. If it’s over 20 inches, it will be seen as a good catch, and a chain pickerel weighing over 5lb is usually impressive. The world record for a chain pickerel was set in 1961 in Homerville, Georgia, and weighed 9lb 6oz. Most chain pickerel are likely to weigh between one and three pounds.
These are solitary fish that are fast, successful hunters. They are capable of catching large fish and will also eat other animals, ranging from snakes and frogs to crayfish, insects, and even mice. They spawn in late winter and early spring when the water gets to around 50 degrees. The female lays eggs in ribbon-like strips that stick to submerged structures. After hatching, chain pickerel grow quickly and will get as big as 14 inches in three years. After four years, they are sexually mature and will be around 15 to 17 inches long.
Top Chain Pickerel Fishing Lures and Tips
Chain pickerel typically hang out under cover waiting for their prey and eat mostly fish, plus some other animals. There’s a range of lures, setups, and techniques that can help you to fish for chain pickerel by imitating their prey.
Some of the preferred lures for catching chain pickerel include crankbaits, poppers, jerk baits, minnows, shads, and casting spoons. If you’re choosing bait for this fish, small and large minnows, as well as shiners, are good choices for the fish-loving pickerel. Soft plastic lures, leeches, plugs, jigs, and spinnerbaits can all work for catching chain pickerel.
Several fishing methods might be used to catch chain pickerel. These include drift fishing, trolling, and still fishing. Many people come across chain pickerel as they’re fishing for bass. You can use a broad range of tackle to fish for chain pickerel, so it’s really up to preference how you want to fish for them. And, since they’re available to fish all year, you can also pick when you want to catch them easily too. Topwater lures can be a good choice in the later summer, while they go for the likes of soft plastics, crankbaits, and spinners in the summer and fall thanks to their aggressive nature and their love for most food. Fly anglers can often find success using small streamers too.
Conventional spinning and baitcasting tackle are usually chosen for fishing chain pickerel. Red and white colored lures are particularly good choices, as the chain pickerel is attracted to these, like their cousin, the northern pike. Shiny and flashy lures are also an excellent pick for attracting chain pickerel. Spinnerbaits can catch their attention easily, especially when you’re trying to get them in heavy cover. Buzzing a spinner along the surface on cloudy days, or early or late in the day when the light is low, can be a great way to induce topwater strikes.
Using a spoon is another good way to entice some chain pickerel. By making long casts far under the cover and retrieving it quickly, you can even get the attention of multiple chain pickerel at once. A light-colored soft plastic is also a handy pick. Throwing it out into the cover and then hopping it back toward you creates a lot of movement so that the fish takes an interest.
Can You Eat Chain Pickerel?
Pickerel can certainly be eaten, and they have a white, flaky meat that is generally fairly tasty. However, they can be boney, so you might spend some time picking out the bones before you’re ready to cook. This makes them trickier to prepare, even though they are regarded as being good eating by many.
Pickerel are often pan-fried and are also tasty deep-fried with a breading or batter. You also have the option to bake them, plus they are firm enough that they will hold up on the BBQ if you want to grill them.
To make it a little easier to prepare chain pickerel, after removing the rib cage, locate the dotted line along the edge of the fillet, where you will find the prominent Y bones. Run your knife along the line so you can see it more easily, then make a deep cut above it until you touch the Y bone. Run your knife along the stems of the bone, find the bottom of it and cut in the opposite direction to your other cut. You can now lift the strip of flesh with the bones in it and discard it.
If you want to get inventive, there are plenty of things you can do with chain pickerel in addition to simply cooking the fillets. You could make croquettes, patties, fish stock, chowder, and many other things. The most important thing is to make sure you can remove the bones if you don’t want to have your meal ruined.
Chain pickerel might be a “trash fish” to some, but for many people, they’re an excellent fish to catch. They’re abundant, relatively easy to catch, and they taste pretty good too, if you decide that you want to eat them.