Can’t Wait to Fish?
Fishing the Tidewater this early is an exercise in hope, humility and discomfort. These are times of unpleasant wind and bone-chilling temperatures. But for the determined angler, there can also be moments of heady triumph and the first real excitement of the season — not to mention a tasty fish dinner.
Fish Are Biting ...
The best chance to bend a rod this time of year comes with pursuit of the chain pickerel. They prefer the lower salinity headwaters of our tributaries and can also be found in our freshwater ponds and lakes. Pickerel generally lurk near piers, docks, pilings, downed trees (laydowns), aquatic vegetation or floating mats of leaves and submerged brush or structure of any kind.
Chain pickerel are so named because of the iridescent green reticulate or chainlike patterns running the length of their long, lean bodies. Pickerel are also called grass pike, jackfish and — because it is a fast, toothy ambush predator — water wolf. The minimum legal size is 14 inches and citation size 24 inches.
Possessing needle sharp teeth in a big curving duckbill that gives the fish a permanent smirk, chain pickerel is the earliest cold-water gamefish in Maryland waters. These fish are swimming appetites this time of year as they lie in wait for minnows and any aquatic creature that ventures forth.
Light spinning or casting tackle or about a six-weight fly rod will provide lots of thrills as the pickerel is a fierce fighter. Eight- to 10-pound line is more than sufficient, and no steel leaders are necessary as the fish’s needlelike teeth are for capturing and holding prey, not cutting.
The best artificial lures are the Mepps No. 4 and No. 5 Spinners dressed with squirrel tail; small- to medium-sized spoons like the Tony Accetta, the Johnson and red-and-white Daredevils; spinner baits in chartreuse and white; and shallow, diving swim baits and crank baits. For the fly angler, a size two to four Clouser Minnow or Lefty’s Deceiver in olive over white or chartreuse over white will work just fine.
The premier live bait is a bull minnow or mummichog, lip hooked on a shad dart and suspended under a bobber. This rig can be cast or trolled and will tempt even the craftiest jackfish into eating.
Eager to strike and lightning fast, the bony pickerel is not commonly table fare so most anglers release them. But their meat is firm, white and deliciously sweet, and they can, with a bit of technique, be filleted totally bone-free.
Find how to fillet a pickerel with a YouTube search on “how to fillet a pike boneless.”
The videos available will generally feature the larger Northern pike rather than a chain pickerel, but the skeletal structures and filleting procedures are identical.
Referring to YouTube videos that claim pickerel filleting instructions will result in misadventure. This is because of the widespread (and erroneous) use of the name pickerel on that site as the preferred alias for the walleye. The walleye is actually a member of the perch family, and its bone structure is unlike that of a pickerel. Be warned.