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A Fish for All Seasons

Pickerel don’t mind the weather

Lee Haile caught a new state record chain pickerel, weighing eight pounds, at an Eastern Shore lake on January 2.

The nasty weather variations have made angling difficult. A day of moderate temperature has usually been followed by extreme cold and sometimes even blizzard conditions, weather not conducive to any consistent bite.
    The chain pickerel, however, tolerates wild, frigid weather. When the majority of our Tidewater fish are hiding in deeper water waiting for snow to melt and conditions to warm up — or at least stabilize — the pickerel is still cruising the laydowns. Holding around any available structure, it waits for some lesser creature to make a mistake.
    With its large mouth, needle-sharp dentures and long, lean powerful body, the pickerel is the ideal predator, fast and deadly. It can tolerate brackish water to a high degree, so it thrives throughout the middle to upper reaches of most Bay tributaries and virtually all of our lakes and impoundments.
    The grinning devil feeds on minnows, grass shrimp, crabs, goslings, ducklings, snakes, frogs — any small bird or rodent that happens to fall in the water and just about any sized fish it can trap in its toothy grip. Right now, it is gathering in fresher water to ambush yellow and white perch that have begun venturing up toward the headwaters of our rivers and streams to spawn.
    While the larger, older pickerel (up to eight pounds) tend to be loners, the younger sizes will gather in small schools, the better to round up and feed on the eating-sized fish moving into their areas. Pickerel are also preparing to spawn later this month and early next.
    When temperatures plunge and make fishing for crappie, white perch or yellow perch a losing proposition this spring, you can always count on the pickerel to improve your day. No matter what the temperature, if you can get out on the water, there’s a good chance you can find the water wolf.
    Medium- to lightweight spin, casting or fly tackle are ideal for tangling with the chain pickerel. It got that moniker because of the iridescent-green, chain pattern that lights up its flanks. It is also called grass pike, green pike, federation pike, jackfish, and my favorite, water wolf.
    Since the pickerel’s teeth are grasping teeth (rounded shafts but sharply pointed), a steel leader is not necessary. Any line greater than eight-pound-test will generally get your fish to hand. If you’re lunker-hunting or want to be extra careful, a short section of 15-pound mono spliced onto your lighter test fishing line will ensure against cut-offs.
    A net or fish glove is advisable when landing them, as they have a very slippery coating on their body. Use long-nosed pliers for unhooking. That mouthful of teeth can cause some damage if you’re careless.
    Grass pike like to attack small to medium flashing lures like spinner baits, spoons, brightly colored jigs and silver or gold crank baits. Tony Accetta spoons in sizes 12 and 13, squirrel tail-dressed Mepps spinners in sizes 3 and 4 and Super Rooster Tails in quarter-ounce sizes are my favorites during the colder months. Adding a lip-hooked minnow onto the spoons are especially effective.
    The best crank baits are smaller sized Rat-L-Traps, Rapalas and Zara Spooks. The best flies are sizes 2 to 2/0 Lefty Deceivers in bright colors and Clousers in chartreuse and white or all black. Small and medium poppers will get their attention some days and add some surface violence to the mix.
    As the weather gets warmer, pickerel will move into thicker and thicker cover. During hotter months, try throwing a floating or swimming weedless rigged frog onto lily pads, weed beds, sunken brush and laydowns. There will likely be a water wolf lurking there.