Tips for Chain Pickerel

One of the most exciting aspects of fishing an unknown body of water, or just a body of water with a diverse population of fish, is never knowing what might strike your lure once it hits the water. I’ve fished some lakes where, in one afternoon, I’ve pulled walleye, bass, and pike from the water using the same lure. Another species that some may hook into is the chain pickerel, which can be caught year-round and are actually quite fun to catch, especially on lighter tackle. Today, I’ve outlined a few different popular tactics for chain pickerel that just might have you forgetting all about bass or walleye. Keep reading to find out more!

For those of you who aren’t familiar with chain pickerel, they’re the smallest fish in the pike family, and basically look like smaller versions of their larger, Northern cousins, save for the chain-like pattern on their bodies, from which they get their name. They rarely grow longer than 18-20 inches, but still possess the ferocity and aggression of a predator species. Pickerel feed on everything from frogs and small snakes to baitfish and even other pickerel, and they’ll often hover motionlessly among weeds or logs as they wait to ambush such prey.

It is this behavior that brings me to my first pickerel tactic: live minnows. A bucket of minnows is a great way to target pickerel and minnows in the three-inch range are perfect. With a light to medium-light setup—6 to 7 foot rod and 6-8 pound line—you can rig the minnows a few different ways, depending on your technique. If you want to drift—ideal on windy days—impale the hook through the minnow’s back. For casting, hook it through both lips from the bottom up. I’d also attach a split shot or two about a foot above the hook if you want the minnow to remain in a spot longer.

I’ve also caught many pickerel using artificial lures. In deeper water, stick to spoons or smaller crankbaits. For shallow water, where pickerel tend to be found more often, small prop baits or poppers are great when the water clarity is low. When fishing clearer conditions, switch to small minnow baits, spinnerbaits, or inline spinners. The flash and more controllable presentation these baits possess won’t spook pickerel as much as louder baits will. Soft plastics, such as jerkbaits or swimbaits, will work, too, but pickerel will tear them apart after a few catches, so use them at your own discretion. With lures, start with a normal to fast retrieve, and then slow it down as needed, making sure to utilize twitches and erratic action intermittently.

A fly fishing buddy of mine loves angling for chain pickerel with his fly rod, which can be quite rewarding, wince the shallow water where pickerel tend to hold is perfect for the subtle twitch of a fly on the surface. He likes to use an 8 to 9-foot, 7 to 8-weight rod, equipped with floating weight forward line. He also suggests using a 5 to 8-foot tapered leader with an 8 to 10-pound tippet. With this setup, you can drop frogs, mice, or large insect imitators right next to logs, brush, or weed beds. Once they hit, allow the ripples to fade and then twitch the rod gently. More often than not, this will induce a strike, but you might have to work the lure towards you for a bit first. If you’re fishing deeper, though, then go with streamers, as well as sinking line to get the fly to the strike zone.

The chain pickerel is a fish that shouldn’t be overlooked, in terms of aggression and excitement on the water. They may not grow as large as other fish in their family, but still possess the same fight and ferocity as pike. Keep that, as well as the aforementioned tactics, in mind the next time you hit the water for pickerel and you’ll have a great time!