Northern pike are considered one of the premier big-game targets for fly fishers, but they can be tough to find and catch and live mostly in northern waters. Chain pickerel are generally smaller, but they are much more widespread in the Eastern half of the U.S. and provide very similar action—displaying a willingness to chase down flies and destroy them with reckless abandon. There are few things more exciting in warmwater fly fishing than watching the v-wake of a fish shoot out of a weed bed to intercept your topwater pattern, and the impact is usually splashy and violent. Just make sure that your terminal tackle is rigged to deal with the species’ sharp teeth, which pose a danger to the person trying to remove the hook, as well.
Pickerels and Pikes
Chain pickerel are members of the Esox genus, which includes the pikes, muskellunge, and two other pickerels—grass pickerel (Esox americanus vermiculatus) and redfin pickerel (Esox americanus americanus)—which are related subspecies of American pickerel (Esox americanus). Chain pickerel often inhabit the same waters as other pickerels and pikes, but they are usually easy to identify by the distinctive chain pattern along the body, as well as colors that are much lighter than those of a pike. Both American pickerels have dark bands along the sides, and the redfin pickerels have, as you might imagine, red fins. As the most widespread of the pickerels, chain pickerel have acquired a host of nicknames, including “federation pike,” “southern pike,” and “grass pike,” all of which serve to confuse the pickerel with its larger cousin. In the south, pickerel are often called “jacks” or “jack fish.”
Range and Behavior
The native range of the chain pickerel extends along the Atlantic Slope, from southwestern Maine to southern Florida and west along the Gulf of Mexico to extreme Eastern Texas. In the south, the species inhabited the Mississippi River Basin as far north as Missouri. Introductions of chain pickerel have extended this range as far north as Brunswick and west to the lower Great lakes and as far as Colorado, but it is still a predominantly Eastern species.
Chain pickerel inhabit weedy areas of lakes, swamps, and slow-moving sections of rivers, and they’ll also hold near other kinds of structure that provide cover for their ambush-style hunting. During the warmest part of the year, they may abandon weed beds for deeper water, much like pike. Pickerel can tolerate warm water (preferring 75 to 80 degrees), as well as high acidity and even salinity. In fact, chain pickerel have been known to enter brackish water in winter.
Pickerel are solitary fish, hunting by sight, and rarely travel far for food. Instead, you’ll usually find them hiding in aquatic vegetation, holding motionless until they ambush their prey. The ability to go from 0 to 60 in the blink of an eye is what makes them such successful predators, and they secure their prey with their needle-like teeth. Although smaller pike will eat invertebrates, and can even be seen leaping after flying insects, they soon turn their attention to smaller fish, frogs, crayfish, and even mice.
Spawning occurs in early spring, when water temperatures hit about 50 degrees. The female deposits the eggs in ribbon-like strips that adhere to submerged structure. She does not build a nest, nor does she stay with the eggs. After hatching, pickerel grow quickly, reaching 14 inches by their third year. Chain pickerel become sexually mature after four years, when they are usually 15 to 17 inches long.
Records and Trophies
Although chain pickerel are popular game fish throughout their range, they are prized more for their aggression than for their size. In most places, a pickerel over 20 inches is considered a good fish, and catching one over 5 pounds is something worth crowing about. The world-record chain pickerel was a 9-pound, 6-ounce fish caught in 1961 in Homerville, Georgia, by an angler with the fantastic name Baxley McQuaig Jr. (By comparison, the world record pike weighed just over 55 pounds, and the biggest grass and redfin pickerel were 1 pound and 2 pounds, 4 ounces, respectively.) Most chain pickerel fall in the 1- to 3-pound range, and they fight hard before coming to hand. The All-Tackle Length Fly world record–caught just last February on Maryland’s Severin River–was just under 21 inches.
Flies and Tactics
Chain pickerel are ambush predators, usually holding tight to structure or in weed beds and facing outward, toward deeper water, waiting for prey to swim by. Topwater flies that move a lot of water can be very effective, and watching a pickerel destroy a fly on the surface is an exciting visual experience. Experienced anglers do not set the hook on the strike, however, as pickerel often either miss the fly or smack it without getting hooked. In these cases, the fish will often turn and attack a second time. Subsurface patterns should imitate baitfish, and flies with erratic action and rattles will draw more strikes.