Fish Facts: Chain Pickerel (Esox niger)

The classic chain pattern and dark bar below the eye are good ways to identify the chain pickerel.
Image courtesy NYS DEC via CC 2.0

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.”

Chain pickerel can be found from the deep south to Maine, and in some Midwestern waters.
map by USGS

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.

This pickerel ate a streamer on a very fast retrieve in a Vermont lake.
Photo by Maria Cunningham

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.

Effective topwater flies include Dahlberg Divers, Foam Divers, or Gurglers, while subsurface bait patterns such as Deceivers, Rattlin’ Baitfish, Bendbacks, and Pike Bunnies will draw strikes.

14 thoughts on “Fish Facts: Chain Pickerel (Esox niger)”

  1. For pike and muskie, a wire leader is practically essential to prevent their sharp teeth from severing the leader. Is this also required for Chain Pickerel?

    1. Not from my experience, I often catch them when I’m bass fishing with 12lb braid and a 10lb floro leader on “swimming shad” flukes. I have also caught them using similar set ups but with a 4lb floro leader. No break they messed the soft plastic lures up but not the line so far.

    2. Likely not. I haven’t caught any large pickerel on the fly, but I have caught them on spin and ice fishing tackle, using 14lb mono for a leader, and it holds up just fine. I’d say any good bass tippet (15-20lb) should do the trick. Another tip about their teeth is keep an eye on your fly, and try to set the book early. Make sure you have a net, as they are very wriggly. Pliers are a must (I have tons of scars on my fingers from them) and towel is recommended, as the nickname snot rocket is well earned.

  2. No. Just use a nice stout tippet in the 10 lb range. They aren’t line shy. You will also not have any bite offs with that heavy of tippet.

  3. I have caught many a lot of times they come right up to shore line like they were domesticated pets fun fish to catch

  4. Are you sure you’re supposed be handling the fish that much? I know that they are slippery and that their teeth are sharp and that hook removal can be difficult. However, the fish have a protective mucus that, if rubber off, can put the newly released fish at risk. Jus’ sayin’.

  5. To follow up on my comment sometimes would wait looking up waiting for me to throw the baited minnow in

  6. Catch tons of chain piks in New Jersey using 2 inch grubs in various colors. Sometimes this is all they hit, fished on a medium retrieve. I have fished spots using everything in my tacklebox with no hit. Switch to a 1/4 ounce grub and BAM! First cast and I bring in a 24 incher. Why no one talks of this?

    1. Maybe because there aren’t many grub imitation flies? But good baitfish imitations work well (Lefty’s deceiver, muddler minnow, ect)

  7. Would a pickerel be able to with stand the Az heat in a pond about 5 acres and 8 foot deep We of course have summer temps reaching 110 degrees F

    1. Please note: I realize Gary’s post is a year old, and he may have gotten his answer somewhere else, but this page was in the top 10 search results I received when researching what species of juvenile pike I saw with my kids yesterday. It was <=3" long and had alternating vertical bands of white and dark green almost black. I have yet to figure out what species it is as I've never seen a juvenile chain pickerel in any other color than medium green with a narrow white stripe on the belly.

      Now, to answer Gary's question in case others find this page high in their search results:
      It's impossible to answer your question about whether the pickerel will survive without knowing more about the pond. The first key item is:
      Since pickerel aren't native to Arizona or anywhere closer than 1,500 miles, it would be a very, very bad idea to introduce what would be an invasive species, especially one that's often the apex predator. Regardless of whether the body of water is connected to anything or not, fish are often transported from one body of water to another by birds. I have personal experience of new species of fish mysteriously populating a completely isolated pond on my parent's property in New York; a pond miles away from any body of water with the mystery species present.
      The second key item applies to introducing any new species into a body of water:
      What is the maximum temperature of the water in the hottest months? The water temp must stay below the specie's maximum and not stay near that maximum for more than a few days in a row at any time, or more than that max for more than a total of 7 days during the entire year.
      For chain pickerel specifically, that maximum temperature is about 80* F.
      Further, there are a number of other important questions such as:
      What kinds of fish inhabit the pond now, and in what quantity? Pickerel, especially as they grow larger, eat almost entirely baitfish, so there needs to be a good population of them and plenty of cover.
      Does the pond have any inlet or outlet? If so, what kind and size? Small brook, river, underwater spring, etc.
      Does the pond have any shade to shelter the fish and water?

      There are obviously a lot more questions, but these are an excellent start. I've personally created fish habitats in multiple bodies of water in my life, and it's a very, very difficult task to create a balanced aquatic environment! It's a process that takes years and years to get right, including the introduction of multiple different fish and other aquatic animals such as frogs and crayfish.

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