Chain Pickerel

Chain Pickerel (Esox niger) are found in the eastern half of the United States and southern Canada. They resemble their close relatives the Northern Pike and the Muskellunge, although chain pickerel reach a smaller maximum size. Chain pickerel have a distinctive pattern of chain-like black markings over a greenish-gold background.

Chain pickerel are best adapted to warm waters filled with lily pads, pickerelweed, and other aquatic weeds. They hold near weeds and fallen trees, along docks, or near underwater structure such as points and humps.

Chain PickerelCredit: Ken Hammond, USDA, [PD-US]

Find a Good Spot

Ask around for a good pickerel spot. Fishermen will often be less secretive about a good pickerel spot than they will about a good bass lake. Ask how big the pickerel get. Sometimes pickerel overpopulate and become stunted, especially in small ponds in the northern part of their range.

Try to find a lake with a good population of pickerel and a few large fish. Don't rush off to that lake where your neighbor caught a 30-inch pickerel last week, unless you know it has a good number of pickerel. Large pickerel are sometimes lone wolves in lakes that are dominated by other gamefish. You want a lake that's a happy medium, with lots of pickerel, some of them large.

Locate the Fish

Fish along weeds, fallen logs, docks, and anywhere else there is cover for pickerel.

Fan-cast a lure that you can retrieve quickly to cover a lot of ground. When you catch a pickerel, concentrate on the surrounding area.

Keep your lure near the surface of the water and at mid-depths. Pickerel rarely orient to the bottom of a lake. Try your lure near the bottom only if nothing else is working.

Try another lake if you are not catching pickerel. Pickerel are aggressive. You should catch them if there is a good population in your lake and you have given an honest effort over a day or two, including at dusk.

Lures and Baits

Pickerel hit a wide variety of lures and baits. I have caught them on nightcrawlers, minnows, spinnerbaits, inline spinners, spoons, plugs, plastic worms, plastic baits, streamers, poppers, and pork rinds. Carry at least a few weedless lures.

Experiment. I caught one of the largest pickerel of my life on a huge fluorescent red plug that I tried just to see what would happen if I trolled it behind my canoe to the other side of the lake. I took two paddle strokes, when wham! A twenty-six inch pickerel was on the other end of the line. I never caught another fish on that lure afterwards.

Try spinnerbaits, especially buzzbaits, in weedy areas. Spoons and spinners are good everywhere. Don't be afraid to throw a pike or even musky-sized Mepps bucktail spinner along the edge of a weedline. Fish these big spinners fast so they don't hang up.

Try a fly rod. Pickerel will hit streamers and even poppers with acrobatic strikes.

Try all of these lures near dusk, in the last hour or two of light.

Pickerel WaterCredit: Robert Barber, all rights reserved


Make your lure pass in front of a pickerel's nose to get it to strike. This is the most important tip in this article, (after making sure that you're on a good lake). Pickerel lie in wait to ambush prey and do not like to chase lures a long distance.

Some readers will have seen pickerel follow a lure or bait a long distance, as have I. But that is not typically how pickerel feed. Don't try to draw pickerel out of cover towards your bait. Put the bait where pickerel can attack it with one swift lunge of one to three feet.

I kept a pickerel and a largemouth bass in a freshwater aquarium for a year or so. I fed them baitfish, which I dropped into the tank a dozen at a time. The largemouth bass tried to round up the minnows, and spent a lot of energy chasing them around the tank. The pickerel sat in one place and never moved. When a minnow swam within an inch or two of the pickerel's jaws, the pickerel lunged forward and caught the minnow in a movement so smooth that it took me a week of watching the pickerel to realize what was going on.

Retrieve your lure through every spot that can hold a pickerel. Make your lure run along both sides of every dinner-plate sized patch of lily pads. Pickerel will not move until your lure passes close enough for them to capture with one lightning fast forward burst of speed. They will not turn around to strike a lure near their tail.

Ice Fishing

Bait a tip-up with a minnow and set the depth of the minnow so that it is about six inches off the bottom. Put a split shot a foot above the minnow to keep it down. When a pickerel bites, wait until it finishes it's initial run to hook it.

Pickerel as Food

Pickerel are good to eat. I prefer them to bass and bluegills.

Pickerel are bony. They have an extra row of y-shaped bones that are difficult to remove. There are instructions online for deboning pike that can be used for pickerel. I have tried and don't think it's worth the trouble to debone pickerel.

Fillet pickerel like any other fish and eat around the bones, the same way you would eat around the bones of a whole fish in a restaurant. It is a little messy, but worth the effort.