As October comes to a close – or Rocktober as locals call it, because it boasts some of the most exciting fishing for striped bass, or rockfish, in the Chesapeake – there is a distinct change in the Chesapeake Bay as winter comes in. Most fish species migrate to avoid the cold. But fear not, brave anglers! From November well into March there is another species to target that is quite exciting. Chain pickerel, sometimes called southern pike, are present in freshwater ponds and lakes, as well as the Bay and its tributaries, and they are ready to bite as the temperature drops. Streamlined and aggressive, with a nasty set of sharp teeth, these predators move shallow to feed on small baitfish, attacking anything that swims past. It doesn’t take much to find this winter quarry and keep the fishing going year-round.
Chain pickerel can grow to 30 inches, and can put up a strong fight when they get above 20 inches. The ideal setup for pickerel fishing is a 6’6 or 7’ medium action spinning rod with a reel to match. I prefer to use braided 10 to 15-pound test fishing line, with a 2 to 4-foot leader of 20-pound test fluorocarbon line. The braid casts far and does not freeze the way monofilament can, and the fluorocarbon is less visible and will stand up to a pickerel’s sharp teeth in most instances. Speaking of those teeth, make sure you have a pair of lip grips to control the fish and avoid injury.
The most basic and easiest way to fish for pickerel is to use a single hook, around a size 2, and a bobber, fishing a live minnow. You can fish this style whether you are on land or in a boat. You can vary the distance between the bobber and the hook depending on the water depth, but generally around two feet will be fine. When you see the bobber go down, you will need to give the fish a couple seconds to eat before setting the hook. Pickerel often grab prey by the middle of the body to disable it, then grab the rest of it.
For the angler that prefers using artificial lures, I recommend having two rods to be able to change tactics on the fly. The first rod should have a lure that can cover water quickly, such as a bladed jig, spinnerbait, or a stickbait. I prefer a hard jerkbait that suspends rather than sinks or floats, because I can cast it out and either retrieve it steadily or use a twitch-and-pause technique when the water is colder and the fish are less aggressive. This type of fishing is great for locating fish. The second rod setup should be fished more slowly once you have found a good area with some fish activity. I like a small soft plastic minnow, often with a paddletail, fished on a weedless swimbait hook with just enough weight to sink it (1/16 to 1/8 oz.) in white or other light baitfish colors. Small jigs used for crappie will also get bites. Some of the biggest pickerel I have caught, as have friends of mine, have hit tiny jigs while targeting crappie. The trouble comes with the light line and those sharp teeth, so if you do this intentionally, handle the fish with care. In earlier stages of the season when lily pads are up, you can catch them on topwater lures that resemble frogs and mice.
The author with a chain pickerel caught while crappie fishing. The fish's belly was full after eating a large crappie, but it still had room for a snack, showing just how aggressive pickerel can be. Photo by David Saavedra.
If fly fishing is your game, you are in luck! Pickerel are a great fish to catch on the fly. A 5 or 6-weight rod will do the trick with a heavy 6 to 7-foot leader with 20-pound tippet, or a wire leader. Use your favorite streamer fished with a twitch-and-pause technique – I prefer flies made with rabbit fur, as it moves incredibly well in slow-moving water. Letting the fly dip in between twitches creates more action and entices hungry pickerel.
Pickerel like to ambush their prey, so look for spots like sunken trees, lily pads and stalks after they recede for winter, and grass transitioning to open water. There are a number of freshwater millponds on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, including Tuckahoe State Park, Smithville Lake, and Unicorn Lake, just to name a few pickerel spots. A quick online search can give you more ideas on where to go.
David Saavedra caught this hefty 6-pound chain pickerel fishing in a private reservoir on a windy January day. Photo by Peter Turcik.
Chain pickerel seem to appear out of nowhere once the water temperature drops in the Bay and its tributaries. You can launch from places like Jonas and Anne Catharine Green Park and have access to the Severn River in Annapolis, just as an example. These fish are spread throughout the region, so check your local tidal river or creek. Though not always necessary, you will have better luck when the tide is in, because all of the downed tree limbs and other debris provide good cover. Pickerel love hiding in the back creeks and tidal ponds, where they gorge themselves on mummichog and other baitfish. This is best fished with a boat or kayak, though make sure you take all proper cold weather precautions. Cast as close to shore as you can and work the lure/bait back to you. In no time you will find a hungry pickerel.
Tuckahoe State Park is a great place to get a feel for part of the Eastern Shore and the beginnings of the streams that eventually flow to the Bay. The park offers fishing, boating, hiking, biking, equestrian trails and more.