Fish ID: Chain Pickerel

These runts of the pike family are just as fun to catch as their bigger cousins.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Among the most aggressive of all game fish, chain pickerel will eagerly attack any kind of lure, particularly those with plenty of action or flash. Although pickerel don’t have the following of the larger game fish species, their explosive strikes and powerful runs make them an exciting challenge on light tackle.

1. Age and Growth
On average, it takes about five years for chain pickerel to reach 2 pounds, and they rarely attain a weight of more than 4 pounds. Their growth rate is usually faster in lakes than in streams. Chain pickerel have a maximum life span of about 9 years.

2. World Record
A 9-pound 6-ounce fish caught from Guest Millpond in Georgia on February 17, 1961, is the heaviest chain pickerel on record. An 8-pound 1-ounce fish caught in 1965 from Toronto Reservoir in New York is the heaviest from northern waters.

3. Habits and Spawning Behavior
Although chain pickerel are primarily fish eaters, they will take just about any kind of food. Besides fish, other common food items include frogs, crayfish and mice. Chain pickerel prefer to stake out spots on the edges of weed beds and waylay prey as it passes. In early spring, when the water temperature rises into the mid-40s, chain pickerel move into shallow, weedy bays to spawn. They drape gelatinous strings of eggs up to 3 feet long over aquatic vegetation, sticks and logs. The parents then abandon the eggs and make no attempt to protect the fry.

4. Description and What to Look For
Chain pickerel (Esox niger), also known as jackfish and grass pike, have a greenish to bronze background coloration with a dark chain-link pattern- hence the name. The entire cheek and gill cover are scaled and there are eight pores on the underside of the lower jaw. Usually there is a vertical dark streak extending downward from below each eye. The chain pickerel is closely related to the much larger northern pike and muskie. Chain pickerel have been known to crossbreed with their smaller cousins, redfin pickerel, as well as with pike. Subsequently, offspring might exhibit color variations or markings of both parents. [pagebreak]

5. Habitat and Range
Chain pickerel prefer water temperatures in the upper 70s, warmer than those favored by pike and muskies. The fish flourish in clear, weedy lakes, ponds and reservoirs and in slow-moving reaches of warm-water streams. They spend most of their time in shallow water (less than 10 feet deep). Pickerel move deeper in very hot weather or, if shallow cover such as lily pads or a dock is present, to shady spots where the water is cooler. When water temperatures decline in the fall, pickerel will move to the outside edges of weed beds. Chain pickerel are found through much of the Midwest as well as in the Northeast and South.

** 6. Fishing Tips**
A light spinning outfit spooled with 6-pound-test mono is ideal. Spinners and spoons rank among the most popular lures, but these toothy predators will strike almost any kind of lure, including crankbaits, jigs and topwater plugs. Weed-resistant lures such as spinnerbaits and weedless spoons are necessary when working lily pads or other heavy vegetation. Flyfishermen catch plenty of pickerel on large streamers and hair bugs. To prevent bite-offs, use a short wire leader. Chain pickerel are slimier than most fish, so use a towel to hold the fish when removing the hook. Clean a pickerel as if it were a small pike; pickerel have “Y” bones.