John Byrd Jr., of Bowling Green, Virginia has been fishing the same private farm pond for decades, but he’s never caught a fish quite like the one he landed earlier this month. The chain pickerel had a bright blue mouth, which is the result of a rare genetic pigment mutation, according to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.
“I’d never seen one that color! And I’ve been fishing in that pond for more than 20 years!” Byrd told the department, referring to the 14-acre pond he frequents in Caroline County.
The fish ate a Whopper Plopper lure and measured between 11 and 12 inches long. After landing it, Byrd decided to keep the pickerel and brought it to his taxidermist to be mounted. But first he contacted VDWR regional fisheries biologist Scott Hermann, who confirmed both the species and the rarity of Byrd’s catch.
“The coloration expressed by the blue pickerel is extremely rare,” Hermann said. “It pretty much falls into the once-in-a-lifetime category of catches.”
Hermann explained that chain pickerel, which are native to Virginia and other East Coast states, typically have a green coloration. This comes from the yellow pigments found in the fish’s skin tissue. Blue-mouth pickerel lack these yellow pigments, so instead of mixing with yellow to form green, the tissue shows up as a vibrant blue color.
While rare, other anglers have caught blue-mouth pickerel before. The first known report of a “blue pickerel” came from an angler in Ithaca, New York, in the late 1960s, according to one evolutionary biologist familiar with the species. After other anglers reported similar catches, a follow-up study determined that only .2 percent of all the chain pickerel caught in the area over six years were “blue pickerel.”
As the VDWR points out, other blue-mouth pickerel have been caught by East Coast anglers more recently than that. An angler in Maryland caught one from Loch Raven Reservoir in 2014, and in 1997, a Pennsylvania angler caught two of them from different lakes in the same month. Several other unconfirmed catches have also been reported on various fishing forums over the years.