Ice Breakers

Start the season with the Northeast’s original freshwater gamefish: the chain pickerel

Ice Breakers

A sound like shattering glass echoes around the pond as Eddy punches his oars through the thin pane of ice still covering the cove. We have winter on the ropes, and with each oar stroke, we feel one jab closer to spring.

We reach the open water, and I begin working out line. On the end of my leader is the crude result of my annual attempt to tie my own flies—a baitfish pattern that was a little too ugly for my bass box, landing it right on top of the ever-growing pickerel pile.

Pickerel are one of the few freshwater gamefish native to the Northeast.
Pickerel are one of the few freshwater gamefish native to the Northeast.

Chain pickerel are my favorite species to ring in the spring fishing season. Sure, ice-out is a fantastic time to put up numbers of largemouth, but fooling them requires super-slow presentations and extra-long pauses with suspending jerkbaits. After waiting two months to feel a fish take a lure in open water, the thought of waiting 30 seconds for a bass to eat a paused jerkbait is too much. A pickerel needs no such pause. He just needs a window to make his move, so a pause of one or two seconds will do.

Eddy’s throwing an old Husky Jerk, one he plucked from a tree branch overhanging a pond while ice-fishing a month earlier. The lure’s paint is chipped off in many places and rust from its former hooks stains part of the underside. The pickerel won’t care.

Cold water doesn’t dampen a pickerel’s appetite. They’re better adapted to the cold than the warmth-loving largemouths, and they feed and fight with the same vigor whether the water temperature is 73 or 37. And they’re rarely picky about what they’ll eat. Pickerel will eat anything they can fit in their large, toothy mouths—and even some things they can’t. A few years back, while wading a small pond at ice-out, I found a dead two-foot long pickerel with a 16-inch largemouth stuck in its mouth.

In the early spring, pickerel will be more active than largemouths
In the early spring, pickerel will be more active than largemouths, often intercepting lures intended for bass.

Eddy’s the first to connect, and then connect again, catching two 12-inch pickerel while I work out the rust in my fly cast. The rabbit-strip streamer lands with an unceremonious slap as we drift over the edge of a submerged weedbed, clearly visible through the cold, clear water. I alternate between long, slow strips and short hops. The streamer, though ugly out of the water, is fluttering and pulsing beautifully above the weeds.

I see the strike before I feel it. The line twitches and a half-second later, just when my brain registers what I’ve seen, I feel the tap. I lift the 7-weight fly rod and it bends toward the water, while a pickerel twists its way toward the surface. It looks like a contortionist as it seems to touch its nose to its tail in a tornado of motion.

Compared to other Northeast gamefish, pickerel don’t rank very high when it comes to their fighting ability. They seldom run, they rarely jump, and they lack the broad sides and big shoulders to lock you into a stalemate. Still, a 20-inch pickerel puts plenty of bend into a 6- to 7-weight fly rod or medium-action spinning rod.

Eddy Stahowiak with a solid, small pond pickerel.
Eddy Stahowiak with a solid, small pond pickerel.

Chain pickerel belong to the surprisingly short list of freshwater gamefish native to the Northeast. Rainbow and brown trout, pike, smallmouth bass and even the ubiquitous largemouth bass are all imports. Long before these more popular species were planted in the Northeast’s ponds, lakes, and rivers, the pickerel were here, sharing the waters with yellow perch, white suckers, and in some places, brook trout.

As the sun creeps toward the tree line, the bite fires up. Hits are coming every few casts now. I’m missing more than I hook, but Eddy’s lost-and-found Husky Jerk is cleaning up. Most of the pickerel are 10- to 16-inchers, snaky and slimy and nearly impossible to grip for photos. There are enough 20-plus-inch fish to keep it interesting, and with every thump, I hope that I’ve reconnected with a fish I’d seen just before the pond froze in December.

That day, I was swimming a shallow-diving crankbait over the weeds—which were much higher then—when a fish smoked the lure. It fought hard, but the extra weight on the line made me think the fish had dove into the weeds and was now covered in vegetation as I brought it toward the surface. I nearly flipped my kayak when, out of the dark, tannic water, a pickerel as long as a keeper striper swam into view. Net-less and without a lip-gripper, I took my left hand off the reel and prepared to snatch the fish behind the gills. At my sudden movement, the pickerel flipped out, its teeth nicking the leader in the process. A few seconds later, my crankbait bobbed back to the surface.

The world record pickerel is 9 pounds, 6 ounces, caught in Georgia, but the records in New Jersey (9 pounds, 3 ounces) and Massachusetts (9 pounds, 5 ounces) aren’t far behind. While the potential to grow monster pickerel exists in the Northeast, both of those records are more than a half-century old. These days, pickerel worthy of the Massachusetts Sportfishing Program gold pin are usually in the 6- to 7-pound range, between 27 and 30 inches.

Every hit comes after a pause, and finally, one happens close to the boat where we see it unfold. The pickerel follows Eddy’s lure within a few feet of his rod tip. Out of room, Eddy pauses the bait, and the fish lunges, its gills flare and the jerkbait disappears.

a frisky “slime dart.”
The author loses his grip on a frisky “slime dart.”

The pickerel is an ambush hunter. Its javelin shape and mottled green back blends perfectly into vegetation, where the fish will hang, statue-still, waiting for a baitfish to stop within striking range. While fishermen are fast to recommend spoons and spinners for pickerel, I’ve always had better success with something that floats in place for a second when paused.

Suspending jerkbaits, slow-sinking jigs or soft-plastic stickbaits, shallow-diving crankbaits, and all manners of weighted streamer flies and bass bugs belong in your pickerel pile. These fish seem more motivated to strike by action and profile than color, but a little flash can help draw bites, especially in the dark waters where pickerel thrive.

Keep retrieves erratic, and be sure to work in plenty of pauses. Slow retrieves trigger more bites from pickerel—especially at ice-out—than fast ones. When fly-fishing, I’ve had the most hits while working streamers with long, slow strips. I prefer rabbit-strip streamers because of all the action they have on this retrieve.

When the pond loses direct sunlight, we’re reminded that it’s still a few weeks before the spring equinox. Cold hands and dying light force us to wave the white flag at the pickerel, which seem to be feeding at a frenzied pace below the pond’s still surface. Eddy retraces the jonboat’s path through the shards of ice we broke on the way out, smiling ear to ear, and wondering out loud where he should fish tomorrow.

4 on “Ice Breakers

  1. Carl

    If you guys make a living doing this then good for you.
    Writing articles about fishing, jealous.

  2. Tyler

    Seldom do pickeral run? I haven’t found a decent sized pickeral that doesn’t run. Maybe the 12inchers don’t but you get one pushing 20in they most certainly do run. Still a great article. I started fishing for ice out pickeral last year and it is a blast and plenty of action with shiners under bobbers.

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