During the off-season in saltwater, I turn my attention to the freshwater ponds to catch bass, trout and occasionally panfish. But when largemouth bass seemingly disappear from Long Island’s fresh waters, the ponds’ winter pickerel populations supply enjoyable fishing for anglers willing to bear the cold.
Long Island’s chain pickerel grow to between 18 and 24 inches in length, weighing 1 to 4 pounds, although plenty have been caught and documented in the 30-inch range. Named for the chainlike pattern along their yellow, green, and black bodies, they camouflage perfectly in the shallow, often swampy waters of Long Island. They sit still among the vegetation, patiently waiting for an unwitting meal to swim by.
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Pickerel stalk their prey from behind, waiting for the right moment to strike, which leads to incredibly exciting takes. Thanks to a longer growing season, it’s no secret that Long Island waters hold some of the largest pickerel in the state.
Chain pickerel tend to be at their most aggressive in warm water, patrolling the structure along shorelines and shady overhangs. I find the sweet-spot to be around 60 degrees. However, they are almost as active in cold water, taking advantage of sluggish baitfish. Because they remain active almost year-round, chain pickerel feed voraciously through the late-winter, fattening up for the early-spring spawn by gorging themselves on killifish, sunfish, frogs, and even mice.
If you catch a pickerel, don’t get your fingers too close to its mouth. This fish doesn’t just inhale its prey as a bass does; instead, it grabs it with small, needle-sharp teeth. If fishing for chain pickerel in cold weather, it’s smart to wear gloves, but avoid handling the fish with a dry glove because this may damage its protective layer of slime.
Winter pickerel fishing is a terrific opportunity to put a bend in the rod before the arrival of the vernal equinox because they spawn just after the ice thaws (if it was frozen). On Long Island, it’s possible that some ponds never freeze over, allowing you to catch pickerel throughout winter.
Fitting for their looks, chain pickerel are not the most loving or caring parents. They don’t build a bed for their eggs like bass or sunfish, but rather leave the eggs attached to vegetation or structure.
Winter Pickerel Ain’t Picky
After the spawn, which can be as late as early March, if a warm day rolls around, pickerel feed ravenously on topwater lures and flies; otherwise, Long Island anglers can bet on catching using spoons, inline spinners, soft-plastics, jerkbaits … the list goes on. Keep a few of these in your tackle box and you’ll be well equipped for feeding winter pickerel an offering they can’t resist.
In darker, turbid water and choppy conditions, the rattle and enticing wobble of a jerkbait is hard to beat. And if you can match the lure’s color to that of the pickerel’s forage, like yellow perch, prepare for the big dogs to take a swing at your offering.
When the loud rattle or erratic action of a hard-plastic jerkbait catches lazy pickerel off-guard, a soft-plastic jerkbait like the Berkley PowerBait Jerk Shad rigged weedless on a wide-gap swimbait hook can be deadly. Not to mention the lack of treble hooks, which makes it easier to unhook and handle large, toothy pickerel.
Generally, if it moves naturally and is presented properly, a chain pickerel will probably take it—or at least size it up with a follow.
To ramp up the excitement, hop into a small craft like a canoe or kayak after a few sunny days and watch the madness ensue. Casting along ledges and drop-offs, dense weed lines, and especially toward or along the shoreline should produce fish using any of the aforementioned lures.
It’s smart to use lightweight spinning setups if you want to experience the power these fish have, but be sure to select your line appropriately. The chompers of a sizeable pickerel can repeatedly break off anglers using fluorocarbon or monofilament. I use 6- to 8-pound-test Berkley FluoroShield for its exceptional abrasion resistance, but it’s helpful in thicker vegetation to use braided line or higher pound-test for the leader.
The pickerel don’t mind, though, and are seldom finicky eaters. I have tied braided line directly to my lure many times and had no problem hooking and landing hefty fish. They are certainly not line shy. Even so, as a good rule of thumb, 10- to 15-pound-test Seaguar Gold Label fluorocarbon leader is strong enough to withstand the pulling strength and cutting power of a large pickerel’s teeth when using braided main line, all with a thinner diameter for lower visibility.
Where to Catch Winter Pickerel
Around mid-March in 2020, I hopped on the Long Island Expressway and tore east without a lick of traffic to slow me down from hitting my favorite winter pickerel pond. There had just been a yellow perch spawn, so every single type of lure I had was in perch pattern. I hiked down a long path to a muddy, unkempt boat launch, awkwardly lugging my kayak and gear down the trail where I was to meet my friends. Unbeknownst to me, this was about to be the most epic day of pickerel fishing in my entire life. Two weeks into March, there was warm, sunny weather around 52 degrees with a slight wind out of the Northwest. I paddled to my typical productive spots and situated the kayak perpendicular to the shoreline so I could cast directly at the drop-offs and weed lines. I finished the day with 12 chain pickerel all around 20 inches, several largemouth bass, a handful of the largest bluegills I had ever seen, and a new personal-best yellow perch.
This was a healthy lake, about 45 feet down at the deepest, and the fish were all clearly eating well. When the bluegill are eating well, the fish that prey on them eat well too.
Ecstatic after only 2 hours of fishing, I began to paddle back to the launch. I threw one more yellow-perch-patterned floating Rapala Shad Rap SR05 and began to work it through the water column, using a few twitches and a long pause to allow it to rise.
As I neared the launch, I gave the lure one last cast along a steep contour, where the depth dropped from 3 to 15 feet deep, using the same retrieval pattern. I twitched it twice but felt no vibration or motion on the second flick. My line was taut and nothing moved, so I thought my trebles were stuck in a submerged tree branch. Suddenly, my rod keeled over, and the “branch” took off.
When I saw the fish surface, I nearly lost it. I called my friends over to help me land this enormous chain pickerel, which was too long to fit in my silly little trout net. It had mangled the treble hooks, and its teeth had taken small chips out of my wooden lure. I couldn’t get control of it alone, so my friend tossed me a lip grip to land it. I snapped a couple release photos of this warrior of a winter pickerel, knowing I would never forget that outing or that fish, even without the pictures.
Pike and muskie fishermen can enjoy those prehistoric giants without my jealousy, at least for now. I fully appreciate the power, aggression, stealth, and speed of Long Island’s native esox species.
Long Island may not be known or appreciated as a freshwater fishery due to its amazing accessibility to world-class saltwater fishing. However, when the saltwater species swim south, chain pickerel remain, ready to attack lures and terrorize the local baitfish populations.