What’s wrong with pickerel? It’s listed as one of our freshwater gamefish, but just about every angler I mention pickerel fishing to shrugs and gives me a funny look.
I know the bass — both large and smallmouths — are kings when it comes to fishing popularity, but I think that has a lot to do with the national television coverage bass tournaments have received over the last few decades. I know when ESPN purchased the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society in 2001, it took the cast-for-cash sport to a new level with its national coverage of men and women catching fish.
Now, if you ask the average angler what he thinks about northern pike, walleye or even panfishing, the comments are seldom negative. So why pickerel? I don’t have a definite answer, but I think anyone who wets a line should rethink his feelings about pickerel by looking at the “fishing” aspect of it.
Fishing, by definition, is simply the sport, or business, of catching fish. And if we go a little further and define sport, it is “to amuse oneself.” As a bass tournament angler myself, I’ve always been disappointed when I hooked on to a pickerel during a contest, but I did, and still do, enjoy the catching part. The way I look at it, if it hits hard, pulls hard, and bends my rod, I’m amused and enjoy the experience.
A member of the pike family, the chain pickerel is one of the waterwolf clan known for its predatory nature. A solitary hunter, it lurks in the shallows to ambush its prey. It’s widely distributed in lakes and rivers south of the Adirondacks and east of the Genesee River. The average size is 15-20 inches long, with a weight of about two pounds. It’s easily identified by the distinct chain-like link markings on its sides, and is green to bronze in color with a conspicuous dark bar beneath each eye. Generally, pickerel prefer quiet waters and heavy weeds.
John Bosland caught his record eight-pound, one-ounce chain pickerel on Feb. 13, 1965 at the Toronto Reservoir in Sullivan County. Although there’s no record of what he used to catch the fish, I assume from the date that it was through the ice and Bosland probably used live bait.
In a recent trip on the upper Hudson River, I was fishing with Steve Zahurak of Schenectady. He hooked up with what I consider to be a trophy-sized chain pickerel. We were fishing in the Stillwater area between Canal Locks 4 and 5 when the fish grabbed his wacky-rigged five-inch Senko.
The rod bending and drag pulling lasted several minutes before I was able to slip the net under the fish and bring it aboard. We were fortunate that the 12-pound-test monofilament without a steel leader survived the pickerel’s sharp teeth. The fish measured about 25 inches and tipped the scales at just over five pounds. We released it after taking a photo.
HOW TO CATCH PICKEREL
I’m sure many bass tournament anglers will laugh at the thought of catching pickerel, but I’m also hoping occasional weekend anglers will give it a try. Here’s a suggestion for all anglers: There are only a few more days before the kids have to go back to school and there is very little time left to get them out on the water. I know many associate kids fishing with panfish, but believe me, try for the pickerel. They’re truly a lot of fun, especially for those little hands. Actually, you can try for both — panfish with a bobber and worm on one side of the boat, and pickerel on the other side. Just let the kids reel in the fish.
Where’s the best place to fish for pickerel? This year and last, my choice would be Saratoga Lake. The chain pickerel population there has really exploded. Depending upon the size of your boat, you can start right at the state boat launch at Route 9P and follow the weed line down on the east side of Fish Creek.
If you head out under the bridge toward the main lake, don’t be in a hurry. Much of the west shoreline within the no wake zone is heavily weeded. Fish this all the way out to the concrete wall by the Water’s Edge swimming beach.
On the same side, past the beach and in around the docks, you’ll find the same structure all the way south to the mouth of the Kayaderosseras Creek.
Continuing south, head into Manning’s Cove, where you’ll find plenty of weed cover. Continue right to the back of the cove around any of the creek mouths, just be careful and watch the depth. I found the most pickerel action here to be in water two to four feet deep. And don’t be surprised if you hook up with a largemouth or two.
Other areas to try include the weeds around South Shore Marina and from Brown’s Beach north to Snake Hill. In general, find shallow weeds and you should find pickerel.
WHAT TO USE
Live bait will work, but I’ve caught more pickerel using artificial lures. And sitting watching a bobber with live bait is not really what a young angler likes to do. Therefore, casting with a lure is best, and my No.1 choice is a six-inch Mann’s Hardnose worm in watermelon/purple pearl or pumpkinseed with a chartreuse tipped head.
I rig the Hardnose Texas-style with a 3/0 worm hook and no weight and fish it with either a baitcast or spinning outfit. The best rod length for an adult is six feet, but you can downsize for kids. It’s best to use a 15-20 inch, 50-pound braided line leader to combat the sharp teeth of the pickerel.
Make long casts with the worm and start reeling it slowly over the weeds with the rod tip held high as soon as it hits the water. Kids like casting and reeling, so this is really easy and enjoyable for them to do.
Try it a few times. It’s fun fishing and catching at its best.
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