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I bumped into a couple of trout fishermen the other day who were coming off the water with long faces, having spent a summer morning fishing a popular stream that, alas, was too low and too warm to sustain many fish. “Nothing in there but chubs,” was their parting lament, so I didn’t even bother to rig my rod. If you want action you have to take action, so I did what I always do when our local trout streams dry up – I went pickerel fishing!
I have been pickerel fishing for close to half a century and never get tired of their ominous approach to a bait (that Jaws-type wake followed by a slashing attack on top that makes you glad you’re not a frog or minnow), and even better is the fact that, if it’s daylight, pickerel will bite.
These fearless eating machines seem to have one thing on their minds – their next meal – and you don’t have to be a tournament pro to take advantage of them, either. If you can drop a lure or bait within 10 feet of a suspended pickerel you will get a response. Even better is that, on the odd occasion when a pickerel misses your offering on the first strike, he’ll get mad, regroup and do better the next time. Most fish (especially trout and salmon) will run and hide after missing a bait, but pickerel seem almost anxious to take their revenge. You can even hook and lose a fish, cast to the same spot and enjoy an instant replay – they are that aggressive!
Pickerel were custom made for anglers who like to fish, like a lot of action and like it on top. Most pickerel are found in and near weeds, log jams and other obstructions, so a lure that mimics a swimming frog, insect or snake will get their attention fast. Over the years I’ve settled on a plastic grub rigged with a weedless hook, which allows me to cast directly into the weeds and just skip the bait over the top. When I see the wake of an approaching fish, I stop the lure near the next opening, let it rest a few seconds, and then hop it into the open water. By then the pickerel is wound tight as a top and will attack the bait with a mighty splash. The buried hook point easily penetrates the plastic grub and hooks the fish, which can be brought in with a high stick right over the weeds.
Yet another plus about pickerel fishing is that when you catch and land one fish, the others will not be upset about it. Many times you’ll catch a nice trout from a pool and you won’t get another hit for an hour or more because the other fish are so spooked, but pickerel are, if anything, attracted by commotion. It is no big trick to stand in a weedy cove and catch fish after fish all afternoon. As I said, they’re fearless!
Perhaps the easiest way to catch lots of pickerel is to paddle a small boat or canoe into a weed bed and start casting. Most of our lakes and ponds have weedy coves and bays that contain pickerel, and many of our smaller waters are full of fish. I have caught pickerel in our local rivers, too, primarily in the weedy outside bends. To be efficient about it, start casting along the outside edge of the weed line and then work the inner weeds right up to the shoreline. In fact, don’t be afraid to drop a bait onto shore and then skip it into the water on short hops much as a frog, grasshopper or cricket might do.
Pickerel are long, skinny fish and can swim in surprisingly little water. In fact, many of the foot-long “hammer handles” will congregate in water that’s barely knee deep (counting the mud!). When this happens, be prepared for some serious fishing because it’s nothing unusual to have four or five pickerel attack your bait at once. Just be patient, however. Catch the first fish, cast right back to the same spot and hook two or three more – they are that aggressive!
Because most pickerel are found in weeds, stumps and other cover, it’s best to use heavier line (8-pound-test is good) with a stout leader. Pickerel are all teeth and bad attitude, so check your line and leader often for signs of wear. The inside of a pickerel’s mouth looks like a world-class paint scraper, full of big and little teeth, and they sink them into anything that gets near – including fishermen! Net your fish or pick them up with a firm grip behind the head. Do not put your fingers (or any other soft parts) in or near a pickerel’s mouth. Also, use long-nosed pliers or a hook remover to dig hooks and lures out of a pickerel’s craw. Even their smallest teeth are razor sharp.
I have heard it said that pickerel may be caught after dark but I’ve never seen it happen. I often fish at night for bass, bullheads and even eels, but have never hooked a pickerel, not even by mistake. However, I have often observed them as I’ve paddled along in the dark, and in most cases they let the canoe pass right over them without moving. I have tried to get pickerel to take a lure or bait at night but have never had a response, not even when I dropped a tasty night crawler or minnow right in front of their faces. As soon as the sun comes up in the morning they go right back to chasing food, and are equally active at midday, so there’s plenty of time to go after them in daylight.
Don’t be afraid to keep a few pickerel for dinner, too. Simply scale the fish, fillet them and, with the skin side down, make a serious of crisscross cuts in the flesh down to but not though the skin. That crunching sound you hear is from the knife cutting through those unpopular Y-shaped bones. Fried or grilled, the bones are melted in the cooking, and the flavor is so good you’ll want to go out catch some more!
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