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We are now poised to enter the “dog days” of summer, that languid period from July to late August when most folks think the best thing to do outdoors is hide under a shady tree and take long naps.
Actually, some of the best fishing of the year takes place during this period if you consider strikes-per-cast and catches-per-hour as a measure of success. Of course, I’m talking about pickerel fishing. Not nearly as glamorous as trout, salmon or bass in most experienced angers’ eyes, the pickerel is probably as common as any fish species in Maine and it’s a good bet that anyone who’s ever cast a line has caught or “almost” caught one!
If you fish in shallow water (and I mean mere inches of water) in Maine you are going to meet some pickerel, including some big ones. The average chain pickerel measures about 16 inches and closely resembles its colloquial monicker: hammer handle. Long and thin, a pickerel of this size is about one-third teeth, and there are a lot of them. NEVER let your fingers stray inside a pickerel’s mouth or you will spend the next week or two regretting the painful incident!
Pickerel will eat anything that won’t eat them, and size is irrelevant. I have found dead pickerel on the shore that had tried to eat other pickerel of their own size, turtles, snakes, catfish and other fish that were obviously too big, spiny or bulky for them to ingest.
Pickerel are the only freshwater fish I know that look mad, and their personalities are not far behind. Sleek and stealthy, a pickerel can swim right up behind its prey and strike with a swirl and a splash from just inches away. If it misses the strike, the fish will turn and strike again, sometimes even three times, till it devours its prey or its victim manages to escape.
Unlike other fish species that abhor summer temperatures, pickerel seem to thrive in very warm water, often in coves and bays that are just inches deep. I have bumped them with my knees while wading the shallows for bass, and I’ve caught many a pickerel in water that’s ankle deep. While most fish will head for deeper water when frightened, pickerel just move over a few feet and let you pass – and only because you are too big for them to eat!
Two of the best places I know to go pickerel fishing in our area is Branns Mill Pond in Dover-Foxcroft, and at the St. Albans Wildlife Management Area in Newport. At Branns Mill, I check the swampy “little lake” side out first (on the right side of the Notch Road heading east). There’s a jumble of driftwood here that’s full of pickerel, and the water is often too shallow to paddle a canoe! But, the fish are there, and I’ve caught them over 5 pounds in this area.
In Newport, the St. Albans WMA is essentially an old muskrat farm gone back to nature. The mainstream channel (Mulligan Stream) was once dammed to create the pond. Most of the open water has been taken over by cattails and is unfishable, but the stream and flooded areas near the outlet and beyond the parking area are covered up with pickerel in summer. It is possible to have some good fishing from shore, but the ideal way to fish here is via a canoe. Just paddle around and toss any weedless plastic floating lure into the weeds. You will see three or four pickerel respond (with swirls and splashes) to just about every cast, and you will get strikes or at least splashes of interest every time.
For some reason (and luckily for anglers) pickerel are most active during the heat of the day, so don’t think you have to get up at 4 a.m. to enjoy the fun. In fact, pickerel shut down entirely during the hours of darkness, a rarity among predators of any sort. Get out there at noon, toss a small Jitterbug or plastic grub into the cabbage and hang on!
I’m not a fanatic about fly-fishing, but summer pickerel are the perfect match for a long rod with a fat deer-hair bug attached. Be sure the hook rides up to avoid grass and weeds. With the long rod, you can skip your fly over the water, pausing every few inches, so following pickerel can get a good look at what you’re selling. As long as it’s moving and small enough to swallow, they will take a swipe at it.
I’d use a stout leader (6-pound-test or better) to help thwart the pickerel’s many sharp teeth. Check the near-hook leader every few catches for worn or frayed spots, and re-tie the fly whenever the line looks “fuzzy” or has obvious nicks or cuts showing.
If you’re using spinning gear, work your weedless lures on top in a slow, erratic fashion. Several pickerel my zoom in on your lure when it first hits the water, so be prepared. Take up all the slack line, let the lure “rest” for a few minutes and then jump it slightly toward you. One (or more) pickerel will slash at your lure. If they miss, jump it again – they rarely miss twice.
Sometimes you’ll land two fish at once, which can be a joy to unhook. To make the process easier, crimp down the barbs on any hook you use. Fish won’t fall off the hook if you keep a tight line, and you can simply reach and twist the hook out for a perfectly painless trip!
It’s often been said that pickerel are bony fish, and this is true, but those pesky little Y-shaped bones can be eliminated in the cooking. Simply scale and fillet each fish. Lay the meat skin side down and make a series of crosshatch cuts in the meat 1/4-inch apart and down to but not through the skin. This breaks up those dreaded bones and exposes them to the frying medium. Breaded or floured and tossed into hot peanut oil, pickerel fillets are delicious – and not one bone in the batch!
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