Barely rippling the surface, the chartreuse spinnerbait pushed a bulge of water, creating a V-shaped wake with its chrome blades as it sputtered over thick grass. In an instant, the bait disappeared in a cloud of mist and fury as a large predator annihilated the shiny temptation.
“This is a big bass! We could win the tournament with this fish. All we need is a kicker and this one is a monster! I see green and it’s over 25 inches long,” the angler exclaimed.
In Florida, these freshwater barracuda thrive wherever they can find fresh, weedy backwaters, which is practically everywhere!
As the streamlined predator came into clear view it was obvious this wasn’t a tournament-winning bass, rather a fish biologists call Esox niger, or chain pickerel. Across the South, many competitive bass fishermen claim few fish are as frustrating as chain pickerel. However, these abundant predators deserve credit, offering extremely exciting, hard-hitting sport on the appropriate gear for anyone willing to venture deep into the aquatic jungles to find them.
Aggressive ambush predators, chain pickerel are sometimes erroneously called pike since they share many of the same traits with their toothy cousins. All members of the Esocidae fish family resemble long, green torpedoes with mouths full of needle-sharp teeth and a nasty attitude.
“A chain pickerel is a very good fighting fish,” explained Captain Mark Shepard (lakeokeechobeeguide.com). “Many of my clients who visit from the North enjoy catching pickerel because they are used to catching northern pike and muskellunge. They are a lot of fun on ultra-light tackle and put up a great fight.”
Northern pike (Esox lucius) range throughout Canada, New England and the mid-western states. They extend as far south as Maryland, Missouri and parts of Oklahoma and grow to more than 60 pounds. Some stretch more than five feet! The family behemoth, muskellunge (Esox masquinongy), may measure more than six feet and exceed 70 pounds! Muskie territory largely overlaps the pike’s range and extends as far south as parts of Tennessee and South Carolina.
On the other end of the spectrum, redfin pickerel, (Esox americanus) barely reach 16 inches long and seldom top a pound. The Florida state record weighed 1.06 pounds. Native to much of the South, redfins range from the St. Lawrence River westward to eastern Texas. They occur throughout the Sunshine State, particularly in the Panhandle and northern Florida where they typically prefer to hunt in small streams. Anglers seldom encounter these diminutive predators, which look very similar to their other elongated pike cousins, only with distinct red-tinged fins.
Chain pickerel don’t grow nearly as large as pike or muskie, but they do occur abundantly across the South where they encounter very little fishing pressure. Also called grass pickerel, southern pike, eastern pickerel or jackfish, chain pickerel range from southern Canada to Florida and west to the Mississippi River valley. In Florida, these freshwater barracuda thrive wherever they can find fresh, weedy backwaters, which is practically everywhere!
“Chain pickerel occur statewide,” explained Bob Wattendorf, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist in Tallahassee. “They are native to Florida and found in similar waters to largemouth bass, but particularly enjoy marshy habitat. Some of the best state waters to catch chain pickerel include Lake Seminole, Lake Talquin, Lake Jackson, Lake Iamonia, Lake Panasoffkee, the Kissimmee and Harris chains, backwaters off the St. Johns River and Lake Okeechobee.”
These toothy predators rarely exceed 30 inches in length or more than five pounds in weight. The official Florida record weighed 6.96 pounds, caught by Jep Dove in June 2004, but old records report an 8-pounder caught in 1971. No matter who holds the record, both of the big fish came from Lake Talquin.
“At Lake Talquin, I’ve caught pickerel in the backwaters and up the creeks around weeds,” advised Cliff Mundinger, Jr., with Lake Talquin Trophy Guide Service. “They love hiding in thick matted grass, lily pads, hydrilla and other vegetation. They don’t get nearly as large as pike, but when they hit you certainly know it. A three pound chain pickerel will smash a bait with vigor and put up a great fight!”
Chain pickerel are partial to vegetation, the thicker the better, and prefer sluggish ecosystems. They use their speed and excellent camouflage to ambush unsuspecting prey with aggression. “Not too many people specifically target them, but anglers often catch pickerel incidental to bass fishing,” Wattendorf said.
“Many bass anglers consider pickerel bait thieves and avoid areas with healthy concentrations of them. However, they are native to Florida and are a valuable part of our freshwater ecosystems. Pickerel compete with bass for food, but in most Florida lakes forage is plentiful. Pickerel have existed side by side with bass for far longer than any of us have been around and there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of them. Nowadays, if I was looking to battle chain pickerel, I’d visit my favorite lake or river and I’d go straight back into the slower backwaters with plenty of grass and not much current.”
While pickerel often prey upon the same species as largemouth bass, they do have slightly different preferences in habitat and hunting characteristics. Pickerel tend to hang mid water column, while bass often relate to the bottom as to avoid competition. Highly aggressive predators, pickerel primarily feed upon small finfish including threadfin shad, wild river shiners, panfish, minnows and other nutrient-rich morsels. These vicious and opportunistic predators occasionally eat crawfish, snakes, frogs and even mice or small birds that venture into the water. They have even been observed grabbing dragonflies perched on grass stems and leaping from the water to snatch low-flying insects from the air.
Almost any lure or bait that might tempt largemouth bass may provoke a vicious strike from a chain pickerel. As with most toothy game fish, chain pickerel aren’t shy about showing their grill. Many bass anglers catch pickerel on spinnerbaits, weedless spoons, crankbaits and similar lures. They occasionally smash topwater baits and especially enjoy destroying weedless frogs buzzed across matted grass. Pickerel hit with considerable violence and aggressively pursue anything that might look like a food source. When hooked, they put up a great fight with spirited runs, powerful lunges and sometimes they even jump like largemouth.
It’s no surprise live baits also work particularly well for enticing pickerel. Any baitfish might work, but they particularly love wild river shiners, a popular bait for tempting giant bass in places like the Kissimmee chain, the St. Johns River and Lake Okeechobee. Crappie anglers also catch them when fishing weedy edges with minnows, threadfin shad or shiners. When intentionally targeting these fish, many anglers use short wire leaders to prevent them from slicing the line with their razor sharp teeth.
“Lake Okeechobee has quite a few chain pickerel,” Shepard said. He added, “We catch them when fishing with live wild shiners and when fishing artificials I’ve noticed they like flashy lures more than soft plastics. We catch a lot of them with rattling baits, crankbaits and spinnerbaits. We also catch a lot of pickerel on weedless spoons worked over the tops of matted grass. If I specifically wanted to target chain pickerel, I’d start shallow and work my way out toward the outside edge of the grass beds until I found them.”
In most Florida waters, anglers can catch chain pickerel without limit, although special regulations may apply on specific bodies of water. Seldom pressured, they almost always hit any tempting morsel that crosses too close to their duck-like snouts. Anglers just need to penetrate through their vegetated lairs to find them. Good luck and watch your fingers!
Handle With Care
After catching a chain pickerel, be especially careful when handling these toothy creatures. When grabbed, they often bend their bodies and shake violently looking for something to bite. Big pickerel make excellent eating, but smaller versions of these long, skinny fish have numerous small bones and don’t yield much meat. Most anglers simply release these native predators to fight another day.