Often overlooked, the chain pickerel is an aggressive and resilient fighting fish that can be found in ponds, lakes, streams, and grassy wetlands all over the state of Massachusetts.
An extremely close relative to the legendary northern pike, these fish find themselves at or near the top of the food chain in your local neighborhood pond.
Known for their seemingly reckless predatory behavior, the chain pickerel is most infamous for its mouth full of jagged, razor-sharp teeth.
Though loved by some (and hated by many) the chain pickerel gives the Massachusetts angler a chance to hook into a fish of up to 25 inches or more only minutes from home, virtually no matter where you are in the bay state.
So without further hesitation, lets dive into my 10 tips for exclusively targeting chain pickerel.
The chain pickerel gets its name from the pattern on its body, which resembles that of a chain-link fence.
Tip #1: Location, Location, Location!
Although it may seem obvious to begin with, it is important to note that just like any species of fish, the chain pickerel cannot be found in every body of freshwater that you come across, but it can be located in a large majority of fishable ponds, lakes and rivers across Massachusetts.
One thing to consider is the forage required to sustain a healthy population of chain pickerel, who are essentially an “apex” predator in their environment.
A chain pickerel is in its ideal habitat among the vegetation.
If you are unsure of a new body of water, or have no information on whether or not pickerel have been caught in a particular location, keys to look for are:
For example, a small, mostly landlocked pond containing bluegill, but very little other forage, is an unlikely (but not impossible) bet for finding a healthy population of pickerel.
Shiners, perch, and sunfish are all on the menu for chain pickerel.
If by contrast, you come across a pond or stretch of river where you are catching or confirming the existence of perch, golden shiners, and various bluegill/sunfish species all in the same location, there is almost guaranteed to be a pickerel or two stalking along the grass beds and lay-downs by the edge of the water.
Which brings me to my next tip...
Tip #2: Cover is Key
When exclusively targeting pickerel, one of the most important concepts to understand is the method by which they prefer to stalk their prey.
Pickerel are an explosive, yet sneaky predator, and are known to bury themselves in the thickest shoreline cover in order to camouflage themselves until the perfect moment to barrage their prey.
If there is one central concept to remember about these fish, it should be this: chain pickerel LOVE grass. Submerged grass beds, transitions along the edge of a weed-line and mangled wood cover near the shoreline are the pickerel’s ultimate domain.
A chain pickerel disguises itself in heavy cover.
Of course, you always stand the chance of pulling a decent largemouth bass out of one of these nooks and crannies, but if you are gunning for your first chain pickerel, head for any grassy patch or transition that you can find, and try casting along the edge of it.
A key factor to consider is that pickerel do not necessarily follow the same exact seasonal patterns as the bass do, and they are slightly more acclimated to cold conditions overall. Because of this, they are more likely to be caught in shallower water from shore during the colder months of the year than almost any other fish in the local ponds and lakes.
This can be motivating for the diehard who is unafraid of the cold. Of course, the chain pickerel is a willing ice fishing participant as well, and they tend to be at their heaviest weight in the winter.
The main point is, chain pickerel are one of the few local fish that will inhabit shallower grass and wood cover for most of the year, unless the pond is frozen, in which case they can still be caught!
Tip #3: Jerkbaits
Here, we can start to get into some of the more specific artificial bait profiles that excel when it comes to targeting chain pickerel. First is the tried and true jerkbait.
Few presentations are more irresistible to a pickerel than a flashy, minnow-shaped bait profile slashing and darting through the water like a struggling shiner.
Surefire pickerel magnets in this category include the Rapala Rip-Stop and freshwater X-Rap in the 3.5” or 4 3/4” sizes.
In my experience, yellow perch, as well as emerald/gold shiner patterns vastly outperform other colors and seem to isolate pickerel with fairly remarkable consistency.
Suspending jerkbaits tend to offer the most versatility, as well as the most tempting presentation since pickerel often prefer to strike the lure right after a sudden pause as it floats in place.
In addition to this, soft plastic jerkbaits like the Zoom Super Fluke work great when the bite is slower, and when rigged weedless, can be pitched right into the grassy cover that pickerel love to hide in.
Tip #4: Spinners, Spoons and Shiny Toys
Other artificial baits that go over notoriously well with the chain pickerel crowd include spinner baits, casting spoons, and almost anything else in your tackle box that puts off a combination of commotion and shine.
Personally, although most of your standard spinnerbaits should work fine, I prefer a small in-line spinner with a single Colorado blade. Booyah spinnerbaits are a popular option as well.
The key is to make sure that you retrieve the bait at least quickly enough to ensure that the spinner is actually rotating correctly, but this should come naturally once you are used to the feeling of the resistance.
Spoons can also be fished effectively for pickerel by allowing the bait to flutter down like a dying shiner, then ripping it off the bottom repeatedly.
Ironically, I use these baits the least when targeting pickerel due to the shallow water and heavy cover that they typically frequent, but if these types of baits are more of your preference, then you can always work around the hang-ups by throwing a weedless spoon.
Tip #5: Retrieval
In what could be described as the "frustrated fisherman’s best-case scenario", the chain pickerel is a classic fool for the reaction strike.
Particularly in the Spring, early Summer, and early Fall seasons, there is no such thing as too fast when it comes to gaining the attention of a hungry pickerel.
Now, you don’t want to always use a fast retrieve when targeting chain pickerel, but if your goal is to isolate these fish, it’s a good idea to start on the faster side, and work your way down.
In fact, if I am totally unsure if a body of water contains these fish, one of the first things I will do is make a cast parallel to the shoreline cover and BURN it back to where I am standing, then immediately stop once I can see the lure.
Image courtesy of inaturalist.org
At this point, I will either give it a few light twitches, or just let it suspend for a second. You might be surprised how many times a pickerel will shoot out of the weeds and hammer that bait right in front of you!
I want to be clear that the “madman retrieve” is more of an initial search tactic or fallback rather than the default, but the point is to illustrate how willing a chain pickerel is to chase down a bait in a far more ferocious manner than your average bass.
It's important to keep this mentality at the forefront if you don’t just want to end up with a bunch of largemouth (which wouldn’t be the worst problem to have).
Other than a fast-stop-and-start retrieve, a straight and steady moderate retrieve all the way back to the bank will often get the job done if a pickerel is lurking in the vicinity.
This is especially true with the spinner bait and even sometimes with the jerkbait (since to a pickerel, it might as well be a fleeing minnow). As the weather cools, the old “rip-rip-pause” technique familiar to many striper fisherman becomes extremely effective with the jerkbait. I usually alternate between some variation of 1-5 rips/twitches and then follow with a pause of 1-10 seconds.
As you can see, the angler has a wide range of options that they can experiment with. Ultimately, for the purpose of targeting them exclusively, pickerel are more willing to commit to a fast moving bait than most local freshwater fish.
No matter the speed of the retrieve, the sudden pause seems to be the key factor in eliciting a strike from the pickerel, often at the last second!
Brett D’Alelio grew up in Marshfield and enjoys fishing for stripers, blues and other species along the South Shore of Massachusetts. He is set to graduate from Santa Clara University this spring with a degree in film and media, and is looking to break into the professional world of fishing in any capacity. We are pumped to have him aboard as a My Fishing Cape Cod member!