Catching the Elusive Chain Pickerel

By Bill Cooper

Found from Texas straight north to Canada, the chain pickerel doesn’t garner the attention of its larger family members, the Northern pike and muskie. However, chain pickerel are a worthy pursuit. They are superb gamefish - plentiful, aggressive, and hard fighting.

The average chain pickerel weighs in at about two pounds, thus the lack of attention. However, specimens to five pounds are not uncommon. The all-tackle record is a 9-pound, 6-ounce Georgia whopper caught in 1961.

Chain pickerel and weeds go together. These toothy critters are master of the ambush. They hide in and around coontail, milfoil, cabbage, and lily pads - most often facing forward - in wait of prey. Where weed growth is at a minimum, pickerel relate to structure such as rocks, fallen timber and break lines. 

Chain pickerel can be caught all year, and remain active during the colder months, making them especially appealing to cold weather anglers. Guide Billy Smith likes to fish for bigger pickerel in February, when they are preparing for the spawn. Big egg-bearing females weighing four-to-five pounds move into two-or-three feet of water in the back bays of the Current River near Van Buren, Missouri, and the lower Eleven Point River near the Arkansas line. When the spawn is complete, the big chain pickerel still hang in the same vicinity for several weeks.

Then chain pickerel get tough to find and catch. It is as if they go into a postspawn lethargy. However, let the water temperatures rise into the high 50s, and chain pickerel will reappear in shallow weeds. By early June, the gorgeous colored pike are going strong, striking viciously at various bait and lures, often making a complete nuisance of themselves to anglers after trout and bass. It is at this time of year that jerkbaits such as floating and shallow running Smithwick Rogues, Bandit Shallow Walleye, Rebel Tracdown Ghost Minnows, and Cotton Cordell Shallow Minnows begin to shine. Chain pickerel go on a feeding spree and minnows are their favorite prey species.

Topwater time emerges, too, in June, as water temperatures warm and stabilize. You can’t go wrong twitching a floating Rogue, buzzing a BOOYAH Pond Magic Buzz, walking a Zara Spook, or jerkin’ a Baby Torpedo. It is an incredible rush to experience a big chain pickerel attacking with huge swirls and water flying everywhere, a truly spectacular strike that burns forever images into your grey matter.  

Summertime is the season to catch a monster chain pickerel. In lakes and ponds, the larger fish will separate from the smaller fish. The average size two-pounders will stay in shallow water, while the cooler-water depths will hold the larger fish. The primary cool-weather habitat is deep outside weedlines. Trolling shallow water crankbaits, like the Bandit 100s and Bomber Fat As will produce fish. In deeper lakes, troll the deeper habitat, with Bomber Long As, the Cotton Cordell Diving Red Fin, or Magnum Wally Diver.

Although chain pickerel don’t get the press of other species, they are worthy sport fish with a fighting attitude that will grow on you. I’ll never forget the Eleven Point River monster I caught in a deep hole with a big, white, War Eagle spinnerbait. At 29-inches, it was a contender for the Missouri state record. But we were in a wilderness area far from a set of scales, so I released it to fight another day.