The Call of the Pickerel
It is said in the spring of the year, should you venture deep into the New Brunswick outdoors, away from homes and civilization... if you listen intently as spring's first full moon arises, you can hear the call of the majestic chain pickerel.
Actually, as you might expect that isn't true at all. But since many people don't seem to realize what chain pickerel are, or their value as a sport fish, I thought I would spice it up a bit. For those who have never fished pickerel, you may not realize the allure of this terrific, hard-fighting yet ugly fish. In New Brunswick, they are considered a non-sport fish. And yet they are absolutely a blast to fish, and have a pleasing taste should you choose to dine on one of them. They are a bony fish, but have a white, flaky flesh with a mild flavour and are very lean. If you choose to roast one over the coals of an open fire with a bit of butter while wrapped in tin foil you are in for a treat.
Chain pickerel are in the “pike” family and are a scaled, aggressive, carivorous fish with dark green sides, and a “chain” pattern on their sides that give them their name. They are long and lean looking, with a large mouth and extremely sharp teeth so a pair of pliers are a must for chasing these energetic fish. If you hook into one, you are usually in for a great fight, although I've found that the water temperatures in the summer seem to take a little bit of the fight out of them (and make their flesh a bit softer and less desirable to eat). Pickerel are primarily a cold water fish so they seem to be sensitive as the water temperature rises.
This summer was the first time I targeted chain pickerel, and I can honestly say it was fantastic! I can remember my brother inviting me for the past three or four years to come with him to a lake he found in the suburbs of a nearby city that was teeming with pickerel, but something always seemed to get in the way. He kept telling me tales of these hard-fighting fish that bite at just about everything depending on the day. Until this year, I didn't take him up on it...
In the spring after we both purchased kayaks, it wasn't long after our Canaan River run that I headed out with him again. We both took our kayaks and brought a friend Jeffy along with us to the lake he'd spoken of. It was a beautiful morning, and as we headed out in our kayaks there was a picturesque mist rising from the water. My brother told me that the pickerel like to wait in the weeds at the edge of the lake. When they see a smaller fish go by, they dart out of the weeds and attack it with their sharp teeth. That would be our strategy... to cast into and around those weeds and imitate a fish. It wasn't very long before we were getting some action. My brother and friend pulled in several nice pickerel, and I was getting lots of hits... but on this day it was the yellow perch that seemed to like my lures. Even though they are an aggressive fish that will attack anything, they aren't particularly good fighters. I do like catching perch, and also enjoy eating them as a mild-tasting white fleshed fish... but they weren't what I was after on this day. My brother had raved about the fun of catching pickerel, and they certainly looked fun while I watched them catching them, but I wasn't having any luck. It didn't seem to matter what type of lure I had on... it was the perch that were taking them. I did catch a really nice yellow fish that was around a foot long, but I wasn't satisfied.
Finally I had a bite that I knew was not a perch. This was a much different hit, and the fish immediately took off with my lure. This was my first time lake fishing in my kayak, and the fish was easily able to turn me around as I fought him. It was a pickerel... my first one. It was not a huge fish, but it was my first one and I brought him into the boat for a quick picture before releasing him.
As I mentioned, pickerel are extremely aggressive fish and they can often swallow a lure. YOU WILL NEED PLIERS and gloves are always recommended for catch and release fishing to increase the fish's chance of survival after release. Chain pickerel have a mouth full of sharp teeth, and my lures showed evidence of their attacks by the end of the day. We also always pinch the barb on any of our lures which makes releasing them much easier on both the fish and yourself. While a thrashing fish may be able to get off your line a bit easier without barbs, the tradeoff of being able to ethically release these fish to be caught another day is worth it to us. We also try to get the fish off and back in the water as quickly as possible, as pickerel are said to be more sensitive than some of the hardier fish in our waters. This is even more essential in the heat of the summer than it was on this day in May.
The rest of the day was more of the same as we all had success with both pickerel and yellow perch, with our friend Jeff even surprisingly catching a small-mouthed bass (that none of us had any idea were in that lake). We spotted some cranes, had a couple of deer run off as we paddled near them, and caught dozens of fish. A great day, with great friends, in the great outdoors! We would make several more trips to that lake in the 2014 summer, with varying results... but we caught fish every time out.
Why chain pickerel are not considered a sport fish in New Brunswick is a mystery to me. If you have never tried fishing them, put them on your list to target this summer and you will not be disappointed! They present a great fight and a great challenge! And if you listen closely, you might even hear the call of the pickerel...
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