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When It’s Cold, Check Out Chain Pickerel

By Dr. Michael Bednarski/DWR

Photos by Dr. Michael Bednarski/DWR

Chain pickerel are one of Virginia’s most widespread and under-appreciated species of game fish. Commonly known as “pike,” they are a different species from northern pike, a closely related fish that the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) stocks in a few waterbodies, or walleye, which are referred to as pike in a large portion of their range. Chain pickerel are a native predator and though not as large as their cousins, the northern pike and the musky, they can get to a respectable size—I’ve caught pickerel up to about four pounds in Virginia and our state record sits at a respectable 7 lbs. 10 oz.

The biggest appeal of pickerel is how active they are in cold weather. While other species slow down as your water temperature falls into the 40s, pickerel don’t seem to mind. In fact, I’ve caught pickerel on active, moving baits when the water temperature is in the mid-30s and there is ice on parts of the lake. And when it’s cold, pickerel are as shallow as they will be, often occupying water only two or three feet deep. This makes them readily accessible to boat, kayak, and even shore anglers in the middle of winter.

From December through February, I look for pickerel in coves and pockets that have dying or dead vegetation. I’ve done well where there is hydrilla or lily pads, and when I find vegetation that has some life to it, I know I’ve found a potential hotspot. In these areas, I really like to throw a 1/16-ounce jighead with a 2½” swimbait on six-pound line. I use a seven-foot medium light spinning rod with a 2000 size reel. This is a really good technique if you are fishing from shore—you can reach good pickerel habitat from the bank, and the light jighead and small swimbait do not get snagged as often as you’d think.

Another great place to fish for pickerel is just outside of the shallow vegetated habitats. These areas are five to 10 feet deep, and if you find rock or hard bottom, they are even better. Here, I like to throw a suspending jerkbait, gold, about 4 ½” long, on a 6’6″ medium baitcasting rod with 10-pound test. To be honest, this is a technique I use in the winter primarily to catch big largemouth, but I’ve caught several citation pickerel on this technique. More than once I’ve found out that my “six-pound largemouth” is actually a two-foot-long chain pickerel.

To prepare for a pickerel trip, I highly recommend that you bring along a set of needle-nose pliers. You can’t lip a chain pickerel like a bass, and you will often have to navigate a very toothy mouth on one of these critters to get your jighead back. Needle-nose pliers make it very easy to get to your hook and get it out, making sure that your pickerel is in good shape if you wish to release it. Another tip is to not use a steel leader. I know that a lot of folks like to use a steel leader when they fish for toothy critters, but I’ve had very few chain pickerel bite through my line over the years. The leader interferes with the action of your swimbait or your jerkbait, and you will get far fewer bites because of this.

Lastly, because we are talking about winter fishing, I can’t stress enough that you should be prepared for the cold weather. I wear a float coat when I fish in the winter, and it lets me stay warm, comfortable, and safe. Remember to wear a flotation device when fishing in the winter as hypothermia sets in very quickly if you happen to fall in.

Dr. Michael Bednarski is the Chief of Aquatics of the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR).

  • January 5, 2024