Fly Fishing for Chain Pickerel
As temperatures drop, Maryland's cold water catch is the perfect cure for cabin fever.
If there is one fish that has antifreeze for blood, it is the chain pickerel. I have caught them along ice edges using the ice as an ambush source.
Cold weather in Maryland from late October to late May is pickerel time. The pickerel can be found in many brackish waters as well as ponds and lakes.
The aggression of these fish is what most pickerel fishermen like about them. This is the perfect fish to get rid of cabin fever in the cold months.
They love minnows, so just about any streamer pattern will get their attention. No need to be fancy with the fly, because their mouth full of teeth will destroy it quickly.
Six to eight weight fly outfits with floating line will get the job done. They aren’t leader-shy. A 7 ½- foot leader tampered down to thirty-to-forty-pound tippet will hold up to their teeth. Many fishermen use lighter leaders with a bite tippet to ward off a cut off. Pickerel prefer shallow water, so there is no need for sinking lines or flies.
My arsenal includes white, chartreuse, or yellow-colored streamer flies. My favorite is the Bullethead Darter, this fly has no weight except for the hook. It can be fished in the skinniest water and held there enticing the pickerel to take a bite. Pickerel have large mouths and can eat big flies, a 1/0 or 2/0 hook is the right size.
Unfortunately, there are not many places to fish from shore, a watercraft is needed to get to the fish holding water. Canoes and kayaks are perfect for this kind of fishing, allowing the fisherman to get in the shallow water.
Pickerel in general are not deep-water fish, most can be caught in water less than four feet. I have caught numerous pickerel in water a foot or less.
This is simple fishing, start at point A and work to point B. Note where the first pickerel was caught and concentrate on those types of areas. They will relate to wood in the colder months, water that has pads is worth checking out even in the winter months when the pads are on the bottom. Pickerel will still relate to them in the shallows. A sunny day warming these shallows will move bait to these areas and the pickerel will follow.
I was fishing a pad-field in March on a sunny day and at 11:00am, the water temperature was 42 degrees, I took the temp at 2:00 and it was 52. The bait moved there, and the pickerel were there too.
Pickerel are apex predators there is no need to keep casting in the same area, keep moving, if there is a fish in the area it will usually show itself on the first cast.
Here is a good tip when fishing for them, if you get a strike but the fish doesn’t take the fly, wait a couple of seconds before retrieving it, toothy fish know they only have to injure the prey and then turn around and eat it, so they slash at it to injure and return to eat it. This two-second delay can catch a lot of pickerel.
Pickerel are armed with thousands of sharp little teeth and can only be lipped twice, once with each thumb and then a hospital visit is necessary. DON’T LIP THEM. At boat-side, they can be gripped behind the head or netted to remove the hook.
Another little trick to help save your fly when you get the hook out of the fish but it still has much of the tying material in its mouth, just release the fish back into the water and it will open its mouth and the fly will come out. I found this by accident one day when a pickerel fell back in the water. It works most times!
The majority of tidal waters on the Eastern Shore have pickerel as well as the Severn and Magothy Rivers. Some Eastern Shore ponds also have them.
In colder months, when other favorite fish are not around, give the pickerel an opportunity to show you they are a thrill that can warm you up. Dress warm and be safe and you might become what most of us have enjoyed for years, a pickerel fly fisherman.
Get Ready for Your Next Fly Fishing Trip
In need of additional information on where and how to fly fish? Check out Maryland’s Fly Fishing Trail. The first state-wide trail in the nation highlights 48 sites spanning from the shorelines of the Chesapeake to the mountain streams in Western Maryland.
Before you head out, be sure to acquire your license and check out the latest regulations from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
And if you’re up for turning your fly fishing trip into a quick getaway, check out Visit Maryland’s deals page.
Information about the author:
For more than five decades, Joe Bruce has been a prolific and generous guiding-light for fly anglers around the region. He has self-published 19 books and booklets covering all aspects of light tackle and fly-fishing in the region. For fifteen years he owned and operated The Fisherman’s Edge, a boutique fly shop in Baltimore. Visit joebruce.net to browse his books and innovative flies.
License and Regulations
Simple, quick, and at the palm of your hand, DNR’s app is the easiest way to get your Maryland fishing license. Download the app on your smartphone (MD DNR), click Apply for License, and enroll. From the app, you can also register any catches, post photos, and check for regulations updates. Or, you can apply for a license through Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ website.
There are a few instances where registering for a license may not be necessary; visit Maryland DNR for a full list of these exceptions. For more information on fishing without a license – and locations where licenses are not required – visit http://dnr.maryland.gov/Fisheries/Pages/Free-Fishing.aspx.
Visit the Maryland Department of Natural Resources for a complete list of Maryland’s Fishing Regulations.
Money generated from the sale of licenses goes directly to the conservation, protection, and preservation of Maryland’s natural habitat and cherished wildlife. Maryland DNR works tirelessly to maintain a healthy population of fish and game, and the regulations needed to sustain fishing and hunting in Maryland. Changes in regulations, dates, and requirements vary year-to-year. Please check with DNR frequently for the most up-to-date information.