Target: Winter Chain Pickerel – Fish & Hunt

Target: Winter Chain Pickerel

Posted on: December 5, 2018 By: FHMD

I’ll never forget the very first chain pickerel I ever caught. I was fishing during late fall on the Patuxent River and it came as a surprise catch. Long, sleek, with chain-link markings and a mouthful of teeth, I knew what it was even at the age of 15. That was several decades ago. But I had enough of a taste to know that I wanted more of this leaping, slashing “mini-pike” in my angling future. Over the years, I have made efforts to target and catch them.

Maryland anglers who wish to extend their late fall and winter angling have ample opportunities to pursue chain pickerel in a variety of freshwater lakes, ponds, and tidal systems throughout the state. These lesser Esox species are active throughout the cold months and can provide exciting shallow water action for kayakers and shore fishermen alike. They tend to favor dead or dying weed beds, fallen trees and logs, brush piles and diminishing pad fields. Their modus operandi, or M.O., is ambushing panfish or baitfish from structure. Fly-rod enthusiast can coax them with large, gawdy streamers and spinning anglers can get them on any variety of in-line spinners, three to five-inch swim baits or wobbling spoons. Also, 1/8- or 1/4-ounce jigs threaded with paddle tail plastic bodies will get their attention.

Chain Pickerel

Chain pickerel will strike a lure with force and their teeth can be problematic, biting through monofilament as heavy as 12-pound test. Although steel leaders are a bit of overkill for these fish, many pickerel fans opt for a 20- to 24-inch shock-leader of 15-pound fluorocarbon or clear mono of similar strength. Used as a leader, you can knot it to a barrel swivel that attaches to a lighter braid testing 12- to 20-pounds. Pickerel have good eyesight and the clear connection aids in upping your strike count if the fish are following or just turning away from your lure. Medium spinning gear should handle even award-sized pickerel if you can get them away from structure and into open water.

Although chain pickerel do not have the teeth of their larger cousins, the northern pike, they do have teeth sharp enough to inflict cuts and bleeding to the angler. Handle them carefully and remove hooks with either long hemostats or needle-nose pliers to avoid damage and injury to both fish and fisherman. Do not grasp pickerel in the eye sockets unless you plan on keeping and eating them. Smaller jaw-gripping tools can help in unhooking chores and make photo opts easier for both you and the cameraman.

The season for this exciting catch is open year-round.  However, there are size requirements for chain pickerel. Check the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Fishing Regulations for all size and bag limits, as well as all other fishing regulations.

Chain Pickerel Hotspots

Maryland is blessed with quality pickerel water from end to end of the state. Garrett County’s Deep Creek Lake and Broadford Lake boast good populations with bigger, trophy-sized fish (24-inches) available at Deep Creek Lake in early winter and into the early stages of the ice-fishing season. The central portion of the state has quality pickerel in the tidal Severn and Magothy River systems, as historical populations have rebounded in recent years. Both rivers are also good spots for cold-weather kayaking for these fish. Further south on the Western Shore, Saint Mary’s Lake yields quality fish.

On the Eastern Shore, the river systems, tributaries and adjoining mill ponds of the Choptank, Nanticoke, Marshy Hope, Pocomoke and Wicomico Rivers remain top-notch pickerel destinations for those who employ small boat strategies. Pocomoke River State Park is an excellent, cold-weather jump-off point with an impressive population of larger fish and the river is “bass boat friendly” with ramps at several locations.

Cleaning and Cooking Chain Pickerel

Although many anglers don’t realize it, chain pickerel are actually quite delicious as table fare with sweet, flakey white meat that is suitable for baking or frying. They do possess a line of Y-shaped bones on either flank that can be scored around with proper technique. Many You Tube videos show how to fillet pike or pickerel with the “five fillet” method of Y-bone removal. Properly done, any pickerel over 20-inches can yield five, skinless fillets that will suit for a variety of recipes and dishes. Yes, most fans of the chain pickerel are catch-and-release oriented, enjoying the toothy-critter experience from a kayak, canoe or even bank fishing, but the added bonus of sweet fillets can make the winter pickerel fishing gig something special.


Be sure to visit Maryland Department of Natural Resources online for information on fishing licenses and regulations. Also, check out the Plan Your Trip section of our website to find lodging options, fishing charters and guides, and outdoor retailers to get the most out of a fishing trip to Maryland.

If you’re looking to turn your fishing trip into a road trip, there’s no better way to experience the beauty of Maryland than travelling its scenic byways.


This post was written by Jim Gronaw
Images courtesy of the author and Maryland Department of Natural Resources