The Pickerel is the smallest member of the Pike family, which includes the Northern Pike and Muskellunge, but he's no featherweight fighter. His average is 2 pounds and his world record is 9 pounds, 3 ounces. And he's savage enough for a fish many times his size. He isn't discouraged because his mouth, rimmed with fine teeth, is too small for him to swallow a fat Perch, Sunfish or Shiner at a single gulp the way a Black Bass can. When he pounces on a prey he seizes it across its middle, then shakes it like a terrier shakes a rat. When it's dead or too crippled to escape, he releases it, carefully turns it around to streamline it so it will fit his mouth, then slides it down his gullet headfirst. He's fast enough to catch any prey, too—long and slender with his swimming fins at the rear of his body, built for sprinting. One moment you'll see him staring at you malevolently from beneath a nearby lily pad, the next moment he's mysteriously disappeared. He doesn't swim off like other fish; he just seems to vanish. And he doesn't leave right away. Sometimes he'll let you touch him with an oar. He's not scared of you or anything else! Once I hooked a small panfish on a fly and while I was playing it, it suddenly started to fight like a heavyweight. In amazement, I fought it for several minutes. When I finally reeled it in close, I saw a Pickerel had hold of it. He hadn't grabbed the hook, which was in the panfish's mouth, but had clamped his jaws across the fish's belly. When he saw me he let go and swam away—laughing, if a fish can laugh!
The Pickerel is found throughout the eastern United States from Maine to Florida and west to the Mississippi. He has a long, tubular body and a flat mouth shaped somewhat like an alligator's. His color varies greatly. When he has a chain-like pattern of dark lines on his sides he's called a Chain Pickerel. On a Grass Pickerel these dark lines are wavy. They become curved bars on a Barred Pickerel. In general, however, he's dark green on back and sides with a yellowish belly. In waters with a large iron content his sides and belly become a beautiful greenish-gold.
The Pickerel will be content with slow-moving rivers and streams, but his favorite waters are quiet lakes and ponds where he hides in the shallow weed beds or in the lily pads that fill the small coves. He's strictly carnivorous. Seldom will he touch flies or worms. He dines on other fish, mostly panfish, and frogs and stray field mice when he can get them. A live Shiner (type of minnow), with your hook placed lightly under the skin of its back so it will remain lively, will tempt him every time. Anchor your boat over an offshore weed bed or just outside the lily pads and let the Shiner swim off with your hook and line. But when a Pickerel grabs the bait and your line starts to run out, let him go. Don't try to hook him—yet. Remember the Pickerel seizes his food sideways. Wait until the line stops. Then the Pickerel is releasing the Shiner and turning it around to swallow it headfirst. When the line starts moving again, that's the time to strike him. Should you miss him by striking too soon, put on another Shiner and try again—he doesn't get discouraged easily.
You'll get the greatest thrill, however, by catching Pickerel on surface lures. They'll smash a surface lure so viciously it'll scare you. Use a bait-casting rod, an 8-pound-test line, and a reliably weedless lure such as a single-hook silver spoon. Put a strip of prepared pork rind on the hook and cast right into the pads, then retrieve fast so the lure skitters noisily over the tops of them. You'll see the pads scatter as the Pickerel homes in on your lure like a guided missile from his hiding place as far as 50 feet away, leaving a wake behind him. As soon as the lure drops into an open place among the pads, the water explodes and he's got it! Then you must work him around the pads so he doesn't get tangled in their stems. Casting non-weedless surface plugs—such as imitation mice, frogs and crippled minnows—into open pockets in the pads and at the edges of the pads and over deeper weed beds will take Pickerel, also, but not as often.
The Pickerel has one bad habit, however—he's a notorious lure-follower like the Pike and Muskellunge, especially in open water. When he isn't hungry, or he's suspicious, he will follow your lure right to the boat, his snout bumping the end of it, only to turn and swim off when you lift the lure from the water. And he'll repeat this on each successive cast until you're completely exasperated. But there are ways to fool him. When you see him coming in behind your lure, reel it to within 2 feet of your rod tip, then stick the tip deep into the water and move it so the lure swims in loops like a figure 8. This usually surprises him into striking. If it doesn't, on your next cast simply lift the lure from the water and dangle it in the air over his nose. But with either of these methods, be ready for him! If you don't give him line quickly when he strikes, he'll snap your rod like a matchstick.