Chain pickerel may not be favored to win the Esox popularity contest, but in my view – that doesn’t mean a whole lot anyway. There’s no denying northern pike and muskellunge (muskie) dominate the size category, but pickerel are scrappy predators in their own right. What’s not to love about a species that can reach 30 inches in length and consistently slams flies into the dead of winter? Pickerel are aggressive when other fish are lethargic, vibrant when the backdrop is drab, and the perfect excuse to get outside when the mercury starts to fall. If you ask me, this slimy underdog deserves the same praise as its bumptious cousins.
Distributed throughout the Eastern United States, pickerel live in a variety of environments including ponds, lakes, swamps, rivers, and even brackish tributaries. Pickerel are opportunistic feeders that typically ambush their prey from behind cover. For this reason, submerged structures, shorelines, piers, ledges, and grass flats are regular hangouts.
When fly fishing for pickerel, be prepared to do some casting – and I mean, a lot of casting. Pickerel aren’t known to be particularly picky eaters, but sometimes you have to cover a lot of water to intercept them. Any number of baitfish patterns will work, but I keep it pretty simple and throw the tried and true Clouser Minnow. Water depth will be the largest consideration when determining the proper line to throw. Where I fish the depth ranges from about 4-8ft. I’ve found sink-tip or intermediate line with a 3-4ft section of relatively heavy fluorocarbon leader, say 25-30lbs, performs well. Be sure to tie a loop knot so your fly maintains good action when tied to the stiff leader – which of course, is needed to fend against their sharp teeth.
Pickerel meat is white and mild. If you tell someone you’re planning to eat one, they’ll likely ask – “Aren’t they boney?” The short answer – yes. The longer and slightly more complicated answer – yes, but no need to worry because the acidic pickling brine we’re about to mix up will dissolve all of those pesky pin bones. This rustic appetizer will turn heads and convert skeptics into believers. So, go on – grab some crackers and a cold one because this pickerel’s about to get pickled.
Fillet the pickerel just like any other fish. Make an incision behind the gill plate, follow the spine down to the tail, cut the meat away from the center of the fish, and then remove the skin from the fillets. Don’t worry about removing the pin bones. Quickly rinse the fillets in cold water and pat dry with paper towels. You can freeze the fillets for later use or go straight into the pickling process. Personally, I like to vacuum seal and freeze them first. Once ready to pickle, go ahead and cut the fillets into 1-1.5in chunks.
Until next time, enjoy & good luck out there!
Pickled Pickerel Recipe:
- 1lb pickerel fillets, cut into 1-1.5in chunks
- 3 cups water
- 2.5 cups white vinegar
- 2 fluid ounces white wine
- 0.5 cup kosher salt
- 0.75 cup sugar
- 8 garlic cloves
- 1 red onion, sliced
- 3 jalapenos, sliced
- 0.75 ounces pickling spice mix
- 1 pack of your favorite crackers, for serving
- In a saucepan, combine 2.5 cups of water and all of the salt. Warm and stir until dissolved. Chill brine in the fridge.
- Add chunked pickerel fillets to a quart-sized canning jar. Pour the cold brine over the fish. Discard any leftover brine. Place into the fridge for 24 hours.
- Pour the brine out of the jar, letting the fish remain. Pour approximately 1.5 cups of white vinegar, or however much is required to cover the fish, into the jar. Place into fridge for 16 hours.
- In a saucepan, combine 1 cup vinegar, 0.5 cup water, white wine, sugar, and pickling spice mix. Warm and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Chill in the fridge.
- Drain fish into a colander. Rinse the canning jar with water. Layer fish, onion slices, jalapeno slices, and garlic cloves in the jar. Pour chilled pickling brine overtop. Discard any leftover brine. Place into fridge for 6 days. Softly shake the jar daily.
- Serve straight up or over your favorite cracker. Pair with a crisp lager, kolsch, or pale ale. It’ll keep for about 3 months.
Article by Kirk Marks, an angler, photographer, and culinary aficionado based in Kent Island, Maryland. Give him a follow at @kirkymarks.