Most fishermen view them as a nuisance. They lurk around every corner of many ponds, waiting to jump out and steal your fly. Their older cousins are bigger and more elusive, so why would anybody give them the time of day. Well, as it turns out, snot rockets, slime darts, mini taxmen, or simply Pickerel, are great targets to cast a fly at. They have great colors, ferocious instincts, and a bad attitude that tends to keep them filled with liquid rage that they can turn on at will. Chasing these backyard scrappers with light gear and loud flies can lead to a pretty awesome day on the water.
What are Pickerel?
Chain Pickerel are a member of the genus, Esox, which also contains Northern Pike and Muskellunge (Musky). Although Pickerel are smaller than their close relatives, they behave very similarly. They ambush their prey, waiting for the exact right time to lunge and kill. These fish will often lurk behind a fly for quite a ways, calculating the best way to kill it. Pickerel will lie in ambush in weed beds, lily pads, overhanging brush, and especially fallen trees. All members of the Esox genus are opportunistic feeders. They seem to only know how to kill and reproduce, which wouldn’t surprise me if they were occasionally able to accomplish simultaneously. Their favorite prey are smaller fish, like bluegill, shiners, shad, and perch. They will also take advantage of any frog or rodent that finds itself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
For chasing Chain Pickerel on the fly, I would recommend a 5 to 7 weight rod, with a weight-forward floating or sink-tip fly line. Smaller pickerel are not very strong fighters, but when they grow above the 20-inch mark and pack of some gut, they transform into strong fighters that will give any 5wt a run for its money. An essential piece of gear when fishing for pickerel is wire leader. Pickerel have multiple rows of very sharp teeth that will bite clean through monofilament and fluorocarbon all the way up to 50lb test. You can buy tie-able wire leaders from some fly line manufacturers. All you need for your leader setup is 4 to 5 feet of straight 15lb test line that is tied to your fly line with a six-inch section of wire to the fly. For wire to fly connection, I use a loop knot because it allows the fly to have a much larger range of motion, which can give the fly that extra wiggle that turns a curious Pickerel into a caught one.
Based on the information above, you should realize that Pickerel are very aggressive feeders. From rodents to baitfish, they won’t pass up an opportunity. When selecting flies to use for pickerel, I take advantage of their desire to kill. I know that if something catches their eye in the water, and moves like food, it will trigger a reaction strike. I use brightly colored streamers from three to six inches in length. Colors like white and chartreuse will draw their attention, and a well-tied streamer will seal the deal with lifelike action. To get the most movement out of my fly, I will sometimes throw an articulated streamer. The size of the fly you throw is determined by what weight rod you use and how big the fish is that you are chasing. Big Pickerel are lazy. They want to eat a few large meals instead of many small ones. Slowly stripping a beefy bucktail deceiver, flashtail whistler, or other loud patterns can trigger the big girls to strike. Just always remember to bend down all of your hook barbs, for the fish’s safety and your own.
So, grab your fly rod, a few wooly buggers, deceivers, and anything else you want to get torn up, and hit your local pond. You never know what is hiding close to home!