Chain pickerel, or jack, are the ruin of shiners and fingers, but great fun nonetheless.
How often have you heard “Oh, crap! It’s a bass,” from your buddy when his fish jumps in the middle of a dogged battle? That’s right. Not very often. In our Bizzaro world, fishermen indeed prefer the safe, predictable largemouth to hooking our freshwater barracuda, pike of the south, the far more spectacular, exciting and yes, somewhat-dangerous pickerel.
The reason I think is fear, in its ugliest form–pure and naked. Fear of injury, fear of bony fillets and fear of failure. Those needle-sharp teeth certainly live up to their reputation, but even the name suggests ferocity and could lead one to wonder uneasily, “Why is he called a ‘chain’ pickerel?” Picture it: Just before cutting his line, a bass fisherman imagines he sees chains draped around the torpedo-like body of a wildly surging fish.
And then one day he’ll clean one of the contemptibly-named “jacks” only to find disastrously bony fillets, riddled with sharp calcium spears poised to puncture the stomach and heart of any unwary person who would dine on one.
Of course, I exaggerate. But, my friend Jack was less than thrilled on a trip to a Central Florida lake when I told him we’d challenge these prickly, magnificent fish, boat one and, yes-sir, eat it. I’d make a believer out of him after all; today would be jack fish for Jack. We were going pickerel fishing, on purpose.
We started in close, where stands of grass and intertwined lily pads suggested the fish’s characteristic chain pattern. From what little has been published about this geographically displaced cousin of the famous northern pike, we knew chain pickerel are found statewide inFlorida. Inhabiting lakes, ponds, marshes and rivers, they favor heavily vegetated areas, where their appetites are similar to that of largemouth bass, feeding primarily on fish but opportunistically on just about anything that happens to swim, crawl or splash in the water: Mice, snakes, crayfish. Late winter through spring, pickerel spawn in shallow, heavy weedbeds or flooded grass; they may linger in the same areas year-round, depending on water levels.
As might be expected, pickerel are ambush feeders, and while they are thought to be more active in warm waters, 75 to 80 degrees, they are eager and well-equipped to savage baits throughoutFlorida’s (usually) mild winters. A relative, the redfin pickerel, overlaps the chain pickerel’s habitat and may hybridize. Maximum recorded weight for chain pickerel inFloridais 8 pounds, a fish caught onLakeTalquinin 1971. The world record is 9.38 pounds. Average catch is 2 or 3 pounds.
Jack tossed a yellow popper while I was tying on a classic Rapala. First cast along the grass, Bam!
“Oh, shoot,” Jack yelled as he tried to fight the surging fish and grab something to dispatch it with.
Soon a writhing, somersaulting pickerel was doing its darndest to intimidate us. Jack’s hand was fingering his knife.
“Don’t give in,” I yelled. “Not yet anyway.”
The fish dove, searing Jack’s drag as 6-pound test disappeared from his spool. After that, the struggle was much like a bass.
Eventually a skinny, foot-long green and white sleeve of scales finned tranquilly by the canoe. “I don’t trust it,” Jack said, as I slid a landing net under our vanquished warrior, and soon-to-be dinner guest.
The fillets? Terrific, if you leave the skin on and make several small slashes along the length of each fillet. This dices up the tiny bones, which become barely noticeable after the fillets are breaded and fried.
Over the years, various FS writers have imparted their scanty wisdom concerning this fascinating fish. Chris Christian has put me in mind of the fact that in many circles the pickerel is referred to as a jack. He also stresses that once caught, the utmost caution must be exercised in dehooking said fish, because of the numerous sharp teeth.
Chris recommends shiners but expressed his true sentiments thusly: “Nothing is quite so satisfying as tying on a $7 lure and watching a parade of jacks turn it into a mangled piece of punctured balsa wood.” FS
First Published Florida Sportsman May 2010