By Ed Mashburn
Chasing the “barracuda” of Florida lakes and rivers.
Chain pickerel are quick to strike spinner baits. They seem to like the flash, and the weedless characteristics of the lures enable anglers to fish in the weedy, grassy cover preferred by pickerel.
Way I see it, there’s not any kind of fishing much more exciting than pulling a buzzbait or weedless in-line spinner across a field of lily pads and having a big pickerel come blasting up to engulf the bait.
These little killers take to the air often, and they make some very determined runs. Catching pickerel is not a calm sort of fishing—it’s a real kick when a 2-foot missile comes rocketing up out of the weeds, shaking its head and baring those long, sharp teeth. Anglers more familiar with the Florida salt immediately recognize these attributes—pickerel are reminiscent of barracuda. Whether they share a common ancestor with the saltwater barracuda, or not, is up for debate, but chain pickerel are closely related to the northern pike and muskellunge, prime targets for anglers who live up in the frozen north of the United States and into Canada.
In most fisheries, big, toothy fish are considered top-shelf sportfish. But in Florida fresh water, where bass is king, when’s the last time you heard fishermen discuss tomorrow’s prospects for catching pickerel?
The chain pickerel is smaller than its northern cousins, but just as fierce and much more eager to strike an angler’s offerings. Even though the Florida state record for chain pickerel is just eight pounds, the vicious strike and strong fight of these fish make up for their smaller size.
Florida’s chain pickerel gets its name from the chain-like golden bands of colors on its basically greenish sides. Pickerel are quite attractive fish, and they are very willing to fiercely strike a lure and then provide an active, aerial fight once hooked. Florida pickerel don’t get extremely large—a 4-pounder is a respectable fish. The state record pickerel came from Lake Talquin in 1971, and that 8-pounder was a real stud of a pickerel.
Although the fish is found through much of the Florida peninsula, pickerel fishing in the Panhandle region is especially good. Pickerel are most commonly encountered by anglers looking for bass, and this is key to finding good pickerel fishing. In fact, wherever largemouth bass live, pickerel live.
Captain Allan Duke guides on Lake Talquin, Lake Jackson and other Panhandle waters, and he sees and catches pickerel— they are called “jacks” by anglers in that area, by the way—and he gives us some good information about these lightning-fast freshwater tigers.
“Good places to find pickerel in our region are the blackwater creeks,” Duke says. “Any of the creeks or rivers with clear but dark-colored water are good. Many of the creeks which feed into the Apalachicola River hold some good pickerel. In particular, Kennedy Creek, Owl Creek, and West Arm Creek around Wewahitchka are very good.”
For better sized pickerel, anglers should look at Owl Creek, which holds some very respectable—3-pound and bigger—pickerel in the upper reaches of the creek.
Fishing for the Freshwater Barracuda
To catch a pickerel, you have to present it with what it wants, where it wants.
Pickerel are fish eaters, plain and simple. Anglers won’t go far wrong by using brightly colored lures which flash and sparkle and look like a minnow of some kind.
Spinnerbaits are absolutely deadly on pickerel. An in-line or safety-pin style spinnerbait retrieved fairly quickly near vegetation is the best call for pickerel. A silver or gold weedless spoon with a white trailer is great for pickerel. Cast the spoon across the weeds or pads and bring it back fast enough to keep it over the weeds. There will be no doubt when the pickerel hits the lure.
“Pickerel spend their time eating fish,” says Duke. “They’re not like bass which love to eat crawfish. Pickerel eat fish.
Any lure with ‘fish colors’ will work, but bright chartreuse and yellow spinnerbaits are great.”
Anglers can sometimes—especially in warm weather when the shallows get too hot—catch pickerel in water as deep as 10 or 12 feet. However, pickerel always look upwards for their next meal, and they are vicious topwater strikers. It is very common to see the approaching wake of a chain pickerel as it targets a topwater plug. This is enough to test the nerves of most anglers, but it is a whole lot of fun.
In particular, anglers should look for vegetation in the water—the thicker, the better.
“They love lily pads,” says Duke. “If you’ve got a place with lily pads, pickerel are probably there.”
Pickerel just don’t seem to be as skittish or nervous about an angler’s presence when they hold under lily pads. It is possible to catch several nice ones from a limited area of lily pads. Other aquatic grasses will hold pickerel if pads are not present, but a nice blackwater creek with a lily pad-covered area of backwater is a prime location for some fast pickerel action.
And what about those teeth?
“If you’re going after pickerel, you will want to use a short length of light wire leader,” says Duke. “Pickerel will cut off lures tied on straight monofilament.” The guide’s best advice for potential Florida pickerel anglers: “Get some strong line and a short length of fine wire leader. Fish fast and hang on. Oh, yeah: Don’t put your fingers in its mouth.” FS
First Published Florida Sportsman June 2014