Water wolverines provide outstanding sport
By John N. Felsher
Often called jackfish, southern pike, duckbill, and other names – including a few unfit to print – chain pickerel hit extremely hard and fight with speed and ferocity, but most Alabama anglers consider them a major nuisance.
Sometimes erroneously called pike, chain pickerel resemble northern pike, but seldom exceed 30 inches long or weigh more than three pounds. The Alabama state record weighed 6 pounds, 6 ounces and came from the Perdido River system in Baldwin County. A similar species, redfin pickerel, range across southern Alabama, but rarely weigh more than a pound. The state record redfin only weighed 13 ounces.
“Chain pickerel are native to Alabama, but not many people target them,” says Chris Greene, an Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division biologist. “Chain pickerel are found throughout the state. They look similar to northern pike, but a chain pickerel gets its name from the chain-like markings on its side.”
Chain pickerel range from southern Canada to Florida and west across the Mississippi Valley to Texas. Abundant in most Alabama river and reservoir systems, pickerel thrive best in large sluggish streams and oxbows with minimal current and thick vegetation. The rivers, lakes, bayous, creeks, sloughs and backwaters of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta near Mobile probably offer the best pickerel fishing in Alabama.
“Chain pickerel tend to go more in the backwaters, but anglers can find them in main channels and secondary creeks,” Greene says. “They generally prefer more clear water and tend to orient toward aquatic vegetation. Some better Alabama waters for catching chain pickerel include the Mobile-Tensaw River drainage, the Tennessee River, Warrior River and other places.”
While small in stature, chain pickerel more than compensate with swiftness and viciousness. These voracious killers love aquatic weeds, the thicker the better. In dense grass or lily pad patches, pickerel typically hover motionless, using their splendid splotchy green camouflage to hide as they wait to ambush enticing morsels that wander into range.
When they spot something irresistible, pickerel viciously flash out with incredible speed to sink their needle-like teeth into prey – or lures!
“I’ve always caught pickerel in the backwaters and up the creeks around weeds,” says Cliff Mundinger, an angler. “They love being around thick matted grass, lily pads, hydrilla and other vegetation. Pickerel are very exciting fish to catch. When they hit a bait, you know it. A 3-pound chain pickerel will put up a great fight, especially on light tackle.”
Highly aggressive, pickerel feed primarily upon fish, including threadfin shad, sunfish, shiners, minnows and other succulent morsels, but may attack anything. These opportunistic predators occasionally eat crawfish, lizards, snakes, amphibians and even mice or small birds that venture too close to the water. Sometimes, they grab dragonflies perched on grass stems or even leap from the water to snatch low-flying insects from the air.
Caught by accident
“A pickerel will hit just about anything a bass might hit,” Greene says. “A lot of anglers consider them trash, but they can be fun to catch. They are powerful fish and hard hitters.”
In Alabama, anglers mostly catch chain pickerel by accident when fishing for bass. Crappie anglers also frequently catch pickerel when fishing weedy waters with minnows, threadfin shad, shiners or other live bait. Almost any lure or live bait that might tempt a largemouth bass or crappie could provoke a vicious strike from a chain pickerel, including spinnerbaits, jerkbaits, spoons, crankbaits and similar lures. They occasionally hit topwater baits and relentlessly pursue weedless frogs buzzed across matted grass.
When hooked, they put up a spirited fight with lightning runs and powerful lunges. They frequently jump like largemouth bass. People intentionally fishing for these water wolves should use short steel leaders to prevent them from slicing through line with their razor teeth.
“My two favorite baits to catch jackfish are spinnerbaits and jerkbaits,” Mundinger says. “Jacks absolutely love a jerkbait because they are primarily fish feeders. I also like to catch them on topwater frogs run through the lily pads. In the middle of summer, anyone throwing a frog over grass in the backwaters will most likely catch a jack.”
Big pickerel make excellent eating, but smaller versions of these long, skinny fish don’t yield much meat. Most people release them because of their numerous small bones, but the white, flaky meat tastes delicious with a mild flavor and no oily taste.
Handle pickerel with care. Sometimes called snakefish, these agile toothy beasts often bend their bodies and shake violently looking for something to bite when grabbed. If they don’t bite a person, they might drive a hook into a finger. Also pay attention to the very sharp gill plates that can slice flesh. Use pliers to remove the hooks in order to avoid those teeth.
Although pickerel don’t receive much love or attention in Alabama, they can turn a humdrum day into an exciting excursion for any light-tackle enthusiast fishing in weedy waters.
John N. Felsher lives in Semmes, Ala. Contact him through Facebook.