Pictured: With a mouth like that, pickerel are at the top of the aquatic food chain in the Pine Barrens, with baitfish, rodents, and juvenile waterfowl all on the menu.
At my childhood home, there was a strip of woods between my house and a minor road. In the parcel, a tiny stream meandered lazily through the foliage and underbrush. It was no more than 7 feet at its widest, and it narrowed to 3 feet in other spots. It had that distinctive smell of fresh water with an faint odor of pollution.
As a young fisherman who fished anywhere water flowed, one day I decided to fish the creek 50 yards behind my house. Using an Abu Garcia combo lined with 6-pound-test Stren monofilament that led to a skirted jig, I hit the first small pool created by a downed tree. Instantly, a 7-inch chain pickerel ravaged my bait. I was so elated with the catch that I ran all the way home to show my father, then all the way back to release the fish. Amazingly, the disgruntled fish swam away.
As I worked the length of the creek, I caught more pickerel—releasing them immediately without a trip home—and fell in love with the species along the way.
That house was about 10 minutes outside of the Pine Barrens. Before long, my love of fishing led me to this pickerel paradise.
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The Pine Barrens
The Pine Barrens, primarily known as the Pinelands to people outside the region, covers portions of Atlantic, Burlington, Cape May, Camden, Ocean and Cumberland counties in its sprawling 1-million-plus acres. Some areas are densely wooded and others suburban.
Today, I live about 5 minutes outside the Pinelands Nature Preserve, and although horseback riding, cycling, birding, canoeing, camping, and hiking are all extremely popular with visitors to the area, it’s the chain pickerel fishing that continues to bring me back. I’ve logged more than 20 Pine Barrens trips per season during each of the last 5 years.
The water of the Pine Barrens is notoriously tea-colored from the tannic acids leached into the groundwater by Atlantic white cedar trees, pine needles, and naturally occurring iron. The water has decent clarity but peering into it can be compared to looking through bronze-tinted sunglasses. Largemouth may reign supreme in many South and Central Jersey fresh water bodies, but the acidity of the Pine Barrens waters proves inhospitable to bass; chain pickerel, however, thrive in these dark waters.
Finding Pinelands Pickerel Lakes, Ponds, and Bogs
Some of the best-known lakes for Pine Barrens pickerel include Atsion Lake, Batsto Lake, Pakim Pond, Bargaintown Lake, Lake Lenape, Chatsworth Lake, Harrisville Pond, and Mirror Lake. According to the State of New Jersey, the vast majority of lakes in the Pine Barrens were manmade in congruence with industry and mill work. Most are shallow, but that’s fine since the chains flourish on a freshwater version of flats. The lakes within state park land have the best access, unless there are closures due to storm damage.
Looking at a map of this region reveals many lesser-known lakes and ponds tucked into the dense forest. Quite a few have access available on some shores but may be restricted on others, like Lake Lilly in Galloway Township. It’s a decent pickerel pond, with average catches ranging from 8 to 10 inches, but access is poor, with one small stretch available. From private campgrounds to swim clubs to residences, there are stretches that can’t be fished without permission. A canoe, cartopper boat, or kayak will open up a substantial amount of pickerel habitat, however.
Many waters can be glimpsed through the pines while driving down the White Horse Pike, Route 206, and Route 72. Keeping a rod in the truck allows me to inspect them for signs of life. Similar to the lakes and ponds are the swampy bogs that lie within the Pinelands. The dense thorn bushes and tree branches make land access painful, and some paths may need a machete to get through.
Anglers must be mindful of the ticks that pervade the Pine Barrens. Hats, tick spray, and long pants followed by thorough checks after the outing are important because Lyme disease is prevalent here. The clean shorelines that allow enough space for casting on the bogs offers splendid opportunities for pickerel.
Many bogs are private, and fishermen must ask permission to access, but Double Trouble State Park in Ocean County is open to fishing and holds a good pickerel contingent.
There are hundreds of small streams and creeks that snake through the Pine Barrens. They wind and flow gently through the forest landscape, usually connecting to a bog, pond, or lake. They are seldom fished, and their potential of housing untapped pickerel populations is extremely high.
Most Pine Barren creeks are clean, clear and likely to supply fishermen with great fishing in relative solitude. It’s the Pine Barrens version of blue-lining for wild brook trout.
Generally, pickerel in the Pinelands’ lakes and ponds range from what most anglers would call “small to decent-sized,” but the rivers within the Pine Barrens are where the big pickerel live.
On Egg Harbor, Batsto, Wading, and Bass rivers, fishermen talk in pounds instead of inches. A friend of mine’s dad had an 8-pounder mounted above his fireplace that was caught in the Egg Harbor River on a minnow. Freshwater rivers and headwaters contain the habitat and, more importantly, the forage base needed for pickerel to grow large.
To chase large pickerel in the rivers, use a lure or bait that’s almost too big. Back when river herring were legal bait, striped-bass anglers regularly caught their personal-best chain pickerel on live herring.
River fishing allows more boaters to get in on the action, meaning the tin-boat brigade is often joined by the kayak crew. Anchoring and casting still works, but Spot Lock applications work even better. Fan-cast the sweet spots and move on appropriately.
Since river water maintains more current than lakes, reeling into the flow helps spoons and blades turn and vibrate steadily, thus producing a better stimulus. Structure that’s adjacent to shore to explore includes bulkheads, docks, rocks, fallen trees, and small islands of marshes.
Pickerel Lures and Presentations
Spoons are pickerel classics, and the Johnson Silver Minnow is tops for this application. Another go-to of mine is the Johnson Slimfish, but tailor the size to the outing. Smaller pickerel ponds might have anglers using 1/8 ounce lures, while larger waters call for larger ones. The Dardevle that have worked forever are another preferred model.
Hollow-body frogs can also draw vicious attacks from chains. Slow-sinking stickbaits, rigged weedless, are also effective. Use a slower retrieve with worms, frogs, and jerk shads, while metals should be fished through the zone with more speed. This tactic will keep them off the bottom in many of the shallow destinations. Experimentation is key, and once a few strikes come, it’s important to mimic what has worked.
Wading for Pickerel
When prospecting a lake, fan-cast your presentation out and along the shorelines. Chain pickerel aren’t super spooky, but they will dart away with a healthy splash if you startle them; otherwise, they’ll hover and stalk like barracuda. If they bite and miss, they will keep coming back on multiple casts—they are rarely one-and-done biters.
Lily pads and underwater growth that flourish during the warmer months provide hideouts for hungry pickerel and opportunities for anglers using weedless presentations. Shallow points that extend to deeper water deserve extra attention.
Chain pickerel can be caught 12 months of the year, but late winter and spring are my favorite times to pursue them. It’s a great way to get my freshwater season going, and the fish live within a short bike ride from my house. When summer rolls around, the bugs and weed growth in the shallows can make fishing more difficult, so I have switched over to saltwater fishing by then anyway. But when the weather gets cold, and saltwater fishing slows down, I return to the Pine Barrens, where the pickerel will be hungry.