Winter Pickerel – On The Water

Pictured: Chain pickerel enjoy murky, shallow water so they can swiftly ambush unsuspecting prey.

During the winter months, when largemouth bass seemingly disappear from Long Island’s fresh waters, chain pickerel supply enjoyable fishing for anglers willing to bear the cold.
Long Island pickerel grow to between 18 and 24 inches in length, weighing 1 to 4 pounds, although plenty have been caught and documented in the 30-inch range. Named for the chainlike pattern along their yellow, green, and black bodies, they camouflage perfectly in the shallow, often swampy waters of Long Island. They sit still among the vegetation, patiently waiting for an unwitting meal to swim by.

Pickerel stalk their prey from behind, waiting for the right moment to strike, which leads to incredibly exciting takes. Thanks to a longer growing season, it’s no secret that Long Island waters hold some of the largest pickerel in the state.

Chain pickerel tend to be at their most aggressive in warm water, patrolling the structure along shorelines and shady overhangs. However, they are almost as active in cold water, taking advantage of sluggish baitfish. Chain pickerel feed voraciously through the mid-winter, fattening up for the early-spring spawn by gorging themselves on killifish, sunfish, frogs, and even mice.

juvenile pickerel
This ambitious pickerel hit a size 0 Mepps spinner in a shallow creek on Long Island.

If you catch a pickerel, don’t get your fingers too close to its mouth. This fish doesn’t just inhale its prey as a bass does; instead, it grabs it with small, needle-sharp teeth. If fishing for chain pickerel in cold weather, it’s smart to wear gloves, but avoid handling the fish with a dry glove because this may damage its protective layer of slime.

Winter pickerel fishing is a terrific opportunity to put a bend in the rod before the arrival of the vernal equinox because they spawn just after the ice thaws (if it was frozen). On Long Island, it’s possible that some ponds never freeze over, allowing you to catch pickerel throughout winter.

Fitting for their looks, chain pickerel are not the most loving or caring parents. They don’t build a bed for their eggs like bass or sunfish, but rather leave the eggs attached to vegetation or structure.

After the spawn, which can be as early as late February, if a warm day rolls around, pickerel feed ravenously on topwater lures and flies; otherwise, Long Island anglers can bet on catching using spoons/tins, inline spinners, soft-plastic paddletails, jerkbaits, frogs … the list goes on. Generally, if it moves and is presented properly, a chain pickerel will probably take it—or at least size it up with a follow.

Long Island pickerel map
Long Island Pickerel Ponds
1. Hempstead Lake/South Pond
2. Seaman’s Pond/Twin Lakes Preserve
3. Great Patchogue Lake
4. Artist Lake
5. Peconic Lake

To ramp up the excitement, hop into a small craft like a canoe or kayak after a few sunny days and watch the madness ensue. Casting along ledges and drop-offs, dense weed lines, and especially toward the shoreline should produce fish using any of the aforementioned lures.

It’s smart to use lightweight setups if you want to experience the power these fish have, but be sure to select your line appropriately. The teeth of a sizeable pickerel can repeatedly break off anglers using fluorocarbon or monofilament. I use lighter line, but it’s helpful in thicker vegetation to use braid or higher pound-test line for the leader. The pickerel don’t mind, though, and are seldom finicky eaters. I have tied braided line directly to my lure many times and had no problem hooking and landing hefty fish. They are certainly not line shy.

Around mid-March in 2020, I hopped on the Long Island Expressway and tore east without a lick of traffic to slow me down from hitting my favorite pickerel pond. There had just been a yellow perch spawn, so every single type of Rapala I had was in perch pattern. I hiked down a long path to a muddy, unkempt boat launch, awkwardly lugging my kayak and gear down the trail where I was to meet my friends. Unbeknownst to me, this was about to be the most epic day of pickerel fishing in my entire life. Two weeks into March, there was warm, sunny weather around 52 degrees with a slight wind out of the Northwest. I paddled to my typical productive spots and situated the kayak perpendicular to the shoreline so I could cast directly at the drop-offs and weed lines. I finished the day with 12 chain pickerel all around 20 inches, several largemouth bass, a handful of the largest bluegills I had ever seen, and a new personal-best yellow perch.

kayak pickerel
In cold water, pickerel will eagerly attack slow-sinking soft plastics fished with slow retrieves and frequent pauses.

This was a healthy lake, about 45 feet down at the deepest, and the fish were all clearly eating well. When the bluegill are eating well, the fish that prey on them eat well too.

Ecstatic after only 2 hours of fishing, I began to paddle back to the launch. I threw one more yellow-perch-patterned floating Shad Rap and began to work it through the water column, using a few twitches and a long pause to allow it to rise. As I neared the launch, I gave one last cast along a steep ledge, where the water went from 3 to 15 feet deep, using the same retrieval pattern. I twitched twice but felt no vibration or motion on the second. My line was taut and nothing moved, so I thought my trebles were stuck in a submerged tree branch. Suddenly, my rod keeled over, and the “branch” took off.

Matt Haeffner with pickerel
The author with a hearty pickerel caught from a cold, Long Island pond.

When I saw the fish surface, I nearly lost it. I called my friends over to help me land this enormous chain pickerel, which was too long to fit in my net. I couldn’t get control of it alone, so my friends helped me grab my lip grip to land it. I snapped a couple of photos of this warrior pickerel before releasing it, knowing I would never forget that outing or that fish, even without pictures.

Pike and muskie fishermen can enjoy those prehistoric giants without my jealousy, at least for now. I fully appreciate the power, aggression, stealth, and speed of Long Island’s native esox species.

Long Island may not be known or appreciated as a freshwater fishery due to its amazing accessibility to world-class saltwater fishing. However, when the saltwater species swim south, chain pickerel remain, ready to attack lures and terrorize the local baitfish populations.

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