Fly Fishing for Chain Pickerel
By Rob Woodruff
Late winter offers few choices to fly fishermen in our part of the world. Trips to tail waters in Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arkansas, pursuing winter put and take trout and checking out rumors of the start of the Sand Bass runs comprise most of the on the water opportunities. But there is one prime target that goes overlooked at this time of year. A fish that pursues flies in shallow water, hits hard, fights hard and even jumps on occasion. Chain Pickerel.
Locally known as "Jackfish" or "Pike" the native range of Chain Pickerel occurs east of a line that roughly follows I-45. The population density and average size of the fish seems to increase as you head east. The Texas state record is from Caddo Lake and weighed in at close to 5 1/2 pounds. The world record was caught in Georgia and weighed in at 9lbs. 6oz. Lakes with good populations of Pickerel in Texas include Caddo, Hawkins, Pat Mayse, Lake oâ€™ the Pines, Raven, Daingerfield and Toledo Bend. Lake Bistineau near Shreveport, Louisiana also contains good populations.
Top flies for Pickerel are streamers and poppers. Streamers or poppers in white, chartreuse, yellow and silver (and combinations thereof) work well most days, but on some days the fish seem to prefer darker colors like black, olive and purple. A 3 or 4 weight rod with a floating line is a good match, and a sink tip fly line is not a bad idea on sunny days.
Tactics are based on the weather and time of day. During low light level periods (morning, evening and cloudy days) look for Pickerel in grassy coves and on flats. During these conditions, they will often be found in a few inches of water right along the shore. During the afternoon periods on bright days, Pickerel seek the low light levels provided by Lilly Pad fields, the shade of shoreline trees and deep water. A bend back style fly is the best choice for working through the Lilly Pads with a minimum of hang-ups. In more open water look for drop offs and break lines near grassy areas and fish deeper either by adding weight or a sink tip to your fly line.
Like their cousins the Northern Pike and Muskellunge, Pickerel are well equipped in the dental department. A pair of long forceps or a Ketchum Release is a must have item for releasing the Pickerel. If you choose to use your fingers, pack a first aid kit. Although some books advise the use of wire leaders, I have found that 2x or 3x tippet along with fastidious checking of leaders and knots is the best choice. Make it a habit to check your leader for fraying after every fish landed and every strike missed.
Pickerel offer a good opportunity to tune up your casting arm before the spring season and many of the waters they occur in are pretty and peaceful at this time of year. They also are a good excuse to get that kayak, belly boat or personal watercraft out on the water. If you donâ€™t have a small watercraft of your own, canoes and rowboats are available for rent at Caddo, Daingerfield and Huntsville State Parks. It is especially important to wear a life jacket while on the water in the winter. The insulation of a life jacket is almost as important as the floatation it provides if you are immersed in cold water.
I think that Pickerel are a great do it yourself trip. However, I will be offering a limited number of half and full day guided trips in my drift boat during February and early March for those that wish to let somebody else row while they enjoy the fishing.
Feel free to contact me if you have further questions about pursuing this great wintertime fly fishing quarry.
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