5/9/2019 9:27:14 AM
By Trevor Knight
It has razor-sharp teeth, lightning-fast speed, and will fight to the end.
No angler will soon forget a strike from a pickerel, one of the great sport fish in Mississippi that always offer a memorable experience. If you have ever wanted to catch a barracuda—and fishing the ocean was not an option—then the pickerel would be the freshwater equivalent.
About the Species
Pickerel are a member of the pike family. There are seven recognized pike species worldwide, four of which are found in the United States: muskellunge, northern pike, chain pickerel, and American pickerel, which has two sub-species (redfin pickerel and the grass pickerel). There is also a sterile hybrid cross between a muskellunge and a northern pike called a tiger muskie. The chain pickerel, redfin pickerel, and grass pickerel are found in Mississippi and have the highest temperature tolerance.
Chain pickerel is the state’s most common pickerel species. It has an elongated body with olive green sides and a white belly. It gets its name from the distinctive pattern of interlocking dark bands along its sides. The mouth has a duck-bill shape with numerous teeth. A dark vertical bar extends under the eye. Redfin pickerel and grass pickerel can be distinguished from the chain pickerel by their smaller size, shorter snout, lack of a chain-like pattern, and the dark bar under the eye is slanted back towards the gills. Redfin and grass pickerel have green to olive brown sides with lighter wavy bars along the sides. Redfin pickerel typically have bright red fins, hence the name.
Pickerel spawn during the late winter or early spring, when water temperatures range from 40 to 59 degrees. Pickerel are not nest builders. Their sticky eggs are attached to vegetation and left unguarded. Eggs hatch in 6 to 12 days. After hatching, fry feed on aquatic insects and plankton until they are approximately three inches in length. At this point, they switch to a diet of fish and crustaceans. They typically reach maturity in two years. Pickerel are ambush predators, lying in wait for prey to swim by.
Catching Pickerel: Where, When, & How
Pickerel can live up to 8 to 9 years. In Mississippi, chain pickerel typically weigh between 1 and 3 pounds, but the state record is 6 pounds, 4 ounces (caught at Bay Springs Lake). The International Game Fish Association (IGFA) world record is 9 pounds, 6 ounces (caught in Georgia). Females grow larger than males in the pike family. The average length for chain pickerel is 14 to 19 inches, while the average length for redfin and grass pickerel is 6 to 10 inches. Chain pickerel can reach a maximum length of approximately 30 inches, while redfin and grass pickerel reach a maximum of 15 to 16 inches. Pickwick Lake, Bay Springs Lake, Ross Barnett Reservoir, Lake Tangipahoa, Lake Columbia, Lake Bill Waller, and Geiger Lake have established pickerel populations. A common denominator of all of these lakes is that they have aquatic vegetation.
Anglers occasionally catch pickerel while bass fishing. Shallow diving crankbaits, lipless crankbaits, jerkbaits, topwater baits, swimbaits, and inline spinners are all very effective. Pickerel are attracted to bright and flashy colors such as chrome, gold, red, orange, and chartreuse. Medium power casting or spinning rods, in the six to seven feet length range, are ideal for pickerel. Line size should be in the 8- to 17-pound test range. Since pickerel do have teeth, expect to lose a few lures. Braided line can help reduce the number of lures lost. Anglers should focus on shallow areas with vegetation and wood present.
Pickerel prefer clear water since they rely on sight for feeding. Late fall through early spring is the best time to catch pickerel since they are a cool water fish. When other fish are lethargic in the winter, pickerel will readily bite. Aggressive presentations will attract strikes from pickerel. This can make pickerel a great fish for beginners since an angler can simply reel their lure fast and get vicious strikes from these toothy critters. There are no length or creel limits on pickerel in Mississippi.
The best way to land and handle a pickerel is to grab it across the back right behind the gills. Do not place your hand on the inside of the gill plate unless you are wearing a glove.
Pickerel thrive in waters rich in aquatic vegetation, which is exposed in this photo of Lake Bill Waller during a drawdown.
After the catch
Members of the pike family have a razor-sharp bone structure on the inside of the gill plate. It will easily cut a hand if the fish shakes and thrashes. It is believed that this bony structure helps prevent prey from passing through the gill plate as the fish inhales it.
Although they have many small Y bones, pickerel are considered good table fare. They have a flaky white meat that is mild in taste. Some anglers will filet the picker-el like any other fish, and then cut out the Y bones running down the middle of each filet. The filets can be cooked in a number of different ways depending on personal preference. Several video tutorials can be found online demonstrating the best way to filet pickerel free of the Y bones.
Trevor Knight is a fisheries biologist for MDWFP.