Pickerel pilgrimage

The first fish I strongly recollect catching was a northern pike. This is not an unusual memory for people growing up in the North and Canada's midwest. I was four years old and it was my first summer in the Northwest Territories. In my hand was a Zebco caster adorned with a red devil spoon dangling from the end of the line. This would be my lure for the next half-dozen years: red devils for pike; yellow and red five of diamonds for lake trout, and yellow rubber tail jigs for pickerel (more on that later). 

Of course, there were far more pike than there were trout and pickerel in those formative years. A 10-foot cast from a rock at the shore of a lake on the side of the road was all that it took to get oneself into the game. And thus, this was how my first pike was landed. There would be many more. Many, many more. I told my angling companions on an adventure to New York state last weekend that my lifetime northern pike count was around 4,000. This is a purely speculative number of course, but after 40 years of catching them it does not seem unreasonable to me. That's 100 fish a year. I didn't catch a lot of pike punk rocking out in Vancouver during my early 20s but there were outings in the late 1990s/early aughts where 100 pike caught in a weekend was not all that exceptional. Three-pound pike are to the North what pumpkinseed sunfish and dink smallmouth bass are to Ontario. It's not hard to catch a lot them. So to say I've caught thousands of pike there is no doubt.

I was around 12 and living in Manitoba when, while scouring through one of my books on fish, I discovered the existence of pickerel, true pickerel -- pike in miniture.There's about as many pickerel in Manitoba as there are in the Northwest Territories so a lifetime has gone by without actually seeing a true pickerel. I've seen lots of pickerel, by that I mean the name that to this day, most Canadians think of when they see a walleye. So when Roughfish member Eli suggested that while I was visiting my wife's family in Ottawa after vacationing in Florida that we make an ice fishing excursion into New York state, to a lake that contained chain pickerel, I was mightily intrigued. I've been waiting to catch this fish for decades, a pike unlike all the other pike after pike I've been catching for years. So , at 4 a.m. last Saturday, Eli picked me and my brother-in-law Corey up and a way we went.

It was a three-and-a-half hour drive to the pickerel grounds -- through Amish country and stunted Adirondack hills. It was snowing and I had a double-ear infection from too much swimming in Florida. I did the usual lifelist splurge while hanging out in the Florida Keys. Fifteen hours of fishing produced 20 new lifelisters. I am particularly proud of my collection of parrotfish but my anticipation was building toward New York and chain pickerel. So if anybody wants to check out my Florida fish go ahead, they're in my updated lifelist, but I'm focusing on pickerel for this report.

The border guard was particularly perplexed when we drove up to his window -- the only vehicle to arrive at that ungodly hour.

"Why are you guys going to New York for ice fishing?" he asked puzzled. "There's ice everywhere."

"Sir, we're entering your state to fish for chain pickerel," Eli replied emphatically.

The guard handed back our passports and we were on our way south toward Syracuse and pickerel.

Ken and Roughfish member MichaelAngelo were already at the lake when we arrived, having driven in from Toronto, which is even further away. It was my first time meeting either one of them and I was pleased they had already drilled numerous holes and had brought a cooler full of live minnows. Eli had graciously loaned me his MarCum flasher and after tying on a small jig head armed with a fresh shiner and stinger hook, I was fishing for pickerel. About 15 minutes later a large blip raced onto the dial and briefly merged with my lure before backing away -- a typical wintertime pike response if there ever was one. A few seconds later it charged back and grabbed my bait. Is this my lifelister pickerel or some stupid bass, I wondered.

After a short but spirited fight I had my answer. My first non-walleye pickerel was flopping on the snow beside me, having fallen off the stinger as soon as I pulled it up through the hole. A good one too, maybe 1.5 pounds, and the first fish of the day for anybody. Definitely time to make a face!

Not long after one of deadstick lines Ken had set was sprung and he gave me the go ahead to try for another, and up came my second pickerel in less than hour.

The bite slowed considerably after that. Eli and my brother-in-law, in fact would finish the day skunked so I was grateful to get the pickerel while I could. Michael did, however, hook into a fish that stayed down and pulled out a good stretch of line. All of us were surprised to see him produce a large cisco. The lake we were on is not particularly deep -- maximum depth is 35 feet -- so there was some wonder as to what happens to these fish during the dog days of summer when the water ought to be very warm and not particularly welcoming to normally cold-loving fish.

Soon after, Roughfish member Krazyk appeared on the scene. He also caught a lifelister pickerel last weekend.

It was assumed that Michael's cisco was simply a freak catch. He proved everyone wrong when he pulled in his second jumbo cisco of the day a couple hours later, caught on a smallish X-Rap in about 10 feet of water.

Of course, everyone now focused on ciscoes to see if they could repeat Michael's cisco trick themselves. I caught a bunch of dink yellow perch and one bonus largemouth bass but had no luck with the ciscoes.

Ken and Michael ended the day by totally upping the ante with what has to be the most audacious double-header I've ever seen -- Michael with a pickerel and Ken with the third cisco caught that day. A jumbo cisco and a chain pickerel in the same pic? Has this even been photographed before?

Anyway, a great day was had by all. A most fulfilling one for me after decades of nothing but northern pike, a new Esox under my belt. Cheers guys.



Species List:


krazyk's picture

It was an awesome day. I got to meet some awesome people and incredible anglers.

Ken's deadstick rig was pretty cool too and something I will surely copy and use next ice season. I had tip ups with stolen bait but no tripped flags quite a number of times while I was trying to catch pickerel all season but it wasn't until I saw Ken's rig until I realized where my downfall was. The pickerel  don't seem to run after they grab the bait... it's almost like they kinda sit there and chew on it for quite a while. With Ken's rig you were able to hear the strike and watch the line move about slowly before setting the hook. I'm convinced Pickerel were chewing up my bait and spitting the hook on my tip ups before I even had a chance in hell of setting the hook (because I never knew they were there!)


Chain Pickerel: All the bad assery of a Northern Pike wrapped up in a smaller, prettier package.

Eli's picture

Those pickerel better watch out - the ciscos will eat them all!

A lot of fun that day, despite being skunked, I really enjoy seeing my budddies catching fish...and having learned something new about that pond will make for more interesting outings in the future. 




krazyk's picture

Hey Eli, you may have not caught anything but if it weren't for you none of us would have met up there! :)

Chain Pickerel: All the bad assery of a Northern Pike wrapped up in a smaller, prettier package.

drawer.bli's picture

Man those are some nice fish, especially those ciscoes! 

Those pickerel are also so much more colorful than my first... Maybe it's the water?

It looks like you guys had a great time!

andy's picture

Mike, one of my earliest fishing memories was also catching a pike - on a red and white dardevle.  I love the look of those chain pickerel, and look forward to catching one some day.  Great trip, guys, and thanks for sharing!

Hengelaar's picture

That looks like a bunch of fun. Cold, though!

Neat looking pickerel, and those Cisco are thick! And just so damn cool looking.


Same here, by the way, the first fish I strongly recollect catching is a pike, too. I remember where it was. I remember how big it was (49 cm!). I remember the semi-transparent/blue jointed Bomber I got it on. I remember where I lost that lure later.


Oh, to taste the bliss of a new Esox under my belt...

(Or a Coregonid)


Fishn sure is neat

Mike B's picture

Considering its range I guess I should've considered how not only Canada but a good chunk of the northern hemisphere, including the U.S. and Europe would have had anglers whose first acquaintance would've been pike. Crazy record keeping Gijs. All I remember about my first pike was that it was small compared to today's standards.

Catching a new Esox has definitely been the thrill of 2015 so far for me.now I dream of muskellunge and grass pickerel.

mike b