Post date: Sunday, March 4, 2012 - 12:50
Updated date: 10/13/19
Chain Pickerel - Esox niger

The chain pickerel is like a smaller version of the northern pike, capable of reaching weights up to 9 pounds but usually the ones you will encounter are much smaller.  This species is known for its aggressive behavior and affinity to attack artificial lures and flies.  They have a high tolerance for very acidic water and can be found in a variety of habitats.


Other namesThe chain pickerel has many other local names including pike, river pike, grass pike, jack, jackfish, eastern pickerel, federation pickerel, chainsides, mud pickerel, black chain pike and duck-billed pike.


The chain pickerel can sometimes be confused with other members of the pike family, especially northern pike and grass pickerel.  It gets it's name from the chain-like marking along its sides. The northern pike’s spots do not appear large in relation to the background, whereas in the chain pickerel the lighter areas are more prevalent.  Chain pickerel have fully scaled cheeks and gill covers. This also distinguishes it from the northern pike, which usually has no scales on the bottom half of the gill cover.  Chains have a distinct vertical black bar on their face that runs through the eye, which northern pike do not.  To distinguish from the closely-related and much smaller grass pickerel, besides the chain-like markings esox niger has a more deeply-forked tail and a longer snout.

Chains kick ass. Each fish is a unique, toothy work of art.



     Chain pickerel can look very differently depending on the region or water that they come from.


Chain Pickerel are found in a variety of water types throughout their range.  Tannic and acidic waters are good areas to look for them as sometimes they are the only real predator to frequent these places.  They have even been known to move into brackish water to feed on the herring runs coming from the ocean.  Cypress swamps are perfect habitat for chain pickerel.  Don't overlook even the smallest of weed-choked creek channels, because these fish are very comfortable as ambush predators in extremely thick cover.

They don't seem to discriminate too much in terms of habitat. I've caught them from a tiny blackwater creek in Virginia, a weedy pond in New York, as well as a deep, medium sized impoundment. One thing about chains is that they are spreading. They've become established in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick (where they gorge on smelt and trout and grow huge) and numerous specimens have been caught from the St. Lawrence system.



Chain pickerel are a very aggressive predator, often lurking in thick woody cover or weeds and ambushing prey as it comes near.  They feed mainly on sunfish, shiners and shad but will take advantage of whatever piscene prey is available.  Pickerel are also known to eat frogs, crayfish, mice and salamanders.  


Perhaps the best way to target these fish is with artificial lures.  Good options would include small spinnerbaits (for thick cover), small rapalas, inline spinners, twister tail grubs, and rattling baits.  Fly anglers grab their attention with flashy streamers in the 3" range such as clouser minnows, decievers and zonkers.  White and silver are generally considered good colors for pickerel, but in stained water other colors may be better.  Focus your efforts around the edges of thick weeds, or pinpoint casts to pockets in the vegetation.  Tree roots and logs should be explored as well.


Natural baits are also very effective, with live shiners, chubs or small sunfish all being good options.  Rig them as the situation dictates - under a float or freelined along weed edges, bottom-rigged where current exists, or cast into pockets in the weeds freelined with only a simple hook.  Chain pickerel will also take small chunks of fresh cutbait if you can't find live baitfish.  Whether you fish with artificial lures or natural bait, a light wire leader should be used to prevent bite-offs from their sharp teeth.


Ice Fishing for Chain Pickerel

In the Northeast region, ice-fishing for chain pickerel can be extremely effective.  Some will claim that it is the best time to target them, as just like other members of the Pike family they remain very active in cold water.  Typically a number of tipups or setlines are deployed along weed edges baited with live or dead shiners.  While you wait for a tipup flag to fly, quickly jig through holes in the area with an active presentation.




Range Map

Photo Credits:

MNBowfinAngler, Eli, BlueEye, Fish Nerd, Krazy K, PMK, David G, Tyler Goodale

Lifelist Entries

Post date: Sunday, August 4, 2013 - 23:52
Post date: Sunday, June 4, 2023 - 15:51
dry creek, NC
Post date: Saturday, July 28, 2012 - 16:51
Deftiks secret Pikerel Pond PA
Post date: Thursday, December 5, 2019 - 11:02
Gardener Creek Pond (Bigfllats, NY)
Post date: Wednesday, May 15, 2019 - 15:21
Orlando, Florida
Post date: Saturday, March 24, 2012 - 18:42
Post date: Tuesday, March 12, 2013 - 23:19
Slocum Creek, North Carolina
Post date: Monday, June 4, 2018 - 21:01
Lake Moultrie, SC
Post date: Saturday, June 30, 2018 - 23:53
Post date: Wednesday, February 10, 2016 - 23:28
Post date: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - 02:58
Post date: Friday, September 7, 2018 - 03:13
Frankstown Branch Juniata River, PA
Post date: Friday, May 31, 2019 - 16:40
Ebenezer Creek, Savannah River tributary,...
Post date: Sunday, March 15, 2015 - 17:21
A small lake in north-central New York.
Post date: Saturday, August 4, 2012 - 01:10
A lake near Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada
Post date: Tuesday, October 29, 2019 - 18:16
Sandy River Reservoir, Prince Edward County, VA
Post date: Sunday, March 24, 2013 - 20:50
Clarks Creek, Tower City, PA
Post date: Friday, May 19, 2017 - 18:56
Post date: Wednesday, July 22, 2015 - 12:14
MO on a live blackstripe topminnow
Post date: Monday, May 30, 2022 - 11:37
Washington's Crossing, PA
Post date: Friday, April 8, 2022 - 23:55
Orlando, FL
Post date: Thursday, October 3, 2019 - 13:18
Post date: Sunday, October 15, 2017 - 17:25
Post date: Thursday, January 11, 2018 - 15:19
Lake Conway