Above: A winter pickerel that fell for a Z-Man Chatterbait, bladed swim jig.
Chain pickerel are the saving grace for year-round anglers throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. These native predators thrive in most freshwater bodies from remote, shallow swamps to deep, expansive lakes, and have a voracious appetite for just about anything that swims including small baitfish, panfish, frogs—even rodents and ducklings are subject to their insatiable appetites.
The average chain pickerel is 18 to 24 inches long (with maximum lengths of 28 to 30 inches) and fights hard on light gear. While they are often a bycatch for bass fishermen, their willingness to aggressively attack lures even in the cold-water season of November to March makes them a great winter and early spring target.
When selecting lures to fool these ambush predators, fishermen must consider their razor teeth, stealthy hunting style, and expansive diet. Here’s a selection of our favorite lures for chain pickerel, broken down by category.
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Soft Plastics for Pickerel
The lifelike profile, slow sink, and swimming action of soft-plastics make them pickerel candy. Soft plastics can be rigged a variety of ways, but because of the pickerel’s preferred habitat of vegetation and their weakness for baits that fall slowly on the pause, weedless swimbait hooks are the most effective.
In warmer water, pickerel will aggressively chase down straight or fluke-tail baits like a weightless-rigged Zoom Fluke fished with an erratic dart and pause retrieve. In cooler waters, a slow-steady retrieve of a paddle tail like a Keitech Fat Swing Impact rigged on a lightly weighted swimbait hook can be a deadly presentation. The pronounced kicking action on these wide-bodied 4-inch paddletails will grab the attention of any pickerel lingering in or around tall grasses and weed beds.
Old time classics, like the 3-inch Mister Twister Curly Tail Grub rigged on a 1/8-ounce jighead will always catch, but fishermen might find more success with newer baits like the Storm 360 GT Searchbait, which has a realistic baitfish profile, lifelike eyes, and a composite jighead that adds size and attraction to the presentation, but keeps weight down, allowing fishermen to swim it over the tops of weedbeds on the slow-to-moderate retrieve that’s best for picks.
Despite their versatile rigging options and natural appearance, the pitfall of some soft plastics is their short life span after a few encounters with pickerel teeth. However, paddletails like the Z-Man MinnowZ are constructed with toothy predators in mind and stretch rather than tear or puncture upon meeting the pickerel’s jaw.
Spinners and Spinnerbaits for Pickerel
Under bright, sunny skies, the shimmer put off by a classic inline spinner like the Mepps Aglia is an often overlooked yet deadly effective lure for pickerel. The blade on these lures rotates around a fixed point, creating a visible and audible target to pickerel. They’ll often follow these flashy spinners throughout the retrieve, seemingly mesmerized, before savagely attacking the lure just before it’s pulled from the water. Bump up the size from the standard 1/24- to 1/8-ounce spinners used for trout, and go with sizes #2, #3, and #4 in the Mepps Aglia (1/6, 1/4, and 1/3 ounce), and 2, 3, and 4 in the Blue Fox Vibrax (3/16, 1/4, and 5/8 ounce). Fish them along weedlines, over grasses, or just above rocky bottom structure.
Treble-hook-rigged inline spinners are more prone to grabbing weeds, so in dense vegetation, use single-hook inline spinners or spinnerbaits. These are more likely to stay clean long enough for a pickerel to take a swipe at them. Some single-hook inline spinners, like the Panther Martin HulaRunner, are designed to accomodate weedless-rigged soft plastics, adding more size and action to this classic lure style.
When pickerel have dialed in on larger baits like bluegills, perch and pumpkinseed sunfish, these wire-construction spinners create a plump profile that closely resemble the size, shape and swimming action of big baits. With the addition of a soft-plastic trailer, anglers can quickly and confidently cover water by swimming these lures over or around vegetation where panfish tend to congregate.
Spoons for Pickerel
Spoons are another classic pickerel-killer. Downsized versions of pike-fishing mainstays like the 2/5-ounce Eppinger Dardevle or the 1/4- or 1/2-ounce Willams Wabler are a great starting point, but any wide-bodied spoon that can swim high in the water column on a slow retrieve is certain to get a pickerel’s attention. Plus, the metal construction stands up to repeated attacks from the pickerel’s needle teeth.
Jerkbaits for Pickerel
While most anglers would sooner avoid multiple treble hooks when targeting toothy pickerel, no list of lures would be complete without mentioning a couple hard-bodied baits. To the dismay of cold-water bass anglers everywhere, pickerel are especially fond of suspending jerkbaits. At times a jerkbait is simply the best lure available for pickerel. You don’t need to go for a high-dollar model, for picks; old standbys like the Smithwick Rattlin’ Rogue, catch just as many pickerel today as they did for your grandpa. If unhooking the fish is a concern on a jerkbait you’ve dedicated to picks, clip two points off each treble hook. You may miss a couple extra fish, but a hungry pickerel usually comes back for a second or third try.
Jigs for Pickerel
The slow sink rate and pulsing silicone skirt of a swim jig looks like a wounded bluegill or pond shiner, making these lures one of the most deadly presentations for pickerel. Tipped with a paddle-tail trailer, this is a bulky offering that can be slow-rolled right along the bottom or just under the surface, giving an angler full control over their presentation.
Bladed swim jigs, like the Berkley Slobber Knocker, add flash and vibration to this presentation, triggering violent strikes from pickerel from ice-out to ice-in. These swim jigs come in various weights and feature numerous fish-catching characteristics, including their PowerBait scented skirt and a chatter bait-style blade with the power to push through thick weeds.
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