Species Profile: Chain Pickerel

Facts About the Life and Behavior of Chain Pickerel

Photo © Ken Schultz

A member of the Esocidae family of pike, the chain pickerel (Esox niger), is a lean, aggressive, and frisky battler. Slimy, toothy, and well camouflaged, the chain pickerel is a smaller but equally fearsome-looking version of its northern pike and muskellunge cousins, and often plentiful where those species are not found or are not particularly abundant.

ID. Long and slender, the chain pickerel gets its name from its markings, which appear in a reticulated, or chainlike, pattern of black lines that cover the golden to yellowish or greenish sides. The small, light-colored oval spots on the sides of the northern pike resemble the very large, light oval areas on the chain pickerel but may be distinguished by the dark background behind the pattern on the northern pike. Also, the northern pike’s spots never appear large in relation to the background, whereas in the chain pickerel the lighter areas are more prevalent.

The chain pickerel has fully scaled cheeks and gill covers. These further distinguish it from the northern pike, which usually has no scales on the bottom half of the gill cover, and from the muskellunge, which usually has no scales on the bottom half of either the gill cover or the cheek. It has only one dorsal fin, which is located very far back on the body near the caudal peduncle. There is a dark vertical bar under the eye, and the snout is shaped like a duck’s bill. The lower jaw has a row of four sensory pores on each side, and the mouth is full of needlelike teeth.

Habitat. Chain pickerel inhabit the shallow, vegetated waters of lakes, swamps, streams, ponds, bogs, tidal and nontidal rivers and their backwaters; the quiet pools of creeks and small to medium rivers; and the bays and coves of larger lakes and reservoirs. Solitary fish, they are occasionally found in low-salinity estuaries. Chain pickerel are ambush predators, so their primary hangouts are among lily pads and various types of weeds, and they sometimes hold near such objects as stumps, docks, and fallen trees. Invariably, the waters with the best chain pickerel populations are those with abundant vegetation, much of which is found near shore. They move into deeper water during the winter and continue to feed actively.

Food. Capable of eating fish almost as long as they are, chain pickerel feed primarily on other fish, as well as the occasional insect, crayfish, frog, or mouse. Small minnows and fry are among their favorite prey, but they are fond of midsize fish like yellow perch and other pickerel in the 4- to 6-inch range, and will often eat larger fish. Mainly sight feeders, they lie motionless in patches of vegetation, waiting to snatch small fish, but they can sometimes be lured from a distance to prey that appears vulnerable.

Angling Summary. Not many other gamefish will follow a lure right to the boat with impunity as chain pickerel will. They often make a V-shaped wake in shallow water when dashing out from cover to intercept a lure, and they may hit a lure three, four, or five times in a row while chasing it.

Chain pickerel are primarily attracted to movement and flash. Standard spinners (with and without bucktail) and small spoons are traditionally effective lures, but are prone to hanging up in thick cover. Spinnerbaits, weedless in-line spinners, and weedless spoons are better options, and therefore generally more productive. Soft worms, soft jerkbaits, and jigs are also taken by chain pickerel, but the result is often a line severed by the fish’s teeth due to the lure being inhaled well inside the mouth. Some anglers use a short fine-wire leader for this reason, when fishing deliberately for pickerel.

Fly fishing is particularly worthwhile for pickerel, with streamers being especially ravished. Tandem-bladed spinnerbaits with a white or chartreuse skirt are probably the single most popular pickerel lure. Live baits are the top chain pickerel catchers for ice anglers.