Last week the ice thawed out and temperatures rose briefly to tease us about the coming of spring. With that reminder, I thought I’d touch on another public use at Duck Creek that should be around the corner once winter begins to lessen its grip.
Up north legendary fishing trips are made in the pursuit of northern pike and muskies. The nicknames of these fish include wolf fish, devil fish, or slough sharks. However, in the southern half of the US, great sport can also be found when fishing for chain pickerel, a smaller member of the pike family, but no less the attitude of their Yankee cousins. In southeast Missouri, these fish lurks within the rivers of the Ozarks and in certain locations in the flatlands of the Bootheel. Pool 1 at Duck Creek is one of these locations and is ideal habitat for these ambush predators. A hint as to “why” this is a perfect location can be seen in their coloration. Chain pickerel are draped with an olive chain pattern covering yellowish green scales that mirror the light scattering through water and submergent vegetation. This is seamless camouflage that allows these hunters to blend into their surroundings and wait for minnows to come unknowingly towards their end.
If there is one thing that Pool 1 doesn’t lack, it is aquatic vegetation so if you want to land a chain pickerel this is the spot for you. To verify my argument let’s look at the records. The state record for pole and line is a 5 lb 1 oz chain pickerel that was caught at the Clearwater Spillway by George Burlbaw in 1974. This shows that we are in the right region. To refine our scope and put the bullseye on Duck Creek we just have to look at the bankline fishing record. This record is held by Gordan Thorton who caught a 6 lb 3 oz chain pickerel in 1977. Now these are huge pickerel, which is why they are long standing state records. To be considered for a Master Angler Award a chain pickerel only needs to be 3 lbs or 23 inches. I have it from a good source that you don’t have to go back 40 years to pull a fish this size out of Pool 1.
So when and how do you do it? Well, chain pickerel typically start biting good when water temperatures reach 40-42 oF before they spawn in the spring. This usually occurs when water temperatures hit around 46 oF. At Duck Creek we find ourselves reaching this point typically during the later half of February and early March. After spawning there is generally about a two week lull before pickerel start biting again. Our harsh winter seems to be delaying things a bit, but if we get some consistently warmer temperatures the pickerel fishing could really hit up.
Since chain pickerel are sit and wait predators hiding along the edges of the “weeds”, that is where you need to go to find them. A couple spots to start are along the edges of the road and borrows in Pool 1 and in the different open pockets throughout the pool where the vegetation opens up. A variety of lures can work if you dance them shallowly in front of a hungry pickerel in these locations. Rapalas, mepps spinners, spinnerbaits, and even some top-water lures can seal the deal. They also readily strike at minnows, since that is what they are looking for anyway. You can use smaller minnow, but 4-5 inch ones and a #2 hook generally works.
The foraging tactics of chain pickerel allow you to really know when you have one on the line because they hit hard and fast. The following fight matches any other game fish out there. If you land one that is nearing the Master Angler Award credentials, you might consider taking it home for dinner. Chain pickerel have tasty white flesh, but there is a caveat. Since they are in the pike family they have y-bones, which can cause you to be fishing in your mouth for bones at dinner.
You can try to minimize this by the way you prepare the fish. Smoking them and then scraping the meat off the bones is one way to avoid the spiny unpleasantries. Treating them like you would a sucker and scoring the fillets before you deep fry them or using a pressure cooker are a couple other ways to reduce the chances of getting something stuck in your craw. Coming at it from a completely different angle is to just remove the bones by taking an extra step when you fillet them out. To do this you make a couple extra vertical cuts along the y-bones on either side to separate the meat from bones after slicing the fillet away from the fish. The bottom-line is that they are fun to catch and good to eat; it doesn’t get better than that.
Pool 1 is a great place to fish. The aquatic plants within this shallow lake help it to function this way because it provides the structure and diversity for a variety of species. The shadowy form of the chain pickerel is just one of these species that calls Duck Creek home. If you have the opportunity to get one on the end of your line, you might have the makings of a story to match one from a trip up north related to one of its larger cousins. Once things thaw back out after this wintery weekend, I’d invite you to come out and see whether the pickerel fishing is heating up.