Triggering Chain Reactions
Trouble was the last thing I expected when I tossed a floating minnow plug into a weed-choked slough one cloudy February morning, but that's exactly what I got.
First, I had trouble working the lure through submerged plants. Then, I had trouble believing my eyes when a foot-long lightning bolt flashed out to snatch the lure.
The real trouble started when I set the hook. The action was frantic, but I finally worked what looked like an overweight eel out of the greenery and up to the side of the boat. As I slipped my thumb inside the fish's mouth, it shook its head violently, and its needle-sharp teeth turned the pad of my thumb into hamburger.
I jerked my hand back. The fish thrashed wildly a moment and was gone. Sucking my bleeding thumb and contemplating the frayed end of my line, I reached two conclusions:
- I will not stick my thumb in a strange fish's maw again,
- and I want to catch more of these toothy, mini-torpedoes.
What the heck was that?
The chain pickerel, Esox niger, is one of four pike species found in Missouri. Its common name comes from the interlocking pattern of dark lines on sleek, olive-colored flanks. Chain pickerel are common in the Eleven Point and Current rivers and their tributaries. They also inhabit the Gasconade, Spring, North Fork, St. Francis, Castor and Black river drainages, but they are less common in those areas.
The smaller grass pickerel is the most widespread pike in Missouri. It occupies streams all around the chain pickerel's range and shares the Black and St. Francis rivers with its larger cousin. You can tell the two apart by examining the dark bar beneath the eye. On grass pickerel, the bar has a definite backward slant. On "chains," it's nearly vertical. Also, the markings on the sides of grass pickerel form diagonal streaks and blotches, not chains.
Missouri's pole-and-line record chain pickerel weighed 5 pounds, 1.5 ounces and was taken from the spillway at Clearwater Dam in 1974. A 6-pound, 3-ounce chain that came from Pool 1 at Duck Creek Conservation Area (CA) in 1977 holds the record in the "other methods" category.
Those fish may seem small compared to northern pike or muskellunge, but what chain pickerel lack in size, they more than make up in fight. They're good on the table, and they are most active when other fish are least likely to bite.
The rewards of patience
The muskellunge is known as "the fish of a thousand casts." That's because you can fish a whole day in prime muskie water without getting a strike. Pickerel fishing isn't quite that tough, but "chains" might be the fish of 500 casts. A fishing trip to Noblett Lake in Douglas County illustrates the point.
Noblett Lake is spring-fed and has vast beds of coontail, an underwater plant that creates excellent pickerel habitat. I went there to fish for pickerel in mid-April 1999 under the tutelage of Fisheries Management Biologist Dave Mayers. The air temperature was in the low 50s, and a heavy overcast delivered alternating drizzle and light rain throughout the day. The conditions were perfect for pickerel fishing.
In six hours of fishing up and down the lake's two-mile length, three of us saw only half a dozen chains. Five simply shadowed our lures (known as "follows") warily checking them out before sinking back into the coontail. The sixth, a 15-incher, darted out to snatch a weedless spoon with a pork-rind trailer. The only other fish we enticed were a 10-inch largemouth bass and a few sunfish.
Another one-fish day came in mid-February 2000 at Missouri's pickerel fishing Mecca, Duck Creek CA. We drove down the night before. By the time we got on the water at 8 a.m., the temperature was in the mid-30s. By midday, the mercury had climbed into the 50s, but the breeze that always seems to scour the 1,800-acre reservoir still carried more than a hint of Siberia.
Fisheries Management Biologist Mark Boone captained our pickerel-fishing expedition that day. Again we caught a few largemouths, and toward the end of our trip an 18-inch chain pickerel made our day by snatching Conservationist Photographer Cliff White's yellow and white bass spinnerbait.
When and where
Chain pickerel lurk throughout underwater weed beds, waiting to ambush prey and make an angler's day. They make themselves scarce on sunny days, but you can find them foraging in open water near dusk and dawn and on overcast days. They love cool water, so they are most active in January, February and March.
Spawning usually occurs in mid to late February. Chains don't eat while protecting their eggs, but they will pick up intruding lures and carry them away from the nest area, giving you time to set the hook.
Pool 1 at Duck Creek CA is the state's chain pickerel fishing hot spot. The average fish caught there measures 18 to 22 inches. Fishing season at Duck Creek begins the day after duck season ends.
Noblett Lake, owned by the USDA Forest Service, is one of several chain pickerel hot spots. Electrofishing surveys at this 25-acre lake, located off Highway AP, five miles southwest of Willow Springs, have turned up several fish more than two feet long. Most pickerel are taken along the edge of weedbeds on the north side of the lake.
Sims Valley Community Lake, located at the end of Highway RA, seven miles east of Willow Springs, has chains measuring 30 inches. The best place to catch them is around weedbeds in the upper ends of the lake's two arms.
Sloughs, cutoff creek channels and spring pools along the Current, Jacks Fork and lower Eleven Point rivers harbor chain pickerel up to four pounds. Wading anglers can find good action on tributaries of these streams.
Mark Nickless of De Soto has made a fairly serious survey of chain pickerel fishing spots. He says the biggest concentration he has seen is at Montauk State Park. He says Maramec Spring Park has its share of chains, too.
Any lure that mimics a minnow and can be fished around aquatic plants is worth trying on chains. White, chartreuse or yellow bass spinnerbaits and weedless spoons with pork rind trailers are made to order. Floating/diving crankbaits and topwater minnow imitations are useful, too.
Real minnows can be marvelously effective. Use a No. 2 wire hook through the minnow's back and the smallest bobber possible. Add just enough split shot to keep the bait down.
A fly rod or ultralight spinning gear are the most challenging ways to catch chains, but if you're intent on putting fish in the boat, a light- to medium-action bass rig is hard to beat. Pickerel aren't particularly line-shy, and 10-pound test monofilament comes in handy when extracting feisty fish from dense vegetation.
Eyeglasses with polarized lenses are among the most valuable pieces of pickerel fishing equipment. Occasionally, strikes come after an extended "follow," during which the pickerel sizes up your bait. Being able to see how fish behave as they stalk your lure allows you to adjust your retrieve to trigger strikes.
If you aren't getting your bait hung in vegetation, you aren't pickerel fishing. Fish close to the edge of underwater weed beds or over the top of them, and don't be afraid to cast into openings where you know you'll snag a bowl full of salad on the retrieve. You may hook a fish first.
When fishing topwater lures, give finicky pickerel plenty of time to eye the lure as it sits motionless between twitches. Many strikes come in the last few inches of the retrieve, so keep your bait in the water right up to the boat. When the lure gets within a foot of your rod tip, swish it back and forth in a figure-eight before picking it up.
To fish small, open spaces in weedbeds, tie a noisy topwater lure to the tip of a telescoping crappie pole with three feet of stout line. Reach out with the long pole and drag the lure back and forth across the surface of the opening to trigger strikes.
Care & cooking
Chain pickerel meat is firm and sweet, but it has many tiny bones. You can make the bones unnoticable by scoring the flesh deeply with a knife before frying. Another way to deal with the bones is to grind the meat in a food processor and mix it with a small amount of beaten egg and bread crumbs. Form it into cakes half an inch thick and three inches wide. Roll the cakes in cornmeal and deep fry. Fish sandwiches made with these cakes are delicious. The hot oil used in both methods dissolves the bones, making them easily edible.
Pickling also dissolves bones. For a pint of pickerel fillets, dissolve one part pickling salt in three parts distilled vinegar. Cover the fillets with brine in a sealable plastic container and put it in the refrigerator for five days.
Next, rinse the fillets and soak in cold water for two hours. Dissolve one part sugar in one part distilled vinegar, then add one part white wine. Layer fish and thinly sliced red onions in a Mason jar and top with two tablespoons of pickling spice per quart. Fill the jars with the vinegar/sugar/wine mixture, seal and return to refrigerator for five days before eating.
Just as important as how you cook pickerel is how you treat them between water and kitchen. The meat will turn mushy if you keep the fish on a stringer or in a livewell. Instead, dispatch keepers immediately, gut them and put them on ice.