IMAGINE participating in a sporting event where success was all but guaranteed. …something like hitting a baseball in a park with a short fence, a chess match against someone who has never played, or a video game where you always manage to kill the zombie. It may not be the type of victory that you seek all of the time but, once in a while, it is pretty fun.
That mindset is exactly how I envision fishing for pickerel.
The Eastern Chain Pickerel was once listed as one of the most preferred target of New Hampshire anglers. It makes perfect sense to me. These fish are found everywhere, eat anything, grow to a large size, and fight like demons when hooked. Those are often the criteria for ranking fishing opportunities, yet the pickerel is too often overlooked by serious fishermen.
When compared with the sensitive temperature regimes of trout and salmon, pickerel are significantly less finicky and quite tolerant of most waterbodies. There are not many times of the year when these fish migrate, change depths or die because of water temperatures. That says a lot and allows them to surpass what is otherwise a significant limitation for most fish.
They occupy shallow water, deep water, and everything in between. Pickerel can find a happy home in deep lakes, shallow farm ponds, swift rivers and slow brooks. It would be easy to label them a generalist as they seem to occupy every type of aquatic habitat in New England.
I started catching these streamlined fish in high school and my fondness for their resilience has only grown. Often using a light-action rod and an in-line spinner, I have hooked and landed thousands of these aggressive fish. Their diet is vast and I imagine that, in addition to anything that ever enters the water naturally, a pickerel would try to eat anything, from a piece of gum to a 22-shell casing, at least once.
When bass fishing, I catch these fish on soft-plastics. When pike fishing, I catch pickerel on huge spoons and swimbaits. When jigging for perch through the ice, I hook them on small jigs tipped with a worm. There is simply no fishing scenario when a pickerel might not make a surprise appearance. They will literally eat anything.
The state record pickerel in New Hampshire is 26 inches long and weighed 8 pounds. I have landed many that were close to that size. There are no weight or length limits on these fish and an angler can keep 10 per day, if so inclined. These liberal rules speak further to the resiliency of this fishery. There is not a lot one can do to keep them from flourishing. They are simply too awesome.
Once hooked, a pickerel employs the defense mechanism of an alligator and will roll, spin and swim hard trying to get away. Their large, sharp teeth help them get out of some situations by cutting fishing line. Because of this, they must be played gently but quickly. They can’t really be horsed in, but a smart angler tries to land them quickly.
If challenged, I could catch a pickerel during any month of the year in any water body. This is not as much a testament to my skill as to the impressive adaptations of these fish in New Hampshire. Of all fish, they will always be one of my most admired.