In the winter anglers do many odd things to channel their fishing fever into substitutes, hoping to dim in some small fashion the feverish intensity of their urge. They whittle new plugs, polish old plugs, discard battered flugs, tie flies, mend nets, read outdoor journals, pore over maps to find new fishing spots to try in the spring, dream about exotic trips to Canada, Yellowstone, Iceland.
If they have the time and money they jet to Florida and pursue glamorous saltwater species. Florida in the winter isn't really such a red-hot place to fish: It's better by far in the spring.
Area waters are ignored, except by a few hardy souls with butane in their veins who know about a green snake of a gamefish called the chain pickerel. These toughskinned pickerel-pursuers couldn't care less that hatches on the trout streams and spawning in the bass lakes are months away. Their quarry loves the cold.
The Washington area offers prime pickerel waters within a one- or two-hour drive in just about any direction (though north, south and east are preferable to west.) Pickerel are in ponds, lakes, rivers and huge impoundments. Yet they draw little attention from fishermen.
Some people simply don't like the cold, and since pickerel bite best from December through March, quite a few potential anglers never try them.
You're probably read that pickerel are harsh on the palate, poor fighters and ugly. The last point is moot, the second false. The first one is true.
Pickerel have tasty, sweet meat, but few people get past the first mouthful before they give up in disgust at the bones riddling the flesh. You can try scouring them with cross-cuts and frying in hot oil, which is supposed to make the bones "chewable." But even chewable bones are anathema to some. There are also complex filleting methods you can look up in dusty tomes if you're dead set on eating everything you catch.
Whether the pickerel is an ugly fish we'll leave to the aesthetes. Certainly they are prehistoric-looking, with long, pointed snouts, enormous mouths and a ghastly set of razor-sharp teeth.
Describing the fighting ability of a fish -- any fish -- is always risky, because each fish is an individual. One pickerel may fight like the devil and the next may fight like a wet paper bag. The same is true of bass, trout and catfish. Generally speaking, pickerel are good fighters -- but not great.
But fighting really isn't much more important than eating qualities or looks where pickerel are concerned. What's appealing is the whole ritual of pursuing a unique gamefish in his home waters and enticing him to take the bait. Fishing is first and foremost a battle of wits (man) against instincts (the fish). When pickerel are the quarry, the encounter is rich and challenging.
Pickerel habitat encompasses a broad spectrum of water types. Lakes and tiny ponds hold fish, as do sprawling impoundments, broad rivers and wadeable streams. Pickerel prefer blackwater ponds and creeks -- waters with a low pH that are stained brown with tannic acids given off by certain plants.
Certain of Maryland's Eastern Shore ponds and rivers come to mind immediately, as do similar branches and lakes in the tidewater portions of Virginia. The Choptank is one of Maryland's better pickerel rivers, as are the Nanticoke, Pocomoke and Severn: A list of ponds in Maryland that contain pickerel is printed in the fishing regulations pamphley given out where licenses are sold.
Virginia pickerel, called jackpike by locals, inhabit many blackwaters. The Mattaponi, Pamunkey and Chickahominy, located east of I-95 between Richmond and Fredericksburg, are classic pickerel rivers. A.P. Hill and Quantico military reservations also offer good pickerel possibilities.
However, pickerel also thrive in waters about as black as Mountain Dew. Such inland lakes as Anna and Kerr offer many outsized pickerel in the four -- and five-pound range.
Average pickerel in most waters run closer to one or two pounds. Due to their diminutive size, heavy bass tackle is not required to catch the lean fish. Ultralight or light spinning gear is in order, with lines testing four to eight pounds. Den't worry about the tales of pickerel's teeth shearing the line. It rarely happens. Wire leaders only serve to impede the action of lures and bait.
Those who favor artificials may hate to admit it, but pickerel can usually be caught more readily with live minnows. Their diet consists almost entirely of other fish, and they seem powerless to resist a helpless victim floundering within reach. So greedy are pickerel that I've caught them on small shiners when they still had freshly killed seven-inch-long sunfish bulging in their stomachs.
Look for pickerel in moderate to shallow depths of lakes and rivers where they cruise for food. The fish also like to hold parallel to weedbeds and dropoffs, where they lie in ambush waiting for an unwary baitfish to fin by. When a minnow swims near, the pickerel contorts its body like a snake coiling to strike and darts with blinding speed at the victim, clenching it sideways in the grasp of its inward-angling teeth.
If the pickerel are deeper than five feet, use either a shad dart and minnow or a fine wire hook, split shot and minnow. Crawl the bait in slowly. If the jackpike are in the shallows you can use a bobber and move the minnow from spot to spot after a minute or two if you don't get a strike.
Lures can take pickerel, also, and sometimes they'll outfish a minnow. The Johnson Silver Minnow tipped with a pork rind is the old standby pickerel hait, and it hasn't lost its appeal. Also good are red- and-white Daredevils and broken-back Bebels and Rapalas.
Work these lures with a moderate to fast retrieve and a tight grip on your rod. The strike of a pickerel can be an explosive thing -- something that's sure to take the chill out of a cold wintry day.