"Early in the morning, while all things are crispy with frost," wrote Henry David Thoreau in one of the most beautifully worded chapeters of Walden , "The Pond in Winter," "men come with fishing rods and slender lunch, and let down their fine lines through the snowy field to take pickerel and perch.... The things which they practise are said not yet to be known. There is one fishing for pickerel with grown perch for bait....
"How, pary, did he get these in midwinter? Oh, he got worms out of rotten logs since the ground froze, and so he caught them.... The perch swallows the grubworm, the pickerel swallows the perch and the fisherman swallows the pickerel, and so all the chinks in the scale of being are filled."
So Thoreau knew the pickerel, and so did I, when as a boy I took one, rarely, from the lake where I was fishing for bass; but it seems that it does not exist. I remember its voraciousness in the water (once I hooked a small perch and before I could reel it in a pickerel swallowed it, giving me two fish for the price of one) and I remember its firm white flesh on the plate, not as fine as bass, perhaps, but fine enough.
Yet now I read that the pickerel is not a fish, it is a word, and a misused word at that! It is an Americanism applied to certain comparatively small species of the genus Esox that a purist, or an Englishman, would call a pike. If by chance a Britisher refers to a pickerel, he is speaking dialect, and he means a young or small specimen of Esox lucius , the only species of pike known to England; but if he is speaking standard English, he will probably call the fish a jack.
Not only does the pickerel not exist, it does not exist in several American incarnations. Among these fictitious fish are the grass pickerel, which is found from Nova Scotia to Texas, reaches a maximum length of 2 feet and is decoratively marked with dark bands on its flanks. This probably is the one Thoreau saw in Walden Pond, unless it was the smaller (up to 14 inches) chain pickerel, so called because its dark markings fall into a chain-like pattern.
There is (or is not, as you choose to take it) a red-fin pickerel, about which I know nothing at all, and a fish about which I do not know much more, nor apparently, does any accessible authority, for it lives in remotest Siberia. It is the only pickerel to get outside of the American framework as a fish, but not as a word, for while Americans call it the black-spotted pickerel, Englishmen call it the black-spotted pike.
When the American walley is called a pickerel, there is no doubt, of course, that this is a misnomer, for the American walleye is not a pickerel (if there is any such thing as a pickerel), it is the pike perch, which is less of a pike than a perch. The Canadian lake fish called the yellow pickerel there (Canadians sometimes condescend to speak American) is not a pickerel, nor a pike either, but a perch.
So the pickerel, if it is a fish, is an American fish, and if it is only a word, it is an American word. How appropriate that it should have been celebrated by one of the most authentically American voices, that of a man thoroughly American in that he loved nature and hated taxes!
"Ah, the pickerel of Walden! When I see them lying on the ice, or in the well which the fisherman cuts in the ice, making a little hole to admit the water, I am always surprised by their rare beauty, as if they were fabulous fishes, they so foreign to the streets, even to the woods, foreign as Arabia to our Concord life.
"They possess a quite dazzling and transcendent beauty which separates them by a wide interval from the cadaverous cod and haddock whose fame is trumpeted in our streets. They are not green like the pines, nor gray like the stones, nor blue like the sky; but they have, to my eyes, if possible, yet rarer colors, like flowers and precious stones, as if they were the pearls, the animalized nuclei of crystals of the Walden water.
"They, of course, are Walden all over and ALL THROUGH; ARE THEMSELVES SMALL Waldens in the animal kingdon, Waldenses. It is surprising that they are caught here -- that in this deep and capricious spring, far beneath the rattling teams and chaises and tinkling sleighs that travel the Walden road, this great gold and emerald fish swims.
"I never chanced to see its kind in any market; it would be the cynosure of all eyes there. Easily, with a few convulsive quirks, they give up their watery ghosts, like a mortal translated before his time to the thin air of heaven."