Sport fishing doesn't have to come to a screeching halt the moment freezing temperatures arrive. As a matter of fact, there's a group of tidewater specialists from the Northern Neck of Virginia to the Eastern Shore of Maryland that prays for cold nights and brisk, sunny days: the chain pickerel fanatics.
Pickerel -- Esox niger to biologists, or simply pike or jackfish to country boys -- command a healthy following. Few fish species are as easy to catch. Only one or two others are as willing when the thermometer takes a nosedive. And, if you don't mind picking through a maze of needle-thin bones, the pickerel rates high marks on the table.
With a home base in Southern Maryland, I naturally favor rivers such as the Nanjemoy, Patuxent, Mattawoman and Port Tobacco -- all reasonably close. They rarely disappoint during the cold months. But side trips to the Eastern Shore's Tuckahoe, Choptank, Transquaking and Pocomoke prime pickerel haunts are always on my calendar.
The beauty of pickerel fishing may be the simplicity of it all. A $10,000 bass boat is nice to have, but not really necessary. A jonboat comes in handy, but just as many pike-hunters do well sitting on shore banks. Sophisticated tackle isn't required; dimestore rods and reels almost always will do in a pinch.
To catch a pickerel in license-free tidewater streams and rivers, start thinking like a two- to four-pound denizen with a mouthful of razor-sharp teeth, who can go from zero to 40 so quickly he looks like a blur. In short, think of shady tree branches, submerged on the outside edges of river bends. Think of fallen logs and abandoned docks that offer sanctuary to one of the top predators in fishdom.
Throw a lure or live bait into the snagging obstacles and hold on. His lordship, the chain pickerel, will do the rest.
My pickerel outfit consists of a 51/2-foot, one-piece light tip-action rod; a small open- faced spinning reel loaded with six-pound- test monofilament; a packet of snelled No. 3 hooks; a minnow pail (filled, one hopes, with two- or three-inch-long bull minnows); and a belt clip-on box crammed to the brim with No. 3 squirrel-hair Mepps spinners, broken-back Rebel or Rapala floater-diver lures, several 1/2-ounce white spinnerbaits, white plastic jigs with red heads and a couple of long-lipped bait-imitating silver/black crankbaits. That's it.
A typical hunt can start on the shores of Mattawoman Creek in Charles County, adjacent to the Route 225 bridge, where thousands of waterlogged brush piles along the creek make for ideal pickerel ambush points. If my local tackleshop has minnows, one of them will be lip-pierced to the No. 3 snelled hook, a plastic float snapped 21/2 feet above the bait to keep it from snagging in the brush, and the rig will be cast directly into the worst-looking maze possible. When the bobber dips, the rod comes up.
Should a crappie beat the pike to the punch, save it and cut slender fillets from it. Add a finger-long sliver of the crappie flesh to the hook of a Mepps spinner or the larger white spinnerbaits and see if a pickerel won't be drawn to the fresh scent like a deer is to juicy apples. Of course, newcomers to fishing must remember to retrieve those spinners constantly or risk losing them on unyielding underwater obstacles.
Rare, balmy winter days are ideal for casting broken-back Rebel lures around brush tops that sit in still water. Aim to the edge of the target, let it rest for a moment, then close the reel and retrieve the lure in erratic fashion, moving the rod tip from left to right. Watch the lure and see if it doesn't resemble a crippled baitfish. Deadly, on pickerel.
The white plastic jigs, possibly the most difficult of all lures to master, have worked their magic for me in the Choptank River just below the town of Greensboro, or in the Mattaponi River in Northern Neck Virginia. The Choptank and Mattaponi wind snakelike for miles, their center channels clogged with decaying bushes and treetops. Here heavier line (up to 17-pound test) is recommended. The curly-tailed jig is cast into curving river bends, allowed to sink, then hopped across the bottom with alternating reel-handle turns and rod lifts. Get a firm grip on the rod, because all kinds of fish find this method appealing. CHOICE PICKEREL SPOTS TUCKAHOE RIVER HEADWATERS, adjacent to state park lake spillway, Caroline County, Eastern Shore, Maryland Route 480. Ideal for bank fishing. CHOPTANK RIVER, from Greensboro to Martinak State Park, Caroline County, Eastern Shore. Maryland Routes 480 and 16. Best for jonboaters, with ramps in both places. POCOMOKE RIVER, at Shad Landing or Milburn Landing State Parks, Worcester County, Eastern Shore, Maryland Route 113. Some bank and dock fishing; great jonboat area. TRANSQUAKING RIVER, turn right off U.S. 50 past Cambridge at Airey sign, Dorchester County, Eastern Shore. Some bank fishing around boat ramp and road bridge. NANJEMOY CREEK, at Friendship Landing Road, Route 425, Charles County, Maryland. Some bank fishing; fine jonboating. SEVERN RIVER, above U.S. 50 bridge west of Annapolis, Anne Arundel County. Excellent fishing from sturdy boats. MATTAPONI RIVER, Caroline County, Virginia Routes 301 and 302, at bridge crossing. Some bank fishing, better from small boats. PAMUNKEY RIVER, King William County, Virginia Routes 301 and 302, at bridge crossing. Bank fishing as well as fine boat fishing. AP HILL MILITARY BASE PONDS, Caroline County, Virginia Route 301. Need state license and free special permission from base recreation office