These fish should be on every angler’s to-do list when winter finally gives way to spring.
It was a beautiful day in early March and the trout stocking trucks had just made their rounds a day or two prior. After driving past a few of my local trout spots and seeing the shorelines lined with people as well as the fleet of kayaks out a bit further on the water, I began thinking about a plan B. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a trout fisherman at heart, and I will always go out of my way to tangle with a few nice browns or rainbows that the state stocks into our local waters, but on that day, I just wasn’t feeling it.
With it still being a bit cold, I opted to try an area that wasn’t stocked with trout, thinking that the crowds would, at the very least, be lighter. Upon arriving, I was surprised to see that my instinct had for once been correct, so I quickly geared up and headed out. Not knowing what I’d run into, I kept it simple and packed a few lures that would work on several species, being that this body of water mainly hosted a variety of panfish and largemouth bass. After an hour or so with nothing to show for my efforts, my mind drifted towards trout fishing, and I started thinking that I might have made the wrong choice. Without even letting the thought fully sink in, all of a sudden, the small Rapala I had been casting jolted forward. Setting the hook soon revealed the wide-open jaws of possibly the largest pickerel I had ever seen, let alone caught on Long Island. After some thrashing around along with an explosive drag-pulling speed burst, the fish shook its head a second time and cleanly sliced through the 6-pound test monofilament I had tied onto the small lure. After the adrenaline settled down from the soul-crushing loss of such a large fish, I began to collect my thoughts and started to wonder why pickerel don’t get the respect they deserve.
After that day, it soon became apparent how much fun these fish can be and if an angler were to target them regularly, they’d quickly realize that pickerel get the short end of the stick. In fact, for the next few days that followed up until the season closure, I found myself chasing pickerel even when the trout crowds had thinned out a bit and I don’t regret a moment of it. Since that day, I have started chasing pickerel regularly, starting in late winter. Water wolves, slime darts, whatever you want to call them, make their way into my late winter/early spring fishing for a good reason. If you need a little more convincing, let’s dig a little deeper into why these fish should be on every angler’s to-do list when winter finally gives way to spring.
Fish The Thaw
Did you notice that I began this article with a story showcasing the time of year it was? I bring this up because it is essential to when I start to target pickerel. Being that the year I referred to earlier was a frigid one, it wasn’t long after the ice had finally melted off of our lakes and ponds that the stocking trucks came rolling through. With temperatures still struggling to break into the 40s, it very much felt like winter and technically, it still was. Sure the days were getting longer and the weather would have to break at some point but the fact was, it was still cold.
Why is this important to mention? Well, because my experience has shown that pickerel are abundant and aggressive right after ice-out, or what I will refer to it as “the thaw.” I consider the thaw, the point in time when spring hasn’t yet sprung, but the ice has melted away but it’s no longer cold enough to refreeze it. Each year is different, but for our purposes, I’ll say that this transition period can start anywhere from late February to the first week or so of March.
What’s so special about fishing the thaw, might you ask? I like to think of it as pickerel coming out of their winter mode and going on a feeding binge as the season goes into a transition. Think of those first semi-warm days that follow after a deep cold spell. The window of opportunity is pretty short, but I will say it’s worth it. In most instances, if I hit it right, I hook big numbers of pickerel and my largest ones of the year. Like I said before, I feel as though these fish are just starting to wake up and once you’re able to locate them, you can have some very productive sessions.
One crucial piece of information to mention before going any further is the season regulations that are in place for Long Island waters regarding pickerel. The open season for pickerel starts on the first Saturday in May and runs until the 15th of March, with three fish at 18 inches set as a daily limit. After the 15th of March, the season is deemed closed. While nothing in the regulations openly states no catch and release fishing is permitted, be advised that the season is technically closed, so any pickerel caught after the 15th must be returned to the water immediately. Not to worry though, because nine times out of ten, fishing “the thaw” usually falls between the last week or so of February and peaking within the first few weeks of March, which should still give you plenty of time to take advantage.
In The Weeds
So once you’ve figured out when to target pickerel, the next question then becomes where you can find them. If there’s any big hint or clue to follow on any given body of water you are fishing, it would be to find a weedline close to deeper water. These fish are ambush predators that like to keep themselves hidden until the very last second when they aggressively attack prey. With that said, concentrating your efforts on weedlines in proximity to deeper water is always a great place to start when searching for pickerel.
Fish weeded areas thoroughly because there have been plenty of times where I have made 100 casts to a juicy looking piece of water only to connect on cast 101. Sure, they may be much smaller and easier to catch than their larger cousins like pike and muskellunge, but pickerel still exhibit some of their traits. Also, if the spot you’re fishing looks good but does not produce right away, don’t give up on it. Try fishing that same spot under different conditions and see if you have better results. Too many times, I have gone back to the same area that didn’t yield a single touch, only to come back the very next day under a different weather pattern and have it be red hot.
Also, don’t overlook shallow vegetation growing near the shoreline. Pay particularly close attention to any vegetation near a dropoff or deep hole but close to the shore. Let’s not forget, pickerel are ambush predators, so areas with trees, reeds, or grass lines offer them plenty of cover to attack anything that comes their way. Start thinking like a predator, and you’ll shortly find some fishy-looking areas.
Weapons of Choice
Now that we’ve covered some areas that may hold some fish, let’s take a look at some tackle to use. What makes pickerel fishing so much fun is that there are endless ways to catch them, but I like to keep it simple. As far as rods go, I’d stick with light to ultralight gear. I’m a light tackle junkie, therefore my gear is always a step lighter than what most guys use. Light tackle, in my opinion, offers a significant advantage when fishing cold water because with lighter lines and more sensitive rods, you can better detect the subtle and sometimes lethargic strikes. That being said, if you choose to go on the lighter side as I do, make sure you use a heavier shock leader. Pickerel have razor-sharp teeth and big mouths, so I like to use 10- to 12-pound leaders made of mono or fluoro. Make sure to check your leader regularly for any nicks and cuts if you’re catching fish because those heartbreakers hurt, trust me.
The next piece of equipment you should never leave home without is a good pair of needle nose pliers. These are an absolute must because of their razor-sharp teeth. I learned this the hard way; just last year I had a big pickerel lay my thumb open when I was forced to attempt to retrieve my lure manually because I left my pliers back at the truck. Needless to say, my good day of fishing ended abruptly after that.
As far as lures go, pickerel like flashy things that will stand out in the water. Think shiny and bright in terms of colors. Anything that looks like it’ll grab the attention of a predator swimming along will work. Small spoons, Rapalas in bright or silver colors, large inline spinners, small spinnerbaits meant for bass, and various plastics twitched slowly all have their place with pickerel.
Lots of Potential
I think another considerable appeal to this type of fishing is the variety of water you can find pickerel here on Long Island. These fish are found in lakes, ponds, streams, and river systems from western Nassau County to the far reaches of eastern Suffolk. I have caught large pickerel in recent years in both Nassau and Suffolk Counties, so finding water that pickerel call home shouldn’t be a challenging task. Take a look at the various lakes and ponds located in both counties on the NYSDEC website and I’m sure you’ll find pickerel among the listed species in most – if not all – of them.
If I were to make a suggestion considering that these fish are so abundant on many bodies of water, try starting close to where you live and then work your way out from there. I bet you’d be surprised at how much potential there is right outside your back door because I certainly was. If that doesn’t work in your favor or you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, take a drive to a lake or pond that you’ve never fished before.
Pickerel have saved the day on many occasions and if you hit the window of opportunity right, some of your biggest fish of the year can come in a short time. Once the water warms and the weeds start to take over as spring settles in, that window fades quickly so make the best of it by sticking a few water wolves when you have the chance to do so. I never really understood why all those guys on the fishing shows would spend days, if not weeks buzzing around a lake looking for one bite from a musky. I can say, however, that after I started hooking some larger pickerel, I think I would have understood their obsession a little better. Sure pickerel don’t get as big as their northern cousins, but I can fully attest that they have the same nasty attitude and are equally as aggressive—the perfect target for the adventurous angler.