Chain Pickerel (Esox niger)

Chain Pickerel (Esox niger)

This member of the Esocidae family of pike is a lean, sporting, evil-eyed bandit, yet it is virtually neglected by most nonwinter anglers, rarely specifically pursued by open-water anglers, and often downgraded by those who catch it unintentionally while seeking more popular fish. Respectable battlers on appropriate tackle, these aggressive, available fish also offer a good chance of angling success.

Long, slimy, toothy, camouflaged in green brown and bearing chainlike markings, the chain pickerel has cold-blooded eyes and is a smaller but equally fearsome-looking version of its northern pike and muskellunge cousins. It has an unusual arrangement of bones, but the flesh is generally white, flaky, and sweet.

At some times and from some places, however, the flavor is not as good. This deficit may be remedied by removing the skin before cooking. Many chain pickerel are caught through the ice.


This fish is sometimes confused with the walleye, particularly in southern Canada, where walleye are called “pickerel,” but the walleye is a member of the perch family and is unlike the true chain pickerel in all respects save one: It, too, has many teeth. Chain pickerel are abundant where pike and muskies are not found or are not particularly abundant.

Identification

With its long, slender body, the chain pickerel is very similar in appearance to the northern pike and the muskellunge, especially when young. It gets its name from its markings, which appear in a reticulated, or chain-like, pattern of black lines that covers the golden to yellowish or greenish sides.

The small, light-colored oval spots on the sides of the northern pike resemble the very large, light oval areas on the chain pickerel but may be distinguished by the dark background behind the pattern on the northern pike; also, the northern pike’s spots never appear large in relation to the background, whereas in the chain pickerel the lighter areas are more prevalent.

The chain pickerel has fully scaled cheeks and gill covers. These further distinguish it from the northern pike, which usually has no scales on the bottom half of the gill cover, and from the muskellunge, which usually has no scales on the bottom half of either the gill cover or the cheek.

It has only one dorsal fin, which is located very far back on the body near the caudal peduncle. There is a dark vertical bar under each eye, and the snout is shaped like a duck’s bill. The lower jaw has a row of four sensory pores on each side, and the mouth is full of needle-like teeth.

Size/Age

The chain pickerel can exceed 30 inches in length and 9 pounds in weight, although the average fish is under 2 feet long and weighs less than 2 pounds. In some waters it may be even smaller. The all-tackle world record is a 9-pound, 6-ounce fish caught in Georgia in 1961. The maximum age is roughly 10, although the average is around 4. Females grow larger and live longer than males.

Other Names

jack, pike, eastern pickerel, eastern chain pickerel, lake pickerel, reticulated pickerel, federation pickerel, mud pickerel, green pike, grass pike, black chain pike, duck-billed pike, river pike, picquerelle, water wolf.

Distribution

This species extends along the Atlantic slope of North America from Nova Scotia to southern Florida, as well as along the Gulf Coast west to the Sabine Lake drainage in Louisiana and from the Mississippi River basin north to southwestern Kentucky and southeastern Missouri. Chain pickerel have been introduced to Lakes Ontario and Erie drainages and elsewhere. Their primary abundance is from the mid-Atlantic states northward and in Florida and Georgia.

Habitat

Chain pickerel inhabit the shallow, vegetated waters of lakes, swamps, streams, ponds, bogs, tidal and nontidal rivers, backwaters, and quiet pools of creeks and small to medium rivers, as well as the bays and coves of larger lakes and reservoirs. Solitary fish, they prefer water temperatures of 75º to 80ºF and are occasionally found in low-salinity estuaries, though they can tolerate a wide range of salinities. They move into deeper water during the winter and continue to feed actively.

The environs preferred by pickerel are somewhat similar to those of largemouth bass, particularly in regard to vegetation and abundant cover. Their primary hangouts are lily pads and various types of weeds, and they sometimes lie near such objects as stumps, docks, and fallen trees. Invariably, the waters with the best pickerel populations are those with abundant vegetation, much of which is found near shore.
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