The grass pickerel and the redfin pickerel are two nearly identical subspecies of Esox americanus, differing only slightly in range. Because they occur only in small populations and are of small size, they have little importance as sportfish, although they are significant predators in many waters of more prominent small sportfish. The white, sweet ﬂesh of these members of the Esocidae family is bony, but it has an excellent flavor.
IdentificationSlender and cylindrical, grass and redfin pickerel look much like the chain pickerel, with the same fully scaled cheeks and gill covers. They are dark olive to brown or black above, amber to brassy white below, with 20 or more dark green to brown wavy bars along the sides.
On the grass pickerel, there are pale areas between the bars that are wider than the bars. The grass pickerel is lighter in color than the redfin pickerel and has a pronounced pale midlateral stripe. The grass pickerel also has yellow-green to dusky lower fins and a long narrow snout (although shorter than the chain pickerel’s), with a concave profile, whereas the redfin pickerel appropriately has red lower and caudal fins, as well as a shorter, broader snout, with a convex profile.
Each has a large mouth with sharp canine teeth and several sensory pores on the lower jaw. A dark vertical bar extends down from each eye, which is more vertical in the grass pickerel than in the redfin. An easy way to distinguish the redfin from the grass pickerel is to examine the scales on the sides of the redfin, of which there are more notched or heart-shaped ones, specifically six in the area between the pelvic fins. There are up to three on the grass pickerel. Also, the redfin has more than seven of these scales between the dorsal and the anal fins, whereas the grass pickerel has four or fewer.
Size/AgeBoth species seldom exceed 10 inches in length (the redﬁn pickerel can reach 14 inches) and three-quarters of a pound in weight; the redfin pickerel generally grows faster and slightly longer than the grass pickerel. The alltackle world record for the grass pickerel is a 1-pound Indiana fish; for the redﬁn pickerel, the record is a 1-pound, 15-ounce New York fish. They can live up to 8 years, although they usually live 5 years or less. Females live longer and grow larger than males.
Life history/BehaviorReaching sexual maturity when they are roughly 2 years old and at least 5 inches long, grass and redﬁn pickerel spawn in the late fall, the early winter, or the spring; grass pickerel require water temperatures between 36° and 54°F, and redﬁn favor waters approaching 50°F.
Spawning takes place in heavily vegetated, shallow areas, and the backs of the ﬁsh appear at the surface as they scatter eggs in small batches over the vegetation. Grass pickerel may produce twice as many eggs as do redﬁn pickerel. They do not build nests. The grass pickerel’s eggs hatch in 11 to 15 days, the redﬁn pickerel’s in 12 to 14 days, without the protection of the parents.
Food and feeding habitsGrass and redfin pickerel are largely piscivorous, feeding mainly on other ﬁsh, such as minnows, although they occasionally eat aquatic insects, small crayfish, and frogs. They will remain virtually motionless among the vegetation for hours at a time, waiting to dart out and seize a potential meal.
Other Namesbanded pickerel, little pickerel, mud pickerel.
DistributionIn North America, grass pickerel range from the Great Lakes basin north to southern Ontario in Canada and to Michigan, Wisconsin, and Nebraska; they also occur in the Mississippi River and Gulf slope drainages west of the Pascagoula River in Mississippi to the Brazos River in Texas.
Redﬁn pickerel are found in Atlantic slope drainages, from the St. Lawrence River drainage in Quebec to southern Georgia; they also occur in Gulf slope drainages from the Pascagoula River in Mississippi to Florida. Populations for both species are generally small on a local level.