Classic Ice Quest: Pickerel
The sudden strikes of chain pickerel mark this species as one of the most impulsive freshwater fish, perhaps the chief reason they take scorn from some fishermen. The thick scale mucous is often cited, but some call them jacks, a sure indication that the eagerness is unsettling. On the other hand, many of us admire pickerel and all members of the pike family for the fierce determination and focus. Pickerel often miss the target when they strike, and yet there’s no denying the missile-like intent. Traditionally, pickerel regain seasonal popularity among ice fishermen. They remain a little more active than bass, and last winter, a number got caught in three feet of water beneath 18 inches of ice while it continued to thicken.
Ice Fishing Basics
If you’re unfamiliar with ice, don’t go out on it until it’s established by the community associated with a lake as safe. Early on, any large lake may be safe in certain coves, and yet feature open water at the wind-blown points. Be safe and begin a process of familiarizing yourself with ice conditions too numerous to discuss in this article. Like many fishermen, I got introduced to ice fishing by someone mentored years before by someone else. Guides will teach a fisherman of whatever experience plenty for a worthwhile fee, and books on the subject will too.
A plastic, flat-bottomed sleigh will carry the weight of a power auger and all of your equipment with ease. If you’re young and strong enough, you can cut thick ice with a splitting bar. It’s a workout I used to prefer, until I began to complain about the time it took to set tip-ups.
Five lines per angler allowed by law, both tip-ups and jigging rods serve effectively. Secure hooks by impaling dacron tip-up line at the spools, but to avoid getting the hooks stuck, don’t press beyond the barbs. The simple, inexpensive, wood-framed tip-ups are all you need. A propane catalytic heater helps warm hands, as do vermiculite hand and toe warmers. A small hibachi fits on the sleigh and hot dogs and burgers never taste better. If you jig some yellow perch, you may never enjoy them fresher. Keep tackle to a minimum--hooks, split shot, jigging spoons, fluorocarbon, barrel swivels, needlenose pliers. Place a straining ladle in the bucket with shiners to keep hands relatively dry when baiting up. Warm, waterproof gloves are available at many venues this time of year. Folding chairs for each participant make life easy. Don’t forget the coffee!
I’ve heard guys complain about cold feet. A good pair of pac boots will keep them comfortable and completely warm. We’ve ice fished at zero degrees without the slightest chill, and have slogged through water on the ice late in the season. Don’t skimp on gloves, layered clothing with quality thermal underwear against the skin, wool cap, and face protection if the wind is cold enough. Layer clothing with moisture absorbing wool, not cotton. You can always take layers off if you get too warm.
Shallow, Deep, and Always Weedy
Finding pickerel is an engrossing absorbing pleasure, if you really get into it. It’s possible to do a little roaming with the sleigh and quick-cutting power auger. Open water knowledge of a lake or pond isn’t absolutely prerequisite, but helps a lot, as do contour maps. We’ve caught pickerel in three feet of water in the back of a frozen Lake Hopatcong cove, 12 feet deep among the residual weeds of sloping shorelines, and 15 feet deep on a weedy flat of the same lake’s Great Cove. Years ago, we fished a six-acre pond in Princeton Township, tip-up flags popping up constantly throughout the range of the pond’s middle 10-foot depths, the bottom just fuzzy enough with residual weeds to hold pickerel.
As with any other species, you can find sweet spots and score a big catch while others never get the skunk off. Most of the time, you may have to settle for a fish or two and be happy you connected. No doubt, weeds hold them. But if you know of any spots combining weeds with cover like submerged brush, always fish them. It’s a good idea to take note during the warm water months of any weedbeds combining plant species--Eurasian milfoil with pads and the like—because any break that stands out in a pattern of homogenous habitat tends to hold more fish.
During the previous decade, before Lake Musconetcong got treated with weed killer to combat water chestnuts, pickerel catches of a dozen fish, many of them over three pounds, commonly accompanied efforts at placing tip-ups just right. The weed mass remained thick, and you could never tell for sure if the shiner would bury and entangle itself. Tip-ups required careful tending, and new holes cut increased the likelihood of getting a shiner in place, where it wriggled and swam about on the hook to entice a strike. Since Lake Musconetcong is about five feet deep everywhere, getting the shiner near the bottom wasn’t necessary. In some situations, we placed the bait halfway down, thus allowing free swimming.
Other lakes have heavy weed cover in the winter, which may characterize the best spots to fish, but carefully. In any event, we tend tip-ups by giving them a lift every so often, both to make sure the shiner isn’t stuck in weeds, and to give the bait a little life.
I’m the guy who involves himself in possibilities out there. The rest of the crew may be content to sit back and tell stories, but while I have my say, the edge of my mind is always ready for any crazy notion butting in that just might lead to a better cut. And besides, jigging with a chrome-finish spoon is a way to cover ground by cutting a lot of holes, letting things quiet down, and fishing the route you’ve created. The one-eighth or quarter-ounce Kastmaster is perfect—compact and fitting for jigging directly down.
A fine line exists between intuition and superstition, but on any lake, there’s a lot of water out there. Even the water featuring weedy habitat is extensive. It’s better to think you might have a sense of where a pickerel might be, than to just stand back passively and feel nothing’s doing. It’s true that some days—especially early and late in the season—pickerel feed more under the ice than on others, and the witching hour of sunset and dusk is typically best. But on any day, a lot goes on down there, and by meditating on your approach and experimenting with sets and jigging, it’s possible to meet a little of that activity halfway, when just setting up and sitting would have yielded relatively few fish or nothing.
Details About Tip-Ups and Jigging
One of us cuts holes and one or more of the others sets. With a power auger, this is quick business. We use size 6 plain shank hooks placed near the large shiner’s dorsal fin. By setting the hook as soon as we get to a flag-sprung tip-up, we almost never gut-wrench the fish. The exception is when we stand so close to a flag when it springs that we need to let the pickerel complete its initial dash, stop, and begin mouthing the shiner. A firm pull on a tightened line usually results in fish on. Needlenose pliers kept in the pocket quickly disgorge the hook, and the pickerel is released in active condition. Pickerel strike so that the shiner is immediately mouthed in the middle, although sometimes we do miss a hit, and sometimes catch a pickerel hooked at the tip of the mouth. Often the pickerel takes the shiner at the middle portion of the belly, not the dorsal area, though a shiner gets worked into the mouth after that first quick run.
Braided dacron should neither be so heavy that you can’t fit much on the tip-up spool, nor so light that you don’t get a good grip on it when playing a fish. Forty-pound test is about right. Tie a small barrel swivel to the dacron and about three feet of 15-pound test fluorocarbon leader to the other end. Tie on a hook and crimp a medium split shot to the leader with the pliers about 18 inches above. Don’t crimp lead with your teeth. We used to do that in our teens, but since any amount of ingested lead affects the brain, it’s not a good idea. Since fluorocarbon resists abrasion, 15-pound test will do for a single catch, but it often does not for two. Always check the leader after each fish on, and retie the hook if any nicks or scrapes present themselves.
The line will go loose when the rig reaches the bottom. Tighten the line by wrapping dacron onto the spool as you lower that spool to water level, making sure the split shot is directly on bottom. Wrap seven more turns, so the split shot situates a couple of feet or so off bottom. Make any adjustments needed for heavy weeds or other cover.
The shiner is enabled to swim more and less freely. That’s why 15-pound test fluorocarbon, rather than heavier fluorocarbon or monofilament, helps. The little hook and the relatively limp line allow freer motion.
My jigging rods don’t have the sensitive panfish tips. They’re stout, but allow enough play. I attach an ultralight reel loaded with 15-pound test Power Pro braid. A uni to uni knot connects a 15-pound test fluorocarbon leader, to which a small snap is tied, the Kastmaster snapped on. Experiment with jigging by using your imagination as if it’s a perceptual power, rather than frivolous fancy. Some research suggests active imagination helps create possibilities as if from thin air. Possibilities that may actually happen, because the energy of intention is energy just the same as any other form. Pickerel will likely hit a jig that suddenly behaves erratically, but tempt them in by subtly twitching the spoon.
Pickerel provide that jolt to make an otherwise frozen environment come to life. Ice fishing is much more than a way to get cold and miserable. It’s a way to connect with friends and fish alike.