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King of the Icy Waters - By: Bob Gooch - Feb. 2004

I tossed my minnow-rigged lure out into the icy winter waters, watched the
red and white float settle on the surface, and quickly stuck my hands back into the warm pockets of my wool jacket. Watching anxiously as the float
came to life and began to dance on the surface, I grunted with satisfaction
and settled back to wait. The rented boat rocked gently on a high tide. But
not for long!

Suddenly the action of the float began to pick up tempo, and then quickly
disappeared into the brackish winter water! Fish on! Cold hands temporarily
forgotten, I reeled in a bit of the slack line and tried to exercise patience.
Give the fish time. Don't jerk the minnow out of its mouth. Let it swallow it and then strike.

What kind of fish was I doing business with? A big yellow perch--or a fat
chain pickerel? I was sure it was one of the two, but which? Hopefully a big chain pickerel, though I wouldn't be disappointed if I was onto a scrappy yellow perch. Either fish would give a good account of itself in the cold waters.

Finally I raised the rod tip and struck. Hard. Good fish! Even as I shifted into
position for a good battle, the fish suddenly cracked the surface and stood
on its tail out there in the cold Maryland waters. Big one! I was guessing five
or six pounds as it shook its head and splashed back into a cold spray of
glistening water.

And just as suddenly it was gone!

Had I failed to set the hook firmly? Probably so. The chain pickerel has a
bony mouth lined with sharp teeth. Sometimes hard to drive a hook in for a
firm set. And even if I had, those sharp teeth could quickly sever an eight-
pound test monofilament line.

Disappointed, but thrilled, I quickly rebaited and stuck my now freezing
hands back into my pocket for another wait.

That bit of winter fishing drama added sparkle to a cold morning on
Maryland's South River just south of Annapolis a good half a century ago, but
it's a fond memory that lingers in my mind-along with dozens of others from
across America. I haven't fished the South River for years, but I understand
from a fellow angler who lives in the area that pickerel fishing is now a thing
of the past.

That particular pickerel fishing may now be a part of angling history, but
the chain pickerel remains a good winter fish throughout much of Maryland
and Virginia. I've caught some good ones in the popular Chickahominy Lake on
the equally as popular Chickahominy River. I've also caught many in Mechunk
Creek that flows near my Fluvanna County home. The chain pickerel is a good
winter fish wherever you find it. In fact I believe the winter fishing can be
more productive than the warm weather fishing.

In recent years my pickerel fishing has been pretty much limited to the
waters of eastern Virginia. You can find them far up tiny headwaters
streams that flow eventually into our major eastern rivers such as the
James and Rappahannock. I enjoy no fishing more than pulling on a pair of hip
boots, and wading, and casting to pickerel in small streams, many of which
have no names. I choose ultra-light spinning tackle and generally small
surface lures. I fish upstream so as to remain inconspicuous as possible.
Stream fish generally lay with their heads into the current awaiting food that
drifts downstream. Approaching from downstream you are less conspicuous.
The chain pickerel is king of the waters, particularly in small streams. It
will take up residence in a good pool in the stream and rule the water, daring
any other fish to venture into its domain. Such a fish can be a sucker for a
carefully presented surface lure dropped lightly in its lair. "He's the king,"
one fisheries biologist once told me. "If something invades its territory it
wants to get it out of there". That zeal can be the fish's undoing. Some of
the most explosive strikes I have ever experienced have come in the
sparkling clear pools of tiny streams. These chain pickerel are not big fish,
but they don't lack in courage nor the desire to rid their mouths of a pesky
lure. I love that kind of fishing.

The pickerel's explosive strike is probably the most exciting part of this
unique fishing experience. It hits with reckless abandon, and for that reason I
prefer surface lures such as the age-old Hula Popper or Jitterbug. These
lures usually hook the fish in the corner of its mouth where it is the least
likely to pull free. Over the years I have also taken a number of good fish on
underwater lures such as spoons, the red and white Daredevil being a good
choice. You miss the exciting surface strike, of course, but there are times
when topwater lures won't work.

I mentioned live bait in the opening paragraphs, and lively minnows hooked
through both lips will survive for a long time in the cold water, and the angler
can bundle up and keep his hands warm while the minnow does his fishing for
him. The sight of a float suddenly disappearing beneath the surface has
thrilled many anglers through the ages. "The prettiest sight in fishing is the
ripple on the water where the cork was," noted one aging angler. I rarely use
live bait anymore, but I don't hesitate to do so if the occasion arises.
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries does little to manage
the chain pickerel. There is no closed season nor size limit on the fish, but
the daily creel limit is five. The fish doesn't ask for much. Give it some clean
clear water and some rich aquatic vegetation and it will continue to provide
some of the most exciting freshwater fishing.

And go for him during the cold months when the fireside will feel welcome
after a few hours on the chilly waters of winter. Many are taken by ice
fishermen in the northern part of Virginia and in Maryland. Deep Creek Lake
in western Maryland is a popular ice fishing lake.

That's winter fishing for chain pickerel.


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