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A lot of Maine anglers put their gear away in July and head for the nearest lake shore or camp for what's left of the summer, but if you like to catch fish and enjoy non-stop action without all the trappings of “serious” angling - trout and bass fishing comes immediately to mind - there is good reason to keep your rod and reel handy over the so-called dog days of summer.
The common lament among July fishermen is that it's too hot, the water's too low and the bugs are brutal. Aha! Those are perfect conditions for our quarry of the week - the chain pickerel. I don't know how these evil-eyed fish can survive in water that feels warm enough to bathe the dog, but you won't find any faster action on hook and line unless you happen to bump into a school of bluefish - not likely in our neck of the woods!
The pickerel is everyone's “beginner” fish, and for good reason. They are numerous, aggressive, easy to catch, decent fighters and easy to identify. No “check for blue or red spots on the sides or back” for these fish. Pickerel are long, thin and loaded with sharp teeth - you can't mistake them for anything else! Most of the pickerel in Maine are well under 5 pounds, in fact you'll be lucky to catch one such fish over a lifetime of angling. But, if you want to catch 12- to 18-inch fish till your arms get tired, the pickerel is the No. 1 choice in July.
Some species of Maine fish are common only in certain lakes, rivers or watersheds, but pickerel are found everywhere. I've caught them in salmon lakes, trout rivers and remote ponds that supposed hold only native brookies. Pickerel in extremely cold water tend to be few and small, normally under a foot long, but warmwater fish are abundant and much bigger.
Books have been written about the many “finesse” tactics needed to fool trout or salmon, and even bass anglers have gotten “hooked” by the science of it all. Enter the pickerel fisherman, who can wet wade with sneakers and toss any manner of large, noisy baits or lures 10 feet or 50 feet out - the pickerel won't care. If you want the easiest of all pickerel fishing, fashion yourself a limber 12-foot pole out of a hardwood sapling (ash is good), attach an equal length of line to the pole, tie a hook to the end of the line and, using a chunk of cut bait, fish belly or even a piece of bright-colored cloth, wade along shore and just drag your bait across the surface of the water as you go. Try not to create a huge wake as you pass, and fish ahead of yourself as you go. Pickerel are quick to spot and strike a potential meal, and they will come back two or three times if they happen to miss the mark.
Most folks opt for a rod-and-reel combination, and that's fine. The simplest bait to use is a rubber worm or grub run over the hook so that the point of the hook remains just under the skin of the bait. This will keep the hook from catching all the weeds and brush you'll encounter, and allow the bait to swim freely just on the surface. Pickerel won't allow such an offering to get far. Work your baits near and into any openings in the weeds you encounter, and pause for a second or two before dragging the bait into open water. Any pickerel hovering nearby will attack it with a vengeance! If you spot a swirl or other sign of a fish approaching, stop your retrieve for a few seconds and let the fish build up a little anxiety, just like a cat about to pounce. Hang on, however, because the next time that lure moves the fish is going to be all over it.
If there is room for it, casting larger lures such as Jitterbugs, poppers or other frog-imitating baits will work. Anything that makes a little noise and appears to be struggling in the water will attract hungry pickerel - often, more than one. For example, one time I was fishing with live frogs and accidentally dumped the frog pail over in the boat. Two-dozen hoppers dove off the canoe and into the water, made a couple of strokes and then hung there considering their next move. The swirls of approaching pickerel were ominous and almost scary - things were looking bad for the frogs! One by one the frogs made for the nearby weeds and, when it was over, every single frog had been devoured, disappearing in a swirling splash that made it pretty clear who was the predator and who was the prey! Fortunately for all, there are plenty of artificial lures that mimic the action of swimming frogs, and, even more fortunately, pickerel will eat those, too!
Every lake and most rivers in our region contain pickerel. You won't go wrong at Boyd Lake, Harlow Pond, Indian Lake or the Piscataquis River's many bays and shallow runs. Sebasticook Lake has plenty of pickerel, as does the river, especially downstream of Newport. My favorite place to go is the pond at St. Albans WMA, which once was a muskrat farm and a perfectly shallow, weedy place for pickerel fishing.
To eat pickerel, scale and fillet the fish, and then, with the skin side down, make a series of horizontal and vertical cuts in the flesh down to but not through the skin. You should end up with a chunk of meat with many little squares of meat attached. Breaded and fried, pickerel is as good as any warmwater fish, and you won't find a single bone in the meat - they melt in the cooking.
Don't spend your whole July and August sitting in the shade or, worse, struggling with yard work. Grab a few Jitterbugs, head for the nearest shallow, weedy pond and have yourself a ball. If you truly prefer yard work, come on over and do mine - I'll go fishing for you!
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