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As we come to the end of the month of June sportsmen are hard pressed to find something fun to do other than troll deep for trout and salmon or perhaps wait for a late afternoon hatch of insects to generate some trout-fishing action on a secluded pond or lake.
You can certainly have a whale of a time in the few minutes of action you may get during such endeavors, but if you just want to have lots of fun in pretty much endless fashion, wander on down to the nearest weed-choked pond or driftwood-cluttered bay and see what the pickerel are up to these days.
I think that, cast for cast, no fish is as responsive as a chain pickerel, and they don’t have to be as long as your leg to satisfy the angler’s need for exciting topwater action. There are pickerel hotspots all over central Maine, from small ponds to rivers to just about any lake’s shallower coves, and it’s a rare day, indeed, when a pickerel won’t at least take a swipe at a well-presented, splashy topwater lure.
It is one of the peculiarities of pickerel that they do not feed at night – in fact, you can’t make them bite after dark. I have paddled many a pond after sunset in search of bass and have seen some huge pickerel just hovering in the lamplight mere feet from my canoe. I’ve tried tossing every manner of bait and lure at them at night, including live frogs, leeches and shiners, and not one pickerel has ever so much as turned to look at them – and if you know daytime pickerel, that is an amazing fact!
Fortunately, one doesn’t need to brave the elements at night in order to catch pickerel. Somewhere just after sunset they begin to feed in earnest, and they continue to slash and strike at prey species large and small all through the day and well into late afternoon. The blitz ends a short time before sunset, when all again is quiet on the watery front – at least as far as pickerel are concerned.
I would venture to say that you do not have to wonder if you’ll catch any fish if you are targeting pickerel from now through the rest of the summer. You may not catch a lot of huge fish because the average Maine pickerel is about the size of a large cucumber, and many are much smaller. Indeed, a few of them will be smaller than the lures you throw at them, but the look in their eyes will tell you that they expected to win that battle!
The simplest way to catch pickerel in weedy cover (which is where they are most common) is to rig a 6-foot spinning rod with a dependable reel and 6-pound-test monofilament line. I’d tie on a foot of 8- or 10-pound-test line as a leader (because pickerel are known for their endless rows of fine, sharp teeth). Check and replace the leader as necessary throughout the day unless you don’t mind losing a few lures in the process.
You can wade the shallows of any weedy pond or float along in a canoe or small boat – the pickerel will pay you no mind as long as you are a short cast away. You will bump a few fish (signified by a haughty swirl of water just inches away from you), but if you wait a few minutes without moving that same fish will come barreling in to slash at your offering, suggesting that pickerel have very short memories!
A good lure to use is a rubber worm or grub body on a weedless hook. You can even use a plain hook and simply bury the point in the soft plastic, but bring plenty because those sharp teeth make short work of anything soft, including your fingers!
There’s no need to develop a serious strategy for pickerel. Toss your lure out there, let it sit in the water for a few seconds and then just skip it across the weeds as slowly as you can. Odds are you won’t get half your line back before something hits it. When a pickerel takes your bait, don’t set the hook immediately. Wait for the fish to redouble its grip on its “victim” and then let it head off into the deep to devour its prey. When the line stops a second time, that’s when you want to set your hook. You can try to set your hook on the first strike, but you will soon see that all you will get for your effort is your own lure sailing back past your ears at a rapid pace!
If there is more open water and lots of lily pads, I’d opt for a Jitterbug, a popper or a nice, big, deer-hair fly. Skitter your offerings around and through the pads, but let your lure lay still for a solid count of 10 before skipping it across any larger openings in the weeds. Pickerel will follow your lure under the pads for several feet, and when you hesitate a moment the fish will wind itself up like a spring in anticipation of its victim’s next move. When you next twitch the line, be prepared for a serious, slashing attack. Remember to let out some slack line and give the fish some room to take the bait. Then, set your hooks and hang on!
There was a time when I tried to keep track of how many strikes I’d enjoy during an afternoon of pickerel fishing, but when the tally got over 100 I quit counting. These fish are aggressive, fast and efficient predators, so expect plenty of action. Don’t be afraid to bring a few fish home to eat. Scale and fillet the pickerel, and then lay the fillet skin-side down and make a series of cuts in the flesh 1/4-inch apart and down to, but not through, the skin. Fry or bake the fish as usual and notice that all those aggravating Y-shaped bones are gone, melted in the cooking. I wouldn’t let a summer go by without at least one good feed of pickerel.
It’s just another part of what summer in Maine is all about!
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