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I attended a fly-fishing club meeting the other night and was assailed with complaints about the lack of fish, low water, high heat and a dozen other reasons why the guys weren't catching any fish. Of course, these were trout fishermen who, for one reason or another, won't tear themselves away from their favorite streams even though doing so would probably mean they'd actually catch something! I tried to tell them that there was an alternative to sitting in the den sorting hackle at the end of the summer, but they didn't seem to want to hear it.
One thing I've learned about the outdoors since I bagged my first squirrel (with a rock no less) is that everyone's an expert, and in fact many sportsmen are pretty good at their chosen pursuits. But, they're fish out of water, so to speak, when they are forced by circumstances to try something different.
It's true enough that summer fishing conditions are not the best, but if you want consistent action, plenty of fish and little or no competition, get off the popular streams and lakes and find yourself a nice, shallow pickerel pond somewhere. Our area is loaded with options, too; so picking a place to go is easy.
Pickerel thrive under conditions that would make the average trout ill indeed. You can find pickerel in water that is only inches deep and tepid as bath water. Plus, you'll find lots of them. I won't say that pickerel travel in schools (they don't travel much and are usually loners) but most shallow ponds, coves and weedy shorelines will have one or two fish within casting distance throughout the summer.
Another advantage of summer pickerel fishing is that these toothy predators are most active during the day, even at midday, when most other species are difficult to find. You can catch pickerel at any time from sunup to just before sundown. Unlike most other predators they do not seem to be active at night. I have fished for other species (bass, cusk, bullheads, etc.) after dark but have never caught a post-sunset pickerel. I'll often notice one loafing just under the surface in the beam of my headlamp, but I've never been able to induce a pickerel to strike after dark.
Another good point about pickerel is that they are not fussy fish, nor are the shy. I have caught them on a piece of colored cloth swished back and forth at the end of a long cane pole (the fabric is all the “hook” you need), and I've taken many others with nothing more than a bare hook with a piece of pork rind or glittery plastic attached. Pickerel are eating machines with none of the so-called “brains” attributed to brown trout, salmon or other hard-to-fool species.
If there's any sort of “rule” you an attach to pickerel is that its meal must be moving under its own power, and that's about all you need to know to catch all the pickerel you want on a hot summer day. Baits of all sorts will work as long as you keep them moving, but the rate of attrition is high. Pickerel are quite good at their job (eating other things), and your hard-won night crawler or minnow is not going to be good for much after a pickerel has hit it once. The damage caused by all those sharp teeth is major and terminal - you'll go through a lot of live bait!
Take advantage of the pickerel's appetite by using sturdy lures. Anything weedless that floats and splashes will work. Some of the standard lure types include the Jitterbug, Zara Spook and similar topwater gurglers, but I prefer to use smaller lures because most of the pickerel you'll catch in Maine will be less than 24 inches long and will have smaller mouths. You'll hook more fish on miniature lures, and I go as far as to remove all the treble hooks and put on a single weedless hook instead. The treble hooks will catch fish, no doubt, but THEN you have the challenge of unhooking a fish that not only has a mouthful of razor-sharp teeth but anywhere from three to nine nice, sharp hooks as well! That's going to hurt for sure!
Books have been written about the various techniques required to catch trout in low, clear water, and that's because trout are not easy marks. I don't recall ever seeing a book on pickerel fishing because, the truth be known, it's too simple! Pickerel don't “spook” the way other species do, they sort of move out of your way. But, if you toss them something that looks like, acts like or even could be a meal, they'll pounce on it like a teenager going for the phone.
The secret is to keep your bait or lure moving at all times in nice, easy hops, just like a real frog or bug moving across the surface. Pause every so often to tease the fish, especially when you see a swirl in the distance and you know a fish has moved in to follow your bait. A twitch here and there should do it. Pickerel are not shy about attacking their prey, and in fact will hit it again and again.
If you're having trouble making hookups, check your hooks to be sure they're sharp and bent slightly away from the shank for better contact. Also, when a fish strikes, let him take the bait for a slow count of three. This gives the pickerel time to grab, turn and begin to swallow his prey. That's when you set the hook and reel in your prize. Nothing to it!
Another advantage of fishing for pickerel is that there is no size or bag limit. You don't want to keep fish that are under 18 inches because there's not much meat on them, but the big ones can be scaled, filleted and then fried or broiled for an excellent meal. To get rid of those nasty Y-shaped bones, lay the fillet skin-side down and make a series of cuts into the flesh one-quarter inch apart down to the skin. This exposes all those little bones (cartilage, really) and allows them to melt away during cooking. To make your pickerel taste better, keep the fish on ice till they're ready for the frypan. Dragging a stringer of dead fish around in the hot sun all day and then trying to cook them would make any species unpalatable!
So, get off the couch and go find yourself a nice, quiet pickerel pond somewhere. If you don't you deserve all the yard work you're about to get instead!
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