In Praise of Pickerel

Red and White, the flyfisherman's Daredevil.

According to most fly fishers: “If it ain’t got an adipose fin than it ain’t worth fishing for”. Fish belonging to the Salmonidae family, trout, salmon, chars, whitefish and graylings, all of whom have an adipose fin, are by far the preferred target of most fly fishermen. Other species of fish, notably those of the warm water persuasion, are suspect. I guess for the most part I would fall under that heading, although from time to time I do drift into the dark side. In midsummer, when the rivers begin to warm up, I tend to lay off the trout for a while, opting to wait until things cool off in the fall. A trout caught in warm water is a dead trout and I would rather release my fish.

Recently the fly fishing industry has made a concerted effort to get fly fishers interested in these “lesser species” of fish. Bass, although inferior to trout, is a game fish that most trout fishermen will embrace as a worthwhile adversary and has never been a hard sell to get fly roders to fish for them. Fly tiers love tying bass bugs, especially deer hair mice. In the last few years Carp fishing has become very popular with fly fishermen. In response to this the Orvis Company has added Carp flies to their line and even sells a baseball cap with a Carp on it. I have one, but I have never worn it in public. Oddly enough Carp are considered a delicacy everywhere in the world except the US. In the west fly fishing carp tournaments are popular. In rivers like the Androscoggin, Fallfish (sometimes called white fish) are extremely abundant. These fish will often provide entertainment on a slow day when the trout refuse to bite. Fallfish are often confused with suckers, which may add to their distain. They will readily rise to a dry fly and they are tasty should you be interested in keeping a few for the pan. However, most anglers consider them to be little more than trash. Some fly fishers do fish for “pan fish”, Crappie, Rock Bass, White Perch and Yellow Perch, to name a few. At one time fly rods of certain weights were billed as “perfect for trout and pan fish”. These fish are often thought of as “training fish” for youngsters or newbies; as their name suggests they do make decent table fair.

Of all the warm water fish the Pickerel stands out as one of the gamest and most fun on a fly rod. There are several species of Pickerel, however in New Hampshire the Chain Pickerel (Esox niger) is the most common. Redfin Pickerel are also found in New Hampshire in the southern most part of the Merrimack drainage system and in some coastal streams. The Pickerel is a close relative of the Pike and exhibits all of the aggressive behavior of its larger cousin. Pickerel will eat just about anything and will aggressively chase a fly. Once hooked, Pickerel can be as sporty as any bass or trout.

Because of their aggressive behavior it isn’t necessary to carry a lot of flies; a few streamers is all that is required. Pickerel will rise to a dry fly, but a big streamer fly is perhaps the best all-around fly. I tie just two different streamers when I get the urge to catch Pickerel. Any kid who has ever fished with a red and white Dare Devil will tell you that it is deadly on Pickerel and a red and white bucktail is just about always my first choice. My second fly is a hair wing streamer tied to resemble a Yellow Perch. Just about every fisherman has had the experience of hooking a Perch and while landing it have a huge Pickerel attack the hooked Perch. Many times both fish are netted.

I tie both of my flies on a number four keel hook. Pickerel tend to live in weedy places and the keel hook provides a safe way to work flies through areas where other flies would become snagged. Sadly the keel hook is no longer in production. Richard Pobst published a book entitled “Fish the Impossible Places” in 1974 which gave instruction on tying and fishing flies tied on a keel styled hook. In response to the Mustad manufactured the 7966 keel hook. The same hook was also available in a salt water version. Apparently the hook failed to generate enough sales and as stated is no longer being made. They do from time to time show up on Ebay and, if you can find one, some old fly shops may have a stash. Sorry I only have one box left and they are not for sale.

My red and white streamer is tied with bucktail, although any synthetic streamer hair would be fine. I sometimes add a few strands of Krystal Flash, but that is not a necessity. For the Peach fly I use craft fur or any other synthetic material readily at hand. I start with a white or cream layer followed by yellow and topped with olive. When I have finished tying in the wing I add a few black bars with a waterproof marker. A red marker is useful for adding a gill; if the mood strikes you. Flash may be added and painted or sick-on eyes may also be added. My rule is to keep the fly simple; these are after all only Pickerel. Armed with these two patterns I never have any problem catching fish. However for some added fun you might want to tie a couple of spun deer hair frogs. The frog probably won’t last much longer than a couple of fish, as Pickerel do have a fierce set of teeth, but there is nothing more fun than watching a the frog disappear in a vicious strike.

The before mentioned teeth do present a problem. Tippets are easily shredded by the fish’s teeth and some kind of bite proof tippet is recommended. A short piece of heavy leader material can be tired in or wire leaders may be used. I prefer to use “Toothy Critter” a product from Cortland that can be tied and is quite flexible. Experienced Pickerel fishermen all carry a pair of long nosed pliers or heavy forceps to unhook their catch. Placing a finger in a Pickerel’s mouth can be painful.

The tactics of Pickerel fishing is simple. Work your fly on the edge of any weed bed in the lake and you are bound to attract the fish’s attention. Pickerel attack their prey from ambush and just about anything that passes by gets eaten.

Pickerel are edible and quite tasty if prepared properly. They are very boney and because of this are not popular with cooks. Years ago I read a recipe for Pickerel in Field and Stream. The fish should first be skinned, filleted and then cubed. Mix flour, salt, cayenne pepper and beer and let stand for fifth-teen minutes. Dip the cubes in flour then in the beer mixture and deep fry for about six minutes. The deep frying will dissolve the small bones and you will swear that you are eating the finest sea scallops at a fancy restaurant.

The Pickerel has an image problem. How many times have you heard someone refer to them as “snake heads”? They do have a mean look about them. When you look into a Pickerels eyes you get the feeling that he would have no qualms about biting your hand off, but when you consider that you have just stuck him with a phony fly with a sharp hook in it you can see where he is coming from. Truth is the Pickerel has a lot going for it and is worthy of more respect from fly anglers.

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