New Jersey’s Early Spring Dangerfields
It’s the gamefish that gets little, if any, respect.
The Dangerfield of the Garden State’s freshwater fishing scene, for sure, oftentimes raising the ire of those targeting largemouths when intercepting their spinnerbaits, plastics, topwaters, and jerkbaits.
Such is the animus that derogatory terms like “snake,” “snot rocket,” and “slimer,” among others, refer to its existence.
“No respect, I tell ya!”
Meet the chain pickerel, Jersey’s own true native sweet water predator.
Fact is, this is a first-rate gamefish. Unlike its Garden State kin, the redfin pickerel, chains get long, reaching 30-plus inches and attaining weights well exceeding five pounds. The state record is a whopping 9 lbs. 3-oz. that was caught in Lower Aetna Lake (Burlington County) back in ‘57 of the previous century. It held the world record title for four years before another chain a mere three ounces heavier, was caught and documented in Georgia.
The current New Jersey redfin title holder checked in at 1 lb. 13oz. and was taken from Lake Assunpink in 1982.
Easily identified by its torpedo-like physique complete with chain link markings on both sides and a flattened maw studded with flesh-grabbing (and line-slicing) dentition, this pickerel can be caught from ice out, through the summer swelter and through the autumn and winter months. It’s found in waters from Sussex County to Cape May County, and everywhere in between.
An early spring spawner, pickerel become especially aggressive from mid-March, through April and into early May. This is the prime time to whip some chains. An ambush feeder, this aquatic assassin is always stationed in and around weeds or tucked in close to laydowns extending from the banks.
Stump fields are another favorite hangout. If anything deemed edible passes by, the pickerel is on it in a flash. The blinding speed of a chainsides strike is something to behold. Its spectacular through-the-surface assault is electrifying. Unlike a bass’ inhalation, the pickerel oftentimes shoots up through the liquid skin like a missile fired from a submarine.
Effective lures? The question is what isn’t effective in goading an assault by a chain? Jerk and twitch minnow-shaped plugs, spinnerbaits, jigs adorned with a creature bait, and paddle tail plastics like the Mr. Twister Sassy Shad will all draw a response. Ditto a single hook silver or gold spoon sweetened with a plastic grub. A live shiner under a float is destined for a violent demise. When the water temps bump a few degrees, let the surface fireworks begin.
Pickerel venues are legion, with New Jersey’s southern tier counties literally loaded with prime waters. Some of our chain links include lakes Lenape, Oswego, Dennisville, Hammonton, Mary Elmer, Maple, Prospertown, Tuckahoe and Wells Mills, to name a few.
Chains make for some pretty good eating. The justified complaint that they are too bony via their Y-bone skeletal structure is easily remedied with a few deft cuts with a thin-blade fillet knife. There are numerous YouTube videos showing the filleting technique.
The daily limit is five pickerel at a 15-inch minimum.
The one fly in the ointment until 8 am on Saturday, April 8, is that fishing is closed during the three-week pre-season trout stocking schedule that started yesterday. Especially in south Jersey, there are trout stocked in waters that also provide excellent pickerel fishing (Pohatcong Lake in Tuckerton is an example). The southland exceptions are Prospertown and Lake Shenandoah, both being dosed with trout. Fishing is allowed until 11:59 pm April 7, but any trout caught must be released.