While chasing Spanish mackerel on the Chesapeake Bay off Kent Island, Maryland last fall, my guide, Captain Zack Hoisington, in a quiet moment from his perch in the half tower asked me if I had ever fished for chain pickerel on the fly?
While scanning the horizon for nervous water from the foredeck below, I said, “Huh?!”
Zack knew I’d fished for muskellunge (musky) and northern pike on the fly in Wisconsin, and said, “Yeah, we have them around here and the bite is good in the winter…you could score an Esox-family ‘hat trick’ (i.e., pike, musky and pickerel) if you caught one.”
Hmmmm…always looking for a new species to target with the fly rod, a novel challenge and something to scribble about, I was intrigued.
We made a date to get together again in the winter when the temperatures of the brackish waters off Annapolis, Maryland cool into the 50s and the 40s. (Chain pickerel are freshwater fish but manage well in brackish water, depending on the salinity.)
On a cool, clear, early December morning, we launched from a ramp near Annapolis and motored in Zack’s 19-foot center console under the Eastport Bridge and past the U.S. Naval Academy (my alma mater—Go Navy! Beat Army!) into the Severn River, a tidal tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.
(Zack also uses his 15-foot skiff for fishing for “picks” to allow him to get into shallower waters, including tidal salt ponds.)
Picks, like other Esox, are ambush predators and prefer structure such as downfalls, weed lines, bulkheads, rip rap, docks and shoreline. Zack likes to target them in low-light hours at the beginning or the end of the day or on cloudy days.
Pickerel are active cold water fish–however, sunny conditions with lower-than-average tides, which typically follow a cold front, can slow the bite.
Zack has a couple of 9-foot, 8-weights rigged up with intermediate lines and a 30-lb. test leader to handle these toothy critters. He uses a variety of smaller, musky-like streamers, including flies that imitate yellow and white perch, minnows and shrimp in a range of colors.
We slide into a cove off the Severn River with plenty of structure and Zack deploys the trolling motor. I start pounding the bank, retrieving the fly line from the chilly water with a strip-strip-strip-long pause rhythm.
Picks tend to hit the fly on the pause, especially if a fly kicks a bit sideways to the direction of the tippet/line, providing a larger profile to this piscatorial predator. Like their bigger cousin, the musky, pickerel will follow a fly right up to the boat, so pay attention, especially when getting ready to recast!
In seemingly no time, I hook into a fish. It’s an aggressive take and puts a rainbow-like arc in the 8-wt. Zack thinks it’s a pick. While playing the fish, I feel some violent head shakes reverberate up the line. Zack warns me to be ready for some aerial acrobatics.
No jumps, but I’m soon rewarded boatside with a near 20-inch chain pickerel.
I land another fish and lose a couple more. I found them pretty challenging to play once hooked, confirming my notion that they’re a great sport fish for the fly fisher.
Zack told me that on our half-day trip the bite was slower than usual. On an average day, according to Zack, a skilled fly angler can expect to boat a half-dozen pickerel. On a good day, a good angler can easily boat over a dozen.
The picks in this area are abundant and range in length from 8-inches to 20-inches with a 24-incher a citation-sized chain pickerel in the FishMaryland certificate program, according to Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
(For more info on the FishMaryland program, including how to submit your catch: https://dnr.maryland.gov/fisheries/pages/fishmaryland.aspx And if you’re bringing your big boy/big girl waders to fish, Maryland state records are listed at: https://dnr.maryland.gov/fisheries/pages/state-records.aspx)
In my opinion, the pick is an underappreciated fish for the fly fisher and a great way to do some inshore fishing in the late fall and winter months, assuming average water temperatures in the central Atlantic.
Chain pickerel can become lethargic in very cold weather and the bite will be slow. Zack says he will fish for picks until the creeks are completely frozen over, which seldom happens in a given year. He has caught them with a fly rod on the edges of skim ice.
Annapolis is also a great staging area for some fly fishing. The town, known for its sailing and boating, has great eateries and bars—and (thankfully) is less crowded in the cooler weather months. It’s also very festive during the holiday season.
In the area, stripers (striped bass) are without doubt the favorite local fish on the fly—and understandably so—but in the winter months with less wind and calmer waters off, rather than on, the Chesapeake Bay, my pick for fly fishing is chain pickerel.
Dr. Peter Brookes is an award-winning outdoor writer from Virginia and a recovering DC foreign policy wonk.