A Fly Fisher’s Pickerel Apology

Fishes of the genus Esox have always fascinated anglers. They get big. They look mean. They attack lures and fight… if you can manage to find and hook one.

All of these things make sense. So here is what confuses me: In a world where we chase carp and sing the praises of six-inch brook trout, why aren’t pickerel celebrated?

Although I lived in southern and mid-Atlantic states within their natural range, I never  encountered a pickerel until I moved to New England. The first fish I caught upon relocating was a feisty, toothy, sixteen-inch specimen. “Oh, its just a pickerel,” my angling companion noted with the same disdain I would expect to hear had I reeled in a muddy branch. I didn’t know any better. It was a fish. It fought. It looked a lot like a pike. And I enjoyed the whole experience.

I guess I still don’t know any better. Sure, they stink, wriggle,  and can chew up your hand. And they can “get in the way” of catching other species. But here and now, I’m defending and offering an apologetic for the pickerel.

  1. It is a fish.   There are times when I want to catch a particular species. A bass. A trout. A carp (see!). Most of the time, I just want to catch a fish. Pickerel are most certainly a fish. You cast, they bite, you reel. Pickerel are great for getting your fishing fix. Pickerel are great for getting kids and new anglers’ attention. Pickerel are even a little dangerous. And who doesn’t like that?
  2. It checks all the boxes. If you are into catch and release, what are you fishing for? Certainly not table fare… although we’ll discuss that in a moment. It is the experience. It goes beyond just catching a fish, to catching a fish that offers up a challenge. It might be elusiveness or an actual physical  challenge of a fight. Pickerel may not be elusive, but the big ones aren’t  ubiquitous. And they sure do fight.
  3. It is not unlike a pike or a musky. I’ve always asked questions like: “10-inch sunfish or 10-inch trout?” or “four two-pound bass or two four-pound catfish?” It seems like a good way to gauge an angler’s priorities. I’ve caught two-plus foot pickerel, and although they are just pickerel, they are nothing to scoff at. Around me, they’re in watersheds without pike or musky. They fill that same esox niche. I’m not naive enough to think that because I can catch toothy critter A in one lake that I’ll catch toothy critter B in another. Still, the experience isn’t wholly distinct.
  4. Apparently, they taste good. Alan knows fish, and Alan knows food. In South Carolina, pickerel go by the moniker of “jackfish.” He catches them, skins and guts them, and fries them in such a way that the bones basically dissolve. With a little bit of hotsauce, jackfish get rave reviews. There’s too much mercury up here, but I won’t say no to some fried pickerel the next time I’m down south.

What do you think? Am I plain crazy, or crazy as a fox? Do you like pickerel – on the end of your line or even sizzling in a cast iron skillet with cornmeal? Remember, they like your flies and lures. There’s certainly something to be said for that.

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