Snot Rockets, Slime Darts, Slimers, call them what you will but just mentioning chain pickerel in Nova Scotia could start a heated debate. Chain pickerel are invasive to Nova Scotia. They were first introduced to Nova Scotia around the 1950s in Yarmouth county and have now spread across the province, eating native fish species along the way. But not just fish, they will eat frogs, baby turtles, ducklings and anything else they can fit into their gruesome mouths. Our trout and salmon populations are under attack and it seems there is little we can do to stop it.
They are apex predators in our waters and their adaptations make them very good at catching prey. Their streamlined bodies allow for quick bursts of speed that they use to ambush prey from their hiding spots in heavy cover and those teeth are terrifying. Razor sharp teeth chomp down onto prey gashing their flesh and on the roof of their mouth are rows of small teeth that point towards their gullet so that anything that goes in their mouth will not get out. They can be very aggressive often charging from distance to annihilate their prey. It’s this very aggression that can make them a fun target species.
Trout and salmon still rule in Nova Scotia. Many anglers enjoy smallmouth bass and in my opinion the striped bass fishery is the fastest growing fishery in Nova Scotia without question. Chain pickerel, on the other hand, are still frowned upon as a sportfish. People turn their noses up at them and I get it, I totally get it. I grew up in Cape Breton fishing brook trout, rainbow trout, and brown trout. I hadn’t even heard of a chain pickerel until I moved off the island so I totally feel the frustration and hatred towards pickerel. However, in the summer months when rivers are dried up and trout head for deep water, chain pickerel offer a very exciting alternative.
Personally, I don’t target pickerel in spring. I’m usually too busy chasing trout in rivers and lakes and then striped bass on their migration into the Shubenacadie and Stewiacke River. I only fish them in summer and winter through the ice. In my opinion, prime time for chains in usually the first 2 or 3 weeks of July, when weed growth hits its peak and lily pads come full bloom. This is normally when chains are the most aggressive and easiest to catch. If you find some heavy weed growth or thick lily pad patches then you have also found chain pickerel. Fishing in heavy cover can be very productive but you will need some specific gear if you plan on targeting chains in thick weeds.
I recommend using a fast action medium rod. Leave your light action or softer trout rods at home. You are going to want something with enough backbone to rip the pickerel out of the heavy cover. I also spool my reel with 14 to 20 lb braid. Braid will not only help you get fish out of the weeds but the briad will also cut through the weeds if you get snagged up or a fish takes you deep into the cover. The last piece to the puzzle is a steel leader. I use 14 lb titanium leaders because they don’t kink up after a hard fought battle. I also like them because they are thinner diameter and lighter which means they don’t affect the action of lures as much as bulkier steel leaders.
When fishing weed growth it is vital that you are fishing weedless baits and lures. Texas rigged soft plastics with wide gap hooks and hollow body lures are hard to beat. My go-to baits are soft plastic swimbaits and frogs but flukes and senkos will work well too. One rod in the boat is always rigged up with a Smartbaits Swimming Jesse or Foxy Frog on 3/0 or 4/0 wide gap hook. Cast these baits across the lily pad patch, raise your rod tip slightly and bring the bait back just fast enough so it stays on or just below the surface. Watch for the distinctive wake behind your bait. Often a pickerel will pursue the bait for a long way before deciding to eat it.
Hollow body frogs are a productive bait in heavy weed cover. It can be fished in the heaviest cover without snagging and get to those pockets deep in the pads where some real monsters lay in wait. Twitch the tip of the rod a few times so that the frog skips a few inches at a time. Pause for 2 to 3 seconds in between twitches. When a fish does explode on the bait it’s important to hold your nerve and delay the hookset by a second or two. This will give the fish time to turn with the bait and inhale it. It took me many missed hooksets before I figured it out. I think one of the most exciting baits you can use for pickerel is a buzzbait, I really like the Strike King Mini-Pro Buzz. It’s smaller than a regular buzzbait and I find the hook up ratio better than using the larger buzzbaits. These little buzzbaits are also deadly on smallmouth bass at the right times. They stay fairly weedless and the strikes are explosive!
Fly fishing for chains is a thrill! A bit more challenging on a fly than spin gear but throwing big surface flies to hungry predators and watching them destroy it is intense to say the least. I recommend a 7 weight or even an 8 weight and wouldn’t use anything less than a 6 weight. Yes a 5 weight could handle a pickerel but remember you will most likely be fishing thick cover and you will need to stop them from running into it or you will need to pull them out of it. I use a 10 lb fluro tippet with a titanium leader. The titanium leaders are light and I don’t find they affect casting too much. For flies I use big mouse patterns, popper flies, or anything with deer hair that stays on or close to the surface. If they have a weed guard then all the better. Most streamers will work as well. I like synthetic streamers like Enrico Puglisi flies, game changers, bunny streamers, and deceivers. Clouser minnows or half and halfs are great for days when the pickerel are deeper.
Many anglers have this notion that pickerel are always aggressive and will eat anything but that’s just not true. In cold water they are extremely sluggish. When ice fishing, I’ve watched them stare at baits for up to 10 minutes before turning and swimming away. Most times they won’t move more than 10 feet to grab a bait. When temperatures are prime I’ve seen them charge from almost 20 feet away but they will also become sluggish when water temps become too high. Early mornings are your best bet in summer and you can usually get 2 or 3 hours of a good surface bite before things get too hot and the pickerel go deep into cover seeking much needed shade. When conditions get tough you have to abandon the surface action and slow down your presentation. Move to the edge of weedlines or submerged vegetation on or near drop offs. This is the time to rig up some senkos or flukes weedless and let them sink down into the weed cover. If you have a good pair of polarized glasses look for pockets in thick submerged vegetation or let your bait sink and work it slowly along the edge of the weeds.
In these tough conditions you will often get a lot of fish following baits right to the boat. Sometimes you will see the wake behind the bait but most often then will be below and a few feet behind the bait. Make sure you don’t bring the bait right into the boat or onto shore. Pause for a second or two and see if a fish has followed it. I always have a second rod ready with either a drop shot or a 1/8 oz jig head and minnow bait like a Berkley gulp 2 inch minnow ready for any fish that follows and won’t commit. Normally if you get that smaller bait out fast enough you can get that fish to eat. I also use scented baits or add scent to all my baits. My prefered scent is Liquid Mayhem. Their scents are made with real baitfish and although some may be skeptical, I’m a firm believer that they give you the edge on those tough days
Love them or hate, if you’ve ever put a serious effort into targeting chain pickerel then you know how exciting they can be. Yes, they are destroying our trout and salmon and my heart breaks over that but unfortunately I believe they are here to stay. If they are here to stay then we might as well get used to it and take advantage of not only a fun fish to catch but also a great one to eat. That’s right, those slimy, ugly, ferocious slime darts are actually quite delicious. They do have “Y” bones like a Northern Pike but they are pretty easy to remove once you’ve filleted a few. There are lots of videos out there that show how it’s done. My one piece of advice is to try and keep the slime away from the fillets as best you can because the slime gives the fillets a strong taste. I keep one side of my cutting table slime free and do all my deboning on that side. I also recommend only keeping fish 19 inches and above because the smaller fish are much more difficult to debone and you end up getting little for your efforts. Let’s do our part to save our native species. Save a trout, eat a pickerel.