By Mark Fike
Winter still grips parts of the south, although the warm spell some of the southeast experienced this week was a nice respite from cold temperatures. I began thinking about fishing immediately. My thoughts wandered back to the fish that broke the winter blues for me as a kid.
Jackfish, as they are known in some Virginia locales, are properly known as chain pickerel and they are very easily caught in the late winter and early spring. The water temperature nears 50 degrees and the female spews out a ribbon-like stream of eggs that are on their own. The female simply leaves them.
After any ice is gone is when anglers can expect to find these toothy fish ready to bite. While most bass anglers detest pickerel, they most definitely are scrappy fighters and have a large home range. Their habitat includes swamps, swampy areas, tidal sloughs, marshes and slow moving waters of the like.
Lily pads, weedy areas and log jams are favorite ambush sites for these predators. They love to eat minnows, small fish, frogs and large insects. They are lightning fast too.
In February and March, anglers will do well to use a flashy spoon, light action rod and 10 pound test. Check the line for nicks when you get a hit or catch a fish and be sure not to put your fingers in their mouth.
Fish are often lying just inside the weeds that are emerging or under logs, behind stumps and other structures. Cast your spoon or minnow like lure past the potential lurking location and reel it erratically and make it look like it is dying. These fish have a hard time resisting a dying meal.
When using minnow type lures, hard baits, such as Rapala minnows that are jointed but float, are great, but a suspending bait will work too. Using jerkbaits that are soft work well but they get shredded each time they are hit. So, unless you have some extra money lying around, stick with the hardbaits.
Silver, red, and other bright colors are the best choices. Additionally, spinners, particularly medium to large spinners, are great lures to use too. Mepps makes some great ones to include the Aglia and the Comet Minnow.
Dardevle spoons, particularly the white and red version, are killer baits. These need no additional action when using them. Simply cast and retrieve.
Another great tactic to use is freelining a minnow. A struggling minnow, particularly a jumbo minnow, is an irresistible temptation for these aggressive predators. Just like using a lure, cast the minnow with little or no weight on it, past a potential ambush site and slowly work it back, letting it fall and thrash for a few seconds.
If you happen to see a jackfish heading towards your bait, resist the impulse to stop reeling. If anything, reel faster! The fish hate to see something get away from them and it is only natural for a prey fish to try to escape.
When landing the fish, they are like little torpedos with a mouth full of teeth. Take care not to reach inside to remove a hook. Use pliers. Get a good grip on the fish. If you plan on keeping it, use a towel to get a better grip. If you are not going to keep it, let it rest on the bank but in the water with its head out and then pop the hooks loose with pliers.
Pickerel have a high set of rib bones but if you decide to eat one, skin it, cut the head off, gut it and wrap in foil with some cooking oil, some salt and pepper or your favorite fish seasoning and bake it. The meat will fall off the bones easily if done this way. They taste good, particularly if they are caught out of cold water in the winter or spring.