Pickerel have certain haunts, and though they usually move independent of each other, but to catch "a string of pickerel" is a good day's work. Pickerel are fond of shady places, and in summer they frequent the parts of the stream nearly where the pickerel weed grows. They generally spawn in March or April, and earlier in some southern streams. In winter they get under rocks, or stumps, or into convenient deep holes, and they can be taken then with small live fish for bait.
In rivers you can generally catch pickerel near the mouth of some small stream emptying into the river; the fall of the year is the best time for catching them. In the hot summer months they will seldom bite at all, except perhaps in a very windy day. In the fall, too, they are in better condition. Pickerel fishing in the spring is sometimes very successful, however, though the fish are not as good when breeding.
At this period their usual beautiful green color and bright yellow spots are dull and leaden. In the more northern waters they are sometimes taken as early as August in good condition.
The tackle used for pickerel is a pretty stiff 10 foot fishing rod, with a reel, and some 50 or 60 yards of flax line, which should be protected by the hook with gimp or wire. The Limerick or Kirby salmon hook is used. The size is 0 to 5, according to the size of the fish.
In a running stream, the sinker and float will also be found necessary. The bait should be a small live fish, or frog, or the hind leg of a frog skinned. Worms are sometimes used in small streams, where the water is clear and the game small. In using live bait, when the pickerel takes it, do not draw your line too quick.
The bait itself, if properly impaled, will be very lively and will be apt to make a violent effort to escape its enemy. Inexperienced anglers may take this movement for a veritable bite; but when the bite comes, there is no mistaking it. In impaling a small fish for bait, pass the hook under the back fin, just under the roots of its rays.
This will not disable the fish, and it will appear lively in the water. When using live frog bait, you pass the hook through the skin of the back or belly, or the back muscle of the hind legs. The live frog is generally used on the top of the water - if not, you should let him rise occasionally to take the air.
When the pickerel has seized your bait, give him plenty of time to swallow it, and also plenty of line. Sometimes he will hold it in his mouth and play with it before gorging. On bringing him to land, be careful of his jaws, for he has a set of teeth, sharp as needles.
Trolling for pickerel is decidedly an exciting and interesting sport if you have good and large game. A small sail boat, or skiff is used, with an attendant to manage the boat as you direct. You can use the live bait, or an artificial bait, as is most convenient. Some sportsmen are very fortunate with the artificial bait. A stiff rod and reel, with the same tackle as before described, and no sinker — is all that is required. The boat should move gently, and let your line drag far in the rear. With artificial bait the fish is hooked almost instantly. If you use live bait, be exceedingly careful in determining when the fish has gorged it. You should give him several minutes after he has seized it, for this purpose. On seeing the bait, a pickerel will generally run off with it, and will then stop to gorge it, but does not always do so. The sign that he has swallowed it is a peculiar slackening of the line, which experienced anglers can easily understand. But if he has gorged the bait, he will soon start off a second time, and sometimes will stop and start off the third time. In these cases you should never be in a hurry. When you are convinced that he has taken down the bait, draw a tight line, and strike for your fish. If he is large you should play with him until he is quite exhausted, or you may lose him in the attempt to land.
The difficulty of taking a pickerel from the hook may be obviated in a measure by gagging. For this purpose some anglers provide themselves with prepared sticks of various lengths. If the hook is completely swallowed, as is frequently the case, open the stomach in the middle, cut away the hook, and unslipping the knot that holds the gimp, draw it out that way rather than through the mouth. In the Mississippi River and Ohio river there are several species of this fish, but they all resemble the pickerel of other waters in a greater or less degree. They are of all sizes from half a pound up to twenty pounds weight.