The chain pickerel is widely distributed in lakes and rivers south of the Adirondacks and east of the Genesee River. A modest-sized fish, it averages one to two pounds in weight and 15 to 20 inches in length. Its fully scaled cheeks and gill covers distinguish it from the northern pike and muskellunge, while its large size and distinct chain link marks on its sides differentiate it from other pickerels. The chain pickerel is green to bronze in color, with eight sensory pores on the undersurface of the lower jaw and a conspicuous dark bar beneath each eye, which extends straight down or slightly forward.
Pickerel prefer quiet waters with heavy weed growth. They are among the first fishes to spawn after ice-out in spring (April-May). Mature adults migrate into swampy or marshy backwater areas to spread their adhesive eggs. Early spawning increases the young chain pickerels’ chances of survival, because they are large enough to feed on the newly hatched young of other species.
Chain pickerel are favored game fish, especially when one is ice fishing. On light tackle, they are capable of explosive runs, which test an angler’s ability. Their meat is delicious, but quite bony. To eliminate problems with bones, the fillets can be ground and formed into fish patties.
Seldom reaching 13 inches in length, the redfin pickerel is the smallest of New York State’s pikes. It is uncommon in the State, restricted to Long Island and eastern New York.
The red fin pickerel closely resembles the chain pickerel, but is smaller and chunkier. It is olive green to dark brown in color with wavy vertical bars on its sides and a dark eyebar beneath its eyes. There are eight sensory pores on the underside of the lower jaw and the dorsal fin is darkly pigmented orange to red, hence its suitable name “redfin.”
The red fin pickerel occurs in weedy areas of sluggish streams and lakes and ponds. It is very tolerant of low oxygen conditions and can live in brackish waters, as well. Like the chain pickerel, it spawns in early spring (March-April) along grassy stream banks or in flooded backwaters.
Because redfin pickerel are small and similar to chain pickerel, anglers generally do not recognize these fish when hooked.