Skip to Main Content Skip to Main Navigation

Chain Pickerel

Fishing for a New Jersey Native

By Christopher Smith, Principal Fisheries Biologist


Chain pickerel are one of New Jersey’s few native sportfish. Most of the highly sought after gamefish species such as largemouth bass, rainbow trout, channel catfish and muskellunge were introduced from other parts of the country. In a recent survey, 61 percent of anglers indicated they had fished for bass; 41 percent had fished for trout in New Jersey. No surprise here. What is surprising, though, is that only 10 percent of anglers indicate they target chain pickerel.

Many anglers consider pickerel a nuisance, referring to them as “toothy critters” “gators” “slimy snakes” and “snot rockets.” I will admit, they are a little slimy and yes, I’ve lost my share of lures to their sharp teeth. But despite these small inconveniences pickerel are great fun to catch and are often extremely abundant, creating lots of fishing action! While anglers may not admit to targeting chain pickerel, many slow fishing trips have been saved by these always-aggressive sportfish.

Proven Places to Fish for Pickerel

Alloway Lake

Batsto Lake

Cranberry Lake

Lake Hopatcong

Lake Lenape (Atlantic Co.)

Lake Musconetcong

Swartswood Lake

Union Lake

Be sure to see our Places to Fish or request our new Central Jersey Warmwater Game Fish brochure.

A pickerel’s appearance is quite similar to their close cousins, both muskellunge and northern pike—each from the family Esocidae. However, pickerel do not grow nearly as large. Chain pickerel over 25 inches are considered a real trophy; occasionally 30-inchers are caught. Pickerel may not reach the impressive proportions of a musky, but inch-for-inch they are a great-fighting fish.

Pickerel prefer areas with aquatic vegetative and woody cover. Found in slow moving rivers and many lakes throughout the state, they can tolerate the very low pH (acidic) waters often associated with the Pinelands. Many old, south Jersey cranberry bogs have excellent chain pickerel fisheries. Although this species has adapted to living in low pH waters, pickerel also thrive in the heavily weeded lakes of north Jersey such as Lake Musconetcong. During a recent fisheries inventory conducted by New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife’s Bureau of Freshwater Fisheries, several trophy-size pickerel were collected from these prime pickerel waters.

In the early spring right after ice-out, chain pickerel are an excellent species to target because they prefer cooler water. Spawning occurs when the water reaches the high 40s to low 50s near aquatic vegetation. From spring through early fall, pickerel can be found in shallow bays with vegetation or stumps. These fish “ambush predators” but will follow lures for a short distance with a great burst of speed producing some excellent topwater action in late spring and early summer. During the winter they move to deeper areas of the lake and can be caught on small jigs and suspended jerkbaits. Chain pickerel will bite year round and are quite popular among anglers fishing through the ice.

Live minnows, golden shiners and herring are excellent bait for chain pickerel. Spinnerbaits, topwater frogs worked over aquatic vegetation and even plastic worms fished slowly through the grass are effective choices when targeting chain pickerel.

Don’t wait to fish for pickerel as a last resort when nothing else will bite. These sportfish are abundant and hard-fighting without the need for specialized tackle.

Regulations in red are new this year.

Purple text indicates an important note.

Return to the home page
Conservation Partner Advertisements: The allows appropriate advertising in its annual regulation guides in print and online, in order to defray or eliminate expenses to the state, and support enhanced communications with Constituents. Through a unique partnership with J.F.Griffin Publishing, LLC &, ‘Conservation Partners’ have been established that pay for advertising in support of the regulations both in print and online. The neither endorses products or services listed or claims made; nor accepts any liability arising from the use of products or services listed. Advertisers interested in the Conservation Partners program should contact J.F.Griffin/ directly at 413-884-1001,
J.F. Griffin reaches 20 million sportsmen every year through our print and digital publications. We produce 47 hunting and fishing regulation guides for 22 state agencies.
For advertising information, please visit: