Chain Pickerel

Northern pike - Connecticut river

Esox niger

Other Names: Grass pike, southern pike, Jack, Jack fish, Gunny, Eastern Pickerel


Chain pickerel (Esox niger) is a freshwater fish species in the pike family, belonging to the order Esociformes and the family Esocidae. The Chain pickerel, along with the American pickerel, belong to the Esox genus of pike.

The vertical black bar beneath the eye of a chain pickerel and its scaly operculum distinguishes it from the northern pike. Their chain-like markings on their body are where they got their name. They are solitary fish that hide in aquatic vegetation for prey to swim by.

The grass pike is commonly encountered by bass anglers, especially while plug casting. They are hard fighters, making them fun freshwater fish to catch.


Chain pickerel are long, torpedo-shaped fish with a large mouth that has sharp teeth that resemble needles. They are dark green on the back, shading to a creamy yellowish-brown on the belly, with the back and anal fin about the same size and located far back on an elongated body.

They have large dorsal and anal fins located close to their tail, which adapted them to sudden bursts of speed. In addition, they usually have a dark bar underneath the eye that extends straight down toward the lower jaw.

Distinct dark chain-like markings or interwoven marking on the sides give them their name.

Chain pickerel are very similar in appearance to the muskellunge and northern pike, especially when young.

Similar Species

The redfin pickerel (the grass pickerel) is smaller than the chain pickerel, with an average size of 10-12 inches.


The chain pickerel ranges east of the Appalachian Mountains from the St Lawrence drainage to Florida. They are also in the southern Missippi drainage.


They are currently found throughout the state of Florida, generally in vegetated lakes, ponds, swamps, and backwaters of small to large rivers.

They can be found in almost all medium to large streams, ponds, or lakes throughout their range. Pickerels are most active when water temperatures are between 55 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Age and Growth

The growth rate for chain pickerel is typically faster in lakes than it is in streams. It takes about five years for a chain pickerel to reach nearly two pounds, and they rarely weigh more than four pounds. Pickerels have a maximum life span of about nine years.

Behavior and Spawning

Spawning occurs in late winter to spring among heavy aquatic weed growth or flooded grasses in water from a few inches deep to several feet deep. A large number of adhesive eggs are scattered over vegetation, and there is no parental care.

Feeding Habits

Pickerels primarily feed on fish, but they will eat just about anything. In addition to fish, the other most common foods they eat are crayfish, frogs, mice, worms, and snakes.

When the young chain pickerel hatch, they feed primarily on aquatic insects, plankton, or their own siblings. When young pickerels reach about three inches in length, their diet becomes predominately other fish. Chain pickerel are generally solitary fish that lurk in the aquatic vegetation for prey fish to swim or drift by.

Sporting Quality

Chain pickerel are relatively beginner-friendly catches but are aggressive, which makes them fun to catch. The best time to fish for pickerels is from October through March.

Chain pickerel are usually caught with conventional spinning and baitcasting tackle. When fishing for them, anglers use many of the same popular lures for catching largemouth bass, especially buzz baits, spinnerbaits, crankbaits, and soft plastics. Minnows are generally the best live bait for these fishes.

This fish species is a top predator, so the presence of a larger one may reflect a healthy prey population which means a thriving aquatic ecosystem for anglers.


In addition to bass fishing lures, a few selections are favored among chain pickerel specialists. In areas where aquatic vegetation is not overwhelming, spoons and inline spinners are two popular choices. Like their larger cousins, the northern pike, chain pickerel are known to prefer red and white-colored lures. Fly anglers also catch pickerel using mid-sized to large streamers, frogs, poppers, and other patterns.

Chain pickerel are one of the few Mid Atlantic freshwater fish species that are active in the winter. During the winter fishing season, they are often found along channel edges and other areas where baitfish are found.

Anglers targeting schools of crappie during winter or early spring often encounter chain pickerel. Although minnows and small jigs fished on ultralight outfits are typical for winter crappie fishing, these work well for catching chain pickerels as well.

They tolerate brackish water well and are found in tidal rivers of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and other Mid Atlantic and all Southern states.


The white, flaky meat is good tasting but quite bony.


Florida State Record: 6.96 lbs. Big Catch: 27 inches or 4 lbs.

World Record: 9 pounds, 6 ounces caught in 1961 in Homerville, Georgia.