Lynn Burkhead — East Texas' chain pickerel provide winter diversion

Herald Democrat
How can an outdoors enthusiast deal with the wintertime doldrums that mid-January can bring? By heading to East Texas for chain pickerel, an underappreciated game fish species in the Lone Star State which uses wintertime water temperatures to spawn in shallow, weedy waters that are perfect for fly fishermen and light spinning tackle enthusiasts.

Don’t look at the calendar now, but these mid-January days are the times that can try the souls of a North Texas resident who likes to hunt and fish.

Deer season just ended, the local ducks are challenging in the late season, and it’s not exactly the best season for quail that we’ve ever seen on either side of the Red River.

True, the stripers are good on Lake Texoma right now — several big 20-pound class bruisers have been caught in recent days according to guides John Blasingame and Bill Carey — but I’m not the best at locating big wintertime linesiders.

Bass fishing should be heating up soon, especially since two 14-pound plus bruisers were caught last week on O.H. Ivie Lake out in West Texas. But for the lakes that I fish, the big pre-spawn largemouths are still out deep, and again, I’m not the best deep water angler.

What does that leave for Red River Valley outdoors enthusiasts as the Christmas season fades away and the wintertime doldrums take hold in the area? A need for a little imagination, that’s what.

And with only a slight bit of angling fantasy, there’s a wintertime fishing opportunity an easy drive from my Denison home that allows for such an easy daydream. The one where I’m on some secluded Saskatchewan water body lying deep in the Canadian boreal forest, casting a Clouser minnow fly at a big predatory game fish that just can’t help itself when my fly hits the clear water.

And in my angling daydream, such a water body is filled with toothy water wolves, the great northern pike, eagerly waiting to pounce on the black-and-bronze streamer fly tied to the end of my tippet.

I’ve lived this fishing trip fantasy out several times over the years, traveling to East Texas with a fly rod in hand, intent on hooking up with the chain pickerel that swim in stained waters of the northern Pineywoods.

A few years back, I tagged along with a couple of fly fishing guide friends of mine, enjoying a day off from work on a small East Texas lake filled with a toothy cousin of the pike, the chain pickerel.

Rob Woodruff, an Orvis endorsed fly fishing guide who now lives and guides with his wife Jenny in the trout-rich waters of Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains, set up this outing, using a break from chilly weather to trade fleece for sunscreen and his bass rig for an oar powered rubber drift boat on that particular fishing trip.

I was along for the ride, having ridden shotgun to this diminutive and picturesque Pineywood's water with Steve Hollensed, a well-known Orvis-endorsed fly fishing guide from Tom Bean who targets Lake Texoma's striped bass riches (www.flywaterangling.com, 903-546-6237).

With water temperatures still in the 40s thanks to Old Man Winter's nightly chill on this wintertime trip, chain pickerel were the perfect quarry to target with our Orvis five weight fly rods.

Found along the Atlantic Coast from New Brunswick to Florida, across the deep South, and as far west as the Red River and Sabine River drainages in Texas, chain pickerel are torpedo shaped fish resembling their northern pike and muskellunge cousins in the Esox family.

While chain pickerel don't get exceptionally large — the average weight is two to four pounds and the world record is a 9-pound, 6-ounce specimen caught in 1961 from Georgia's Guest Millpond — they are aggressive fish that are particularly fun to catch on light spinning gear or fly tackle.

Pound for pound, chain pickerel give a very good account for themselves, smashing flashy flies or lures with abandon, fighting surprisingly hard, and at times putting on an aerial show worthy of a small tarpon.

Besides, given their penchant to spawn in the depths of a Texas winter season when water temperatures are in the mid-40s, they are one of the few piscatorial species readily available to Lone Star State anglers targeting shallow water game fish from December through February.

Our fishing trip, which began with a close encounter with a raccoon seeking his own dinner plate special, was pleasant enough early, although unproductive.

But as the sun began to cast shadows upon the clear, cool water in Texas' Pineywoods, the pickerel action began to heat up in a hurry.

"Ok, Steve, you've got one following you," Woodruff said after a precise cast by Hollensed, who is also an award winning Fly Fishers International certified casting instructor. "Strip it faster, faster, faster."

One thing Hollensed didn't need to be instructed on was the art of setting the hook, something that is at times an afterthought since the aggressive nature of this fish causes the chain pickerel to often hook itself.

When the fish was brought to the boat, the bright sunlight revealed a beautiful olive-green piscatorial creature with splotchy, dark markings on its side. Put simply, it was a water wolf pike from Canada, just a good bit smaller and many miles from Saskatchewan.

While not nearly as big as the Texas' state record of 4.75 pounds and the fly rod record of 3.20 pounds, this particular chain pickerel landed by Hollensed was a worthy representative of the "poor man's pike" species that our trio was targeting that day.

While our morning provided sporadic action on chain pickerel — except for the writer in the back of the boat, I must confess — a superb shore lunch by Woodruff kept yours truly from getting too grumpy.

Kind of, that is.

After lunch, the afternoon action began to heat up along with the wintertime temperature reading as Hollensed resumed hooking up with the feisty pickerel.

Me? Well, I had a lake record size chain pickerel follow my fly, but to no avail. Finally, while fishing a migrational corridor between deeper water and shallow spawning flats, I hooked up with a nice native largemouth bass sporting stunning colors straight off the Creator's canvas.

Woodruff jokingly reminded me that chain pickerel were the sought after species of the day.

"Burkhead, what are you doing hooking up with those trash fish," he laughingly queried, in stark contrast to his usual sentiments about the largemouth bass that he used to guide fly rod anglers to on Lake Fork.

Accustomed to absorbing the brunt of this guiding duo's jokes — they’re longtime friends and often use me as the barb of their jokes — I ignored the fish snobbery and continued casting along the breakline, soon hooking up with another spunky largemouth.

Later in the afternoon — after Hollensed had tangled with several more pickerel and an oddball catch of a black crappie — Woodruff continued my on-the-water humbling by abandoning the oars, making a few casts, and quickly being fast to a rowdy chain pickerel.

Finally, after making what must have been a 1,000 casts — a description normally reserved for the chain pickerel's shy muskellunge cousin up in the North Country — I successfully hooked up with a decent East Texas chain pickerel.

Of course, true to form, that only happened when I grew frustrated and cast back behind the boat into deeper water instead of over the grass beds where Hollensed and Woodruff had been schooling me in the art of catching this underappreciated Lone Star State game fish.

A couple of hours later, after I had finally brought another pickerel to the boat, Woodruff dug into the oars and headed for the dock as the sun set amidst clouds and a subtle wind shift.

Those were harbingers that our day of angling and Texas' brief flirtation with spring were officially over.

It was also an indication that after a day of bringing up the rear on a poor man's pike fishing expedition in East Texas, dinner at a local Tex-Mex restaurant was now on me.

But after a day of comfortable — and reasonably successful — wintertime fly fishing action, I didn't mind one bit.

Pass the chips and salsa, please.