Triggering Chain Reactions

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Published on: Dec. 2, 2001

Last revision: Nov. 10, 2010

Trouble was the last thing I expected when I tossed a floating minnow plug into a weed-choked slough one cloudy February morning, but that's exactly what I got.

First, I had trouble working the lure through submerged plants. Then, I had trouble believing my eyes when a foot-long lightning bolt flashed out to snatch the lure.

The real trouble started when I set the hook. The action was frantic, but I finally worked what looked like an overweight eel out of the greenery and up to the side of the boat. As I slipped my thumb inside the fish's mouth, it shook its head violently, and its needle-sharp teeth turned the pad of my thumb into hamburger.

I jerked my hand back. The fish thrashed wildly a moment and was gone. Sucking my bleeding thumb and contemplating the frayed end of my line, I reached two conclusions:

  1. I will not stick my thumb in a strange fish's maw again,
  2. and I want to catch more of these toothy, mini-torpedoes.

What the heck was that?

The chain pickerel, Esox niger, is one of four pike species found in Missouri. Its common name comes from the interlocking pattern of dark lines on sleek, olive-colored flanks. Chain pickerel are common in the Eleven Point and Current rivers and their tributaries. They also inhabit the Gasconade, Spring, North Fork, St. Francis, Castor and Black river drainages, but they are less common in those areas.

The smaller grass pickerel is the most widespread pike in Missouri. It occupies streams all around the chain pickerel's range and shares the Black and St. Francis rivers with its larger cousin. You can tell the two apart by examining the dark bar beneath the eye. On grass pickerel, the bar has a definite backward slant. On "chains," it's nearly vertical. Also, the markings on the sides of grass pickerel form diagonal streaks and blotches, not chains.

Missouri's pole-and-line record chain pickerel weighed 5 pounds, 1.5 ounces and was taken from the spillway at Clearwater Dam in 1974. A 6-pound, 3-ounce chain that came from Pool 1 at Duck Creek Conservation Area (CA) in 1977 holds the record in the "other methods" category.

Those fish may seem small compared to northern pike or muskellunge, but what chain pickerel lack in size, they more than make up in fight. They're good on the table, and they are most active when other fish are least likely to bite.

The rewards of patience

The muskellunge is

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