The older man picked up his minnow bucket and moved toward the door of the bait shop. "Ya know," he said, "ain't near as many snakes in the Severn and the South as there used to be. Too many people, I guess. Matter of fact, if I knew anybody on the Shore . . ."
The remainder of his comments drifted toward the traffic on Old Annapolis Road as he passed out the door.
Now before you conjure up pictures of fishermen casting into the Indiana Jones snake pit, the gentleman was talking about chain pickerel.
Since pickerel are long and slim, they have picked up a nickname or two, "snake" being one of them. You don't hear the term used much any more, but then you don't see too many pickerel caught from the Western Shore tidal rivers any more.
The chain pickerel has a mouth full of teeth similar to its relatives, the northern pike and the muskellunge, but the pickerel is much easier to handle. It will bang a lure or bait, but quickly give up.
Once in the boat or landed on the shore, the lure or hook is easily removed from the pickerel's mouth. Handling the pickerel's fresh-water cousin, the musky, is just the opposite. Once the musky sees the boat or fisherman, the fight has just begun, and once landed, the fish is quite dangerous.
Pickerel are predators. They will wait beside a log, rock, pier, stump, treetop, weed bed or any obstruction until their food swims by.
Largemouth bass use similar lairs. The difference is that chain pickerel can tolerate poorer water conditions than bass and as late as the 1960s and 1970s were caught in fair numbers in the Magothy, Severn and South rivers.
Chain pickerel and yellow perch prefer colder water temperatures than most fish and often are caught in the late fall, winter and early spring. It was not unusual to catch both yellow perch and chain pickerel in the same areas.
Since the pickerel is not a spectacular fighter, many anglers use ultra-lite spinning tackle with a 4- to 6-pound test line. The light line allows fairly long casts with lightweight lure/bait combinations.
Another reason for the light line is the water clarity. As the water cools, the algae in it dies and sinks to the bottom. Visibility in the water is greatly improved. During the summer, when the algae is at its peak, visibility in the tidal tributaries or the bay may be only a foot or two. In the winter, visibility may increase to as much as 12 feet.
The rumor around some of the community launch ramps on the Magothy and in the local pubs is that pickerel fishing has improved, especially for the smaller fish.
I always have preferred a double shad dart and minnow combination, with one shad dart tied on a dropper loop about a foot ahead of another shad dart and minnow. This is a good rig for just about anything that swims in the rivers and bays this time of year. Another good pickerel rig is a small spinner dressed with a live minnow.
The colder the water, the slower the metabolism, and the slower the metabolism, the less the fish will eat. The less fish eat, the fewer opportunities you will have to catch the fish. What I'm getting at is that even with a lot of fish in the area, cold-weather fishing will not be terribly exciting. It is challenging and it is one of the few games in town.
Better pickerel fishing can be found on the Eastern Shore around Tuckahoe State Park and many of the tributaries off the Choptank River.
Whether you cross over the Bay Bridge or not, I recommend fishing from a small boat that can be maneuvered near shore. Look for obvious hiding places as mentioned above and cast your lures nearby.
I try to cast beyond the location where I think a fish may be hiding and work the lure up to that spot. Then, I hesitate a moment before continuing the retrieve. If there is a fish in the area, the pause often triggers a strike.
The colder the water, the slower your retrieve. The fish tend to be a little sluggish in colder water; therefore, slow down your retrieve a bit.
Chain pickerel are fun to catch and they are good eating. They do have a "Y" bone, which makes fileting a bit of a problem, but if you do not mind a few bones in your fish, you will find chain pickerel quite tasty.
Bob Spore is a Coast Guard-licensed charter boat captain from Pasadena.
His Outdoors column appears every Friday and Sunday in The Anne Arundel County Sun.