Many of the free flowing streams of the southern Missouri Ozarks contain a small fish which resembles the northern pike. The chain pickerel is a diminutive cousin of the much larger northern species.
As a child I saw a few grass pickerel in the swamps of our southeast Missouri farm. However, I heard stories of hard fighting pickerel from the Current River, almost 100 miles away in the foothills of the Ozarks.
I became infatuated with these pike of the Ozarks. I tried to catch a grass pickerel in my area, but never succeeded. I forgot about the charming fish until after graduate school. Once I landed a job as a park superintendent in the Ozarks, I renewed my search for the pickerel.
I fished hard, in several locations, with no luck. Then Bob Todd, editor of the River Hills Traveler invited me on a canoeing and fishing trip into the vast Mingo National Wildlife Refuge. He assured me there was a good chance of catching a chain pickerel.
After catching numerous largemouth bass and making what seemed like 10,000 casts, I had about given up my mission. I cast my big spinnerbait next to a sunken log. The bait stopped abruptly. I thought I had snagged. But, with a little pressure, the fish moved and my line zipped through the murky water. Next a long, slender fish erupted from the water and tail walked across the surface. I suspected it was a gar.
“There is your first chain pickerel,” Todd said. “And it is a good one.”
The magnificent specimen had broken my curse. We snapped a few photos of what we thought to be a 3-pound fish and returned it to the swamp. My fascination with these rare fish had just been pushed into high gear.
I began fishing for chain pickerel at every opportunity. I caught them from the Current River, Jack’s Fork and Eleven Point rivers. Most came from side sloughs or bays. They hang out in the dense, weedy growth to await a chance to ambush their prey.
Most pickerel I caught measured from 8 inches up to 18 inches. I set out on a quest to catch much larger fish. It seemed the further south I went the bigger the fish. A corp of pickerel fishermen out of Van Buren often caught pickerel in February over 4 pounds.
I set up camp on the Eleven Point River, bordering the Irish Wilderness. My wife and I steadily caught rainbow trout on live minnows. Then my wife hooked a big fish. When it tail-walked, I realized she had a sizable chain pickerel. It measured 22 inches.
Having heard that big pickerel often travel in pairs, I cast the largest minnow we had in the bucket to the same spot. An immediate jolt vibrated up my rod. A big, powerful fish erupted from the water.
The pickerel measured a little over 28 inches and may have been a new state record fish. However, we were deep in the wilderness having fun. We were happy to photograph the fish and return it to the Eleven Point River. Chain pickerel, a cousin to Northern pike, grow large in southern Missouri, such as this 28 1/2-inch specimen from the Eleven Point River.
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