Chain Pickerel (Esox niger)

Drawing of Chain Pickerel (Esox niger)

Illustration © TPWD

Other Names
Pike, Jackfish
Game fish - no bag or size limits

Esox and niger are both Latin words. Esox means "pike", and niger means "dark", or "black." Like its close relatives, northern pike and muskellunge, the chain pickerel is equipped with a large mouth, well adapted for piscivory. The lower jaw, which extends further forward than the upper jaw, is equipped with four sensory pores on the underside. The dorsal and anal fins are set well back on the body. Chain pickerel are usually olive-green or yellowish-brown on the back and sides, shading to a creamy yellow underneath. There is a distinctive pattern of interlocking dark bands on the back and sides that is reminiscent of a chain-link fence. During their first year they may reach 12-14 inches in length. Growth slows somewhat during the second year when they may attain lengths of 1.5 feet. In Texas they typically reach sizes of 3-4 pounds and about 2 feet in length.
Life History
In Texas chain pickerel spawn between December and February. Strings of sticky eggs are deposited on aquatic vegetation and subsequently fertilized. There is no parental care. When the young hatch they feed on plankton, aquatic insects or even their own siblings. At about three inches the diet becomes almost exclusively other fish. Individuals that shift to a diet of fish earliest tend to grow faster. The species prefers cover and is most often found in patches of aquatic vegetation. In general, they lie in wait and strike when unsuspecting prey swim their way.
Chain pickerel are distributed along the Atlantic coast of North America from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia south to Florida. The species is found in the Mississippi River drainage from the Gulf Coast as far north as Illinois and Indiana, and may be found in Gulf drainages as far west as the Sabine and Red rivers in Texas.
Fishing for chain pickerel is basically a winter-time activity in Texas. It begins with the first real cold front in the fall and continues until March or April when water temperatures warm. Like northern pike, chain pickerel are bony, but usually considered tasty. Although the national record is over nine pounds, the Texas state record is 4.75 pounds (23.75 inches).