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September 25, 2018

Chains of Oneida Lake


Sunfish, like this bluegill, grow huge in the weeds.

Back in the old days, northern pike were Oneida Lake’s top predator. The Erie Canal changed all that by draining away large portions of the huge swamp that hugged the south shore. Since nature abhors a vacuum, the place now boasts one of the Northeast’s greatest populations of the pike family’s smallest member: chain pickerel.

And the ones you catch are generally huge for the species. While the state’s minimum length for a keeper is 15 inches, anything smaller than 20 inches is scarce, staying hidden in the thickest weeds and densest cover it can find in order to avoid being eaten by its next of kin.

Unfortunately, pickerel suffer from a bad rap showered on them by sour grapes who curse their existence whenever one strikes a bait targeting walleyes, bass, even panfish. You see, a pickerel’s mouth and gill rakers are loaded with teeth so sharp, they’ll slice through the strongest line and swim away with your favorite lure. If you’re lucky enough to get one to the boat and land it, the challenge just begins. Feisty and slimy, it’ll thrash non-stop until exhaustion; and if your fingers are anywhere near its mouth, it’ll cut ya like a razor.

Sportsmen who admire nature’s wisdom in keeping an ecosystem healthy through diversity, admire these primitive, native American creatures for their vicious strikes, spirited fight and delicious taste.

After all, as cousin Staash likes to say, “Challenge is what we thrive on…eh?”

So when my good buddy Bob Twitchell mentioned all the pickerel he catches while fishing for walleyes in deep weeds, I started salivating.

“Hey, man, you gotta take me,” I pleaded.

A few days later we’re on the west end of the lake casting black jigs tipped with pieces of worm into weeds submerged in anywhere from 10 to 20 feet of water. Shortly, Bob gets the first fish, a lively, 20-inch walleye.

Casting out again, he gets a hit immediately. This time it’s a pickerel. Netting it to prevent it from cutting off while struggling at the side of the boat, he carefully retrieves his jig, releases the fish and casts out again.

I’m fishless and growing increasingly jealous. Adding insult to injury, the curly-tail grub I’m vertically jigging keeps sticking itself in the tail. A couple frustrating minutes later, I swallow my pride and bum a bucktail. Tipping it with a worm (also bummed) I drop it over the side. In the time it takes to close the bail and reel in the slack, a two-pound bucketmouth slams it and the fight is on.

We spent the next three hours drifting over weeds loaded with pickerel, monster sunfish, rafts of large white perch averaging a pound, and another walleye.

Oneida Lake’s western half is loaded with weed beds. Watered by surviving swamps and numerous tributaries, punctuated with shoals, islands and deep rock piles, it’s the ideal habitat for all manner of bait ranging from insects and invertebrates to massive schools of minnows.

This abundance of food draws and holds a wide variety of game fish; while the weeds, boulders and shoreline structure give them cover from the sun. Add ‘em together and you come up with the exceptionally productive summer habitats this part of the lake is famous for.
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 Large white perch abound in Oneida Lake this year.
A typical Oneida Lake pumpkinseed.
A typical Oneida Lake bucketmouth.
Our first pickerel.
Bob holding his 20-inch walleye.?

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