I have heard the same statement many times while fishing the Ozark Highlands of Missouri and Arkansas. “I just caught a Northern pike from that slough back there!”
It’s a common mistake among Ozark anglers. The chain pickerel is indeed a member of the pike family, but a much smaller cousin of the northern pike.
Chain pickerel thrive in swamps, marshes, ditches, oxbows, sloughs and backwaters of the Missouri Ozarks with quiet, clear water and abundant aquatic vegetation. They are known to exist in Oregon, Shannon, Pulaski, Ripley, Dunklin, Texas, Stoddard, Wayne, Carter, Howell and Reynolds counties.
In Arkansas chain pickerel thrive in streams and lakes in coastal lowlands, in the Delta region, the Arkansas River Valley and the foothills of the Ouchita and Ozark mountains.
As a child growing up in the lowlands of southeast Missouri, I made the Northern pike mistake as well when I caught a 9-inch grass pickerel from a stream on our farm. I envisioned myself catching the 50-inch pike of the north someday, right on our farm.
Of course, that never happened. However, I had begun a lifelong love affair with the diminutive pike of our region.
After settling in the Ozarks in the early 1970’s, I discovered chain pickerel.
While on a three-day trip on the Jacks Fork River, I eased my canoe into a slack water slough area choked with coontail moss and other aquatic plants. The water was crystal clear and I could see a sandy bottom through the greenery below the waterline. It looked like the perfect place to catch a monster largemouth bass.
I tossed a 3-inch Mr. Twister curly tail grub to an open pocket a few feet in front of me. What I thought to be a small gar shot from the cover and inhaled my bait. The fight was on. The small fish vaulted from the water displaying red gills and a mouth full of teeth. I immediately thought “Northern Pike.”
I spent the remaining two days of my float trip on the Jacks Fork searching out habitats that would hold chain pickerel. I caught another dozen or so of the intriguing miniature pike on everything from plastic grubs to Rooster Tails. The largest was 16 inches, a real monster, or so I thought. I became inextricably hooked on fishing for chain pickerel.