Chain pickerel is a fun fish to go after. Fishermen who enjoy a little bit of pickerel fishing know first hand that this smaller cousin of the northern pike loves to put up a fight. Pound for pound, they are scrappers and can fight like fish much bigger and heavier you expect.
But do chain pickerel taste good or are these fish that you should only catch and release? Are they just about the fight?
Chain pickerel is a delicious tasting fish that is white, flaky, and mild in taste and fishiness. This means it takes seasoning extremely well and has been compared by many camp cooks as being closer to perch or walleye in taste than the fleshier fillets of the northern pike.
Chain pickerel, like northern pike, can be a great tasting fish that is worth filleting and cooking up. But there are some definite caveats that come along with that endorsement.
Pros & Cons of Eating Pickerel
One of the major benefits of pickerel is that it is a light, flaky fish. That means the fillets aren’t oily, they don’t have an extremely heavy fishy flavor, and they take seasoning really well.
This also means pickerel can be prepared a wide variety of ways. Some fish are only good smoked, some are only good deep oil fried, and there are some where you make do with pickling it.
You can do all of these things to Chain Pickerel and have a great tasting meal. Or you can bake or foil wrap it.
Mild flavor doesn’t mean no flavor. This is definitely a good tasting freshwater fish but it’s one where you get to accentuate another flavor whether black pepper, dill, a splash of citrus, or something else entirely.
Pickerel can be prepared multiple ways and because of this there are some really delicious ways to prepare this fish.
On the negative side, the boniness issue that northern pike also have is present in this fish, as well. It takes a very specific method of cleaning and filleting to avoid ending up with an extremely bony meal, which virtually none of us enjoy.
Even if you are an old hand at cleaning pike in a way that removes the bones effectively, you will have a challenge with smaller pickerel. Some are likely to get through.
If you fillet these a fast “traditional” way, they are likely not worth the time to cook and prepare because of all the bones you will be picking out of your teeth or drinking to wash down your throat.
On the other hand if the de-boning is done by an expert, this can be worth the effort. But it is extra effort, and that also means that smaller chain pickerel may not be worth taking the time to clean and prepare.
- Very clean fish, minimum fishiness taste
- Can be prepared well in multiple ways
- Takes seasoning very well
- Delicious when properly prepared
- Can be very bony
- Won’t hold up to traditional powerhouse fish (like salmon)
- Many anglers believe only the larger pickerel are worth the time to clean and cook
Great Infographic for Properly Filleting Pickerel
As with their bigger cousin, the northern pike, one of the biggest issues is with the fish being considered “bony.” While taking out the Y-bone properly can be its own topic, and there are massive arguments about the best way to do this, the key is having any good technique that doesn’t ignore the Y-bone.
Ignoring the Y-bone results in very bony fillets and thus an unpleasant eating experience.
1 Source Bass Pro has one of the best infographics I’ve seen giving the down and dirty on how to properly fillet a pike or chain pickerel, which is down below.
This chain pickerel fillet chart infographic can be found HERE. Please visit their site to support great work like this guide.
Environmental Factors Affect Taste
As with any fish, there are local environmental factors. If there are giant signs telling you not to eat fish out of local waters because of pollution…well that’s good advice to follow.
Local angler lore still has its place. If someone who has been fishing locally for decades tells you fish from one body of water tastes slimy or dirty, then you should listen.
Chain pickerel from those bodies of water will not be great. Especially in smaller bodies of water where they are some of the bigger predator fish.
From clean water, they are likely to have a delicious taste as long as you get past those bones.
While I’m not personally aware of any seasonal changes that can affect the taste of pickerel fish, there are some fish where that is the case.
Usually when a fish’s taste is changed by what season you catch them, there’s a lot of information on it. This doesn’t seem to be the case with pickerel though admittedly I’ve never fished them outside of late summer/early fall.
If there is any variation it’s probably a local thing.
So What’s the Verdict?
While there will be plenty of people who prefer the thicker fleshier fillets of a northern pike or the classic white flaky walleye, chain pickerel offers a tasty meal somewhere in between these types of fish.
There’s a lot to love about the taste and texture that chain pickerel. If you have an experienced Esox angler around it’s worth giving chain pickerel a chance. If you get a well-cleaned fillet that catches most or all of the bones then the taste is pretty exceptional.
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