Fly Fishing for Ice-Out Pickerel in the New Jersey Pine Barrens

Chain pickerel are one of those funny gamefish that fall between the cracks of angling conversation. Perhaps they are slightly sexier than panfish. Perhaps they generate a baby buzz when East Coast ice fishermen are just happy something is tugging on their lines. But when that ice melts off the shallow cedar rivers and ponds in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, pickerel can save your sanity in that odd March "tweener" time when not many other fish have really woken up yet. Chasing them on the warm, marshy flats with a fly rod is a mix of bonefishing and muskie fishing on a mini scale. And to do it in the history-rich Wharton Tract, a 115,000-acre chunk of pineland in South Jersey, makes the quest that much more interesting.Joe Cermele
New Jersey might be the most crowded state in the Union, but you'd never know it when you're in the pines. It is in the heart of Wharton State Forest where dark cedar ponds and swamps filter into the Mullica and Batsto River that wind their way to the bay. There are catfish, bass, and panfish in these tanic waters, but the V wakes you spot, the boils in distance bog nooks, are usually created by the thriving pickerel population. "Picks" dominate the pines.Joe Cermele
During the Revolutionary War, the Pine Barrens were rife with industry. Furnaces and forges, like those at the historic village of Batsto, churned out iron goods and munitions for the American cause. It was in the middle of the 19th century when stronger iron ore began being produced in the West that the Pines industry dried up, leaving behind settlements of poor families trying to live of the land. The sandy soil made argriculture nearly non-existant.
Eerie remnants of this long-gone era remain scattered across the pines. They are a favorite place of ghost hunters and those who believe in the supernatural. When you're fishing here, you tend to look over your shoulder. Not only do some believe spirits from ancient pines dwellers still walk these woods, they believe there is something even more sinister out there.Joe Cermele
The Wharton Tract is the birthplace (and current residence...if you're a believer) of the Jersey Devil. Since the late 1800s, there have countless sightings. Some even made headlines in Philadelphia and New York. The Devil has been quite for decades now, but in January 1909, thousands of people reported encounters in one week, calling the shadowy creature "flying death," "woozlebug," "kangaroo horse," and "jabberwock."
Today, the Pine Barrens are a recreational hot spot, where public-land deer and turkey hunters have enough room to roam without seeing any other orange hats, kayakers run the cedar rivers, and the "clop" of horse hooves can be heard winding through the trails. People fish here, but not with a fly rod, opting for deeper areas of the main lakes and overlooking the ten-inch deep expanses of river flats and bogs. You'd swear nothing lived there, but creep slow enough and you'll spot pickerel hovering over the reed-strewn bottom.Joe Cermele
The average fish is not going to set any records, though some girthier specimens do lurk in the coffee-colored water. Think of it more like chasing native brook trout in a high-mountain rivulet: You don't do it because it's easy or you need to fill wall space with a trophy mount. You do it because it's a challenge and the beauty of these little predators is enough reward.Joe Cermele
The strike is a reward, too. Pull a Mickey Finn or Zonker over the flat, and you're likely to see a subtle bulge in the surface as a pickerel moves in, or catch the white from the inside of their mouths just before the fly leaves the water for a recast.Joe Cermele
The real challenge is keeping the fly clear of debris as it moves through the shallow reeds. Some pickerel stick to open water, but many prefer to sit right in the center of these thick brush patches.Joe Cermele
Cleaning the muck off your line and fly makes this fishing a labor of love. It can get frustrating to say the least.Joe Cermele
But when the picks are sunning in March, they can be so thick that every clean run draws a strike, though only one out of ten runs might be debris-free.Joe Cermele
During the summer months, as the marsh and ponds become hot and overgrown, many pickerel will push into the deeper cedar rivers, like the Batsto shown here. There are fish hanging below undercut banks and along flooded river shorelines even in March, but you can't exactly wade these flows. Though narrow, they average five feet deep, with many holes dropping off to ten feet or more. Canoes or kayaks let you fish far more effectively.Joe Cermele
What you will find along the rivers in March are winterberries, which taste exactly like wax vampire fangs. Strange, I know.Joe Cermele
To be honest, you never know exactly who or what you'll come across in these woods. Here is some crafty ax work. This wood faces watches over a bottleneck in the Mullica River 24/7.Joe Cermele
By late-April, weeds, algae, and lilly pads will sprout on the cedar flats, making it that much harder to work a fly. This oasis in the middle of suburban sprawl will morph into a playground for hikers and campers. The pickerel will bury deeper into hidden haunts. These bogs will become a mosquito-fest. There is a window for this place, just as winter starts to loosen its grip. That window never really closes, though it's less tempting to pass through when doors to striped bass, smallmouth, and trout unlock in spring. But come next March, that window will let in the first ray of light that says winter is almost over. Bust out the fly rods.Joe Cermele