Fish in Focus:   Redfin pickerel, Esox americanus

Redfin pickerel, Esox americanus
Robert J. Goldstein

Catching and Keeping Redfin Pickerel
Jon Andrews
Groveland, MA

Of the five species of pike in North America, two are small enough for the home aquarium. Of these, one is common to the Northeast, the redfin pickerel (Esox americanus). Redfin are a small elusive species unknown to most fishermen. They are occasionally caught by trout fisherman in small streams while using a fly or other tiny bait. I have never seen a redfin more than eight or nine inches long, although I have read books listing their maximum size as twelve or even fourteen inches. For the aquarist they are an interesting fish that can add diversity to a tank with their long slender body and duck-like bill. They are also attractively patterned and can have striking colors. There are however, several drawbacks to housing redfin. For the enthusiastic aquarist, looking for a striking and unusual native, the efforts are well worth the results.

Redfin often inhabit brooks and slow-moving rivers. Although most of the specimens that I have seen were in small brooks, I have recently noticed them at the edges of large rivers, hiding under suspended logs or in the crevices of rock piles. They can be seen busting out of their hiding place as one walks along the shoreline. In smaller streams, while wading, I often see them leave small pools as I approach. Their initial movement, at least when startled, is a sudden burst along the surface. Although I have seen hundreds of small chain pickerel in ponds and lakes, I have never seen redfin pickerel in such an environment. I am assuming that they would be eaten by larger predatory fish in these habitats, or would have difficulty competing with the larger predatory fish, such as their cousin the chain pickerel, that are often found there. In streams and slow rivers however, they are often abundant.

Here are field photos of a redfin pickerel, alone and with chain pickerel for comparison. They were collected 17 Oct 1996 at Harlem Road Crossing, Boggy Gut Creek, Savannah River Drainage, Richmond County, Georgia.   Please click on the small image to display a larger one.  Many thanks to Jan Hoover for the photos.

redfin pickerel
(102K jpg)

chain pickerel (top)
redfin pickerel (bottom)
(125K jpg)

redfin pickerel (top)
chain pickerel (bottom)
(177K jpg)

I have used several methods of catching them over the years. Dip nets can be used, but the adult redfin are often too elusive and head for cover when approached. If your goal is to acquire some very small specimens, say less than three inches, dragging dip nets through heavy cover is a good method. During the summer I have caught several small redfin in a single drag with a long-handled dip net. Such small specimens would be difficult to keep as feeding them would require tiny, live, (and actively moving) foods often not readily available at the local pet store. The larger adults are easier to keep, as feeder fish are available from most pet stores.  They are, however, more difficult to catch.

I have had little difficulty catching redfin with a fishing rod. A tiny live fish suspended off of the bottom with a float or bobber works very well. The water depth I fish in is normally less than two feet and sometimes as little as six inches. The hook should be tiny (I recommend a size 8) and preferably barbless. Any hook barb can be made harmless by squeezing it against the hook with a pair of needle nose pliers. An area of a small stream away from the current and near some heavy cover seems to be the most effective. If the stream has lily pads in a slow-moving area, at least one redfin should be actively watching the area for small fish. Extremely light line (4 pound test) is helpful in making a realistic presentation with such small bait. Tiny baitfish have difficulty swimming with heavier line. Because of its small size, the redfin will often seize the baitfish in the mid-section without having the hook in its mouth. Trying to hook the redfin at this point would be ineffective. However, within a few minutes the redfin should reposition the baitfish in order to swallow the fish head-first. Once this happens, gently set the hook and land the fish as quickly as possible. The crucial part in catching these guys with a fishing rod is having plenty of tiny live fish for bait. They should be one inch long or less. Plan on going through several baitfish before actually getting a redfin to shore.

Another method of catching redfin is with minnow traps. This method takes some practice but one will become more effective with time. The trap cannot be baited in the traditional sense (using bread or cat or dog food). Live minnows placed in the trap may escape before a pickerel is caught. I have placed bread in the trap hoping to bring in minnows and, eventually, redfin. This method has had some success. Another method is to leave the trap in the water for several days or even a week or more. A pickerel will sometimes learn to associate the trap with confined (and helpless) bait fish and learn how to enter and exit the trap at will. For example, I lost a large fish trap because of a broken line and recovered it several weeks later. I found that two large chain pickerel had taken up residence in the trap and they appeared to be well fed.

Probably the most effective method of using a minnow trap for redfin is to place the trap in a location where a fur trapper would place a trap for beaver or otter. That is, locate a narrow passageway in the stream through which any fish traveling upstream or downstream would need to pass, an opening between two rocks for example, where the water is a foot deep or less and fast moving. If all other paths are blocked or difficult to pass through, then a minnow trap carefully place in this opening will be extremely effective. I often raise the trap slightly by placing some small flat rocks underneath the trap. This will bring the trap closer to the surface where redfin often travel. The trap may need to be left for several days. I have found that often all the pickerel in an area will relocate at once, often after a rainfall, filling traps placed in this method. I have checked a trap daily for a week or more with no luck and then, one morning, a dozen redfin will be in a single minnow trap. All caught in one night! At this point it is just a matter of picking out one or two redfin that are the perfect size for your tank or simply a couple of healthy looking, attractively patterned individuals. This method of course would work with many species of fish. In fact, I have inadvertently caught small water snakes, crayfish, large waterbugs, salamanders, and even small turtles in traps set in this method. Interestingly, I have also found my minnow traps standing up on end with a crayfish or small fish in the trap. Presumably, a mink or other predator was trying (unsuccessfully) to get to my catch.

In transporting redfin it must be kept in mind that they are terrific jumpers. I have had redfin jump out of five gallon buckets with only one inch of water inside. I have also had them jump out of the five-gallon bucket placed on the passenger's side floor and into my lap while driving home. Always cover the container!

Once home, they seem to acclimate to aquariums quite well. However, you must be very careful in choosing tank mates for them. The following must be kept in mind:

1. Anything significantly smaller than the redfin will be eaten.  Because  redfin are small this should not be a terrible detriment to the aquarist, however.  I have had large golden shiners in the same tank as my pickerel without incident.

2. Aggressive sunfish will often mistake the ever-moving pectoral fins of a redfin for food and grab them. You may hear a loud smack, the same sound produced when a sunfish violently sucks a bug off of the bottom of a lily pad in a pond or lake. Having brightly colored pectoral fins probably does not help the redfin. After a few aggressive smacks, the pickerel will not have enough of its pectoral fins left to maintain an upright position, it will start listing, and the fins will no longer be adequate to aid in moving water through the gills. Death will be imminent.

3. The final guideline to keep in mind is that redfin require a "warm up" before feeding and because of this they cannot compete with many other predatory fish for food. When feeder fish are placed in the tank, redfin will initially show only a casual interest. Their markings become more vivid, their body will arch, and the redfin will become focused on one fish. The strike itself is swift but it may not happen until after a few minutes of following the feeder fish around has passed. If you have aggressive predatory fish like black bass in the tank, the feeder fish will be gone almost instantly and the redfin will get nothing. The good news is that redfin adapt and learn to associate their keepers with food. My well-established redfin need nothing more than to see a bag of brightly colored goldfish pass by their front window to warm up. These fish will take feeders almost right out of my hand.

For those looking for diversity or simply those who wish to have a representative member of the pike family, a redfin pickerel is an excellent choice. The aquarist must keep in mind that these small fish are incompatible with many of our native species. However, for anyone interested in having a small pike, and willing to maintain the specimen with appropriate tankmates, I strongly recommend the redfin.