Pickerel are kinda like pike, they look similiar, and they like a big beefy meal. They’re an ambush predator- not a school bait chaser. One big morsel is what they want.
The only problem is, they’re not a big fish, so your mental kneejerk reaction is to fish a small rod. That makes casting the big flies difficult, so it becomes more about profile size than bulk. Another way to look at it is forego the theory that fight and fish size dictates rod size and just cast whatever rod/line combination the fly requires. I’m leaning a lot more to that school of thought lately. Fish fight “feel” really doesn’t seem to improve all that much by downsizing a line or two, so I just throw an 8 or 9. Or, more often, a 6 weight with a 9 weight line simply because the 6 weight is easier on my casting arm after machine gunning casts for 8 hours into cover. That extra ounce or two in rod weight savings adds up in a hurry, pickerel casts are short, and most rods these days can take a few line weights without suffering loss of accuracy.
As far as what kind of flies pickerel will eat, well, they’ll eat anything. Some days you do need a few dark flies mixed in for real clear water, but the majority of the time my pickerel flies are the most gaudy flies in any of my boxes. Due to lily pads, overhanging branches, and stumps the selection is heavy on the bendback side. I have experimented with all kinds of weedguards and I don’t really firmly believe they hurt the hookup ratio, but, more often than not I am just too lazy or forgetful to include them in my ties. The bendback takes care of most snags, and when you’re fishing lily pads it’s rarely the fly that is the problem anyway– usually the line gets caught between the pad and stem.
A great pickerel fly is a bendback tied on a 1/0 Mustad 3366 with 5 inches of red bucktail over 5 inches of yellow bucktail and with 6 inches of gold flash between bucktail layers. I don’t have any handy for pictures at the moment because I tend to fish these first and subsequently go through my supply pretty often. But, since pickerel will eat any fly, and since they are just so aggressive, it’s fun to throw in some bonus action once in a while. The fly below, a spinnerback, isn’t too heavy but sure adds some flash. The little bit of added weight helps keep the bucktail from skimming the surface too, so a fly like this runs about 4-6″, great pickerel bashing depth.
Wobblebacks are fun too, and if twitched and paused, will sort of walk the dog a bit during the retrieve. Real short machine gun twitches will really get the fly wiggling.
Then there is the propback, to be honest the fly looks cool, and sort of dirty in your flybox, but in the end, the action isn’t really all that noticeable. Sure the prop spins freely and might throw an extra flash of light or two under water, but most of the time I prefer the side-to-side action of a bendback on a loop knot.
After you run out of hardware, though, or just feel like fishing a little more traditionally, a deer head bendback is a pretty classy way to fish for jacks. Just don’t let troutholes certain people see you break out the bamboo rods when you start fishing these flies.