Fish For The Future: NJ Catch, Strip & Release - The Fisherman

Fish For The Future: NJ Catch, Strip & Release

Nick Ruberto holds a big, breeding-size northern pike inside the Hackettstown Hatchery

New Jersey fish stocking efforts is more – much more – than just trout!

“Sweat equity” aptly describes the success of New Jersey’s Bureau of Freshwater Fisheries’ tireless efforts over the past four decades improving and enhancing the state’s warm water and cool water angling opportunities.

An aggressive plan was formulated and undertaken in the late 80s to expand beyond what had become the standard largemouth and smallmouth bass, and channel catfish core of the rearing and stocking of these warm water and cool water species. Prior years had seen periodic releases of northern pike (the first in ‘81), with walleyes in ‘89 and pure strain muskies in ‘93. In between there were stockings of tiger muskies (pure strain muskie/pike mix), a pilot species for an upcoming northern pike program to ascertain if this esocid could be raised to stocking sizes on a dry pellet diet.

However, until the Pequest Trout Hatchery came online in 1983, all fish – from brookies, browns and rainbows, then later lake trout, to the bass, catfish and panfish – were raised at the Charles O. Hayford Hatchery in Hackettstown. Save for the lakers, all salmonid production and rearing were now at Pequest. With increased space in tanks, raceways and ponds at what is now known simply as the Hackettstown Hatchery, things were in place to begin the expansion of the warm water and cool water fisheries.

In addition to the pike, walleye and both types of muskie, the hybrid striped bass was now a candidate for part time residency. As with the tigers, these would be acquired from other sources, but it certainly added to the future appeal of the Garden State’s freshwater fishing scene. Bolstering this to an even greater rod bending degree is the relatively recent landlocked salmon stocking program that is yielding eye-popping and broiler-filling results.

Heretofore, there was gathering of various broodstock, and it continued in to the 90s. However, the method involved gillnetting. Because of how these nets worked, the captured fish were not always in the greatest of physical shape even though said nets were checked within 24 hours and extreme care taken with extrication. Still, the production of largemouth and smallmouth, along with those of channel cats, crappies, sunfish and bullheads continued. Lake trout from Round Valley Reservoir were still being caught and stripped, the eggs fertilized and the fish raised to stocking size, then released.

While many folks tend to think of New Jersey stocking efforts strictly along the trout lines, Division of Fish & Wildlife staffers are also active in replenishing walleye, pike, salmon and muskie populations in the Garden State as well.

Back To The Future

Fast forward to 1999. A massive $3.2 million upgrade was made to the 199-acre Hackettstown facility. This included new tanks in the main building, including two 150-gallon and ten 350-gallon round tanks, eight 1000-gallon tanks, and another eight 2000-gallons tanks, the latter pair designs being rectangular. The larger tanks are covered to prevent the temporary inhabitants from launching to an untimely demise.

Thanks to the massively increased pumping capacity from the structural improvements, all three water classes, warm, cool and cold, are included in the intensive (inside) hatching, feeding and rearing capabilities. The cold water aspect is especially vital as it allows the increased growth of the landlocked salmon bartered from Massachusetts for pike fingerlings before being stocked in Merrill Creek Reservoir, and lakes Wawayanda, Tilcon and Aeroflex. The outside (extensive) culture sites are 65 ponds from quarter-acre to 5 acres.

“The upgrade made this a whole new ballgame,” enthused Hackettstown Hatchery superintendent Craig Lemon, adding “It tripled production capabilities. We were set to move forward with expanding the warm and cool water fisheries, and raising the salmon quicker to bigger stocking sizes. We could increase walleye, muskie and pike production and rearing, and hold and grow more hybrid stripers, tiger muskies, channel catfish, and largemouth and smallmouth bass.”

The genesis for the jump in the Garden State’s status as a premier all-around freshwater fishing destination was ready to be cast.  For the Big Three, aka pure strain muskies, northern pike and walleyes, it came down to a new netting technique to maximize survival, thus exponentially increasing the chances at fertilization as well as the ultimate furlough of the moms ‘n dad donors.

“We decided to make the move to trapnets. They’re far less physically impactful than gillnets,” Lemon said, adding “As expected, we had, and have, a 100% survival rate from capture to release back where they were caught. This shows in the numbers of walleyes, muskies and pike we are raising and stocking.”

With a crew of only seven full time and five part time employees, the ongoing task was indeed gargantuan. And it is a seamless operation, no matter the tasks, and/or weather, at hand.  “We are on it,” Lemon boasted.

Meanwhile, fisheries biologists and tech crews from the bureau’s field offices in Lebanon in Hunterdon County as well as Sicklerville in Camden County were engaged in extensive sampling of waters and then recording and forwarding data, all to be utilized in the decision to stock which and how many of each species as per the respective swim, if suitable.

Walleye are intercepted at Swartswood Lake; other locations where walleye are stocked in New Jersey include Hopatcong and Greenwood lakes, both Canistear and Monksville reservoir, as well as the Delaware River.

The Trap

A net that basically guides into, or deflects progress from cruising fish to an entry in to a 20-foot long by 4-foot wide holding area. These are set out from the shoreline to a distance of 100 feet with 50-foot wings and are marked by buoys. The styles include the Pennsylvania and the South Dakota. The former is much larger and designed for muskies, the latter being the ideal size for northern pike and walleye. The traps are positioned where there is an ingression, i.e. a feeder creek. These are checked daily, with those fish not wanted quickly released and the sought species carefully moved to a waiting hatchery transport truck to be delivered to the Hackettstown building.

The Timing

This is an early springtime operation that is predicated primarily on water temperature as per the species. For northerns who will spawn even under the ice, the trap net is set at ice out, typically around March 10. Walleyes are getting the luvin’ on in water temps around 40 degrees, generally correlating to April 1 give or take a few days. Muskies, unlike their pike and pickerel kin, like surroundings a snug warmer, with 48 degrees the most comfortable. As such, April 15 is around when the traps are set.

The Targets & Technique

Insofar as the muskies, it’s a rotating roster between Greenwood Lake, and Echo Lake Reservoir in the Newark Watershed. Walleyes are intercepted at Big Swartswood Lake, with Budd Lake ground zero for the big pike pick off. The biggest to date caught are a 38-pound, 49-inch muskie; a 13-pound, 6-ounce, 30-inch walleye; and a 22.4-pound, 39.5-inch northern.

Upon capture and delivery to the Hackettstown Hatchery, the fish are immersed in a bath that includes the sedative Tricaine to calm to the point they are easily handled. They are then sexed and separated, scale samples taken, an inspection for tags, then tested whether gravid or not. Walleyes and northerns, if not gravid, will be brought to reproductive capabilities via a warming of the holding water. Not so with muskies. No way, now how. Offers Lemon, “I don’t believe any fisheries professional has figured that out yet.” As per federal fisheries law, the breeder fish must undergo a 30-day quarantine before being released in to their home waters after a Tricaine treatment.

The Take

And now it’s stripping time. Handled lovingly by fisheries techs, the females are gently, yet thoroughly squeezed to discharge any and all eggs into a bowl. Then comes the male’s turn, pulsed enough to release milt into the swirl of eggs. After fertilization, the pike, muskie and walleye newbies are moved to hatching jars where they stay for 10, 15 and 12 days respectively. The freshly hatched ‘eyes are then moved out to ponds, while the muskies and northerns remain in tanks. In the outdoor ponds holding the baby ‘eyes, pulverized alfalfa meal is pumped to create zooplankton blooms fertilized alfalfa is placed so as to form a that is greedily ingested and a resultant explosive growth rate. Once moved to the ponds when 2 to 2.5 inches in length, they jump ugly on the generously provided small fathead forage. Ditto the pellet distribution to the pike, and these are fine with the fishy kibbles ‘n bits right through stocking size. The muskies are hand fed a robust brine shrimp solution until they reluctantly transition to a dry food diet, then eventually to a full time fathead minnow entree.

“With the muskies, it’s a struggle to get them from the brine shrimp to a dry food diet,” Lemon said, adding “but they certainly take to the fatheads once they reach a certain size and instincts kick in.” Stocking sizes for walleyes is 2 to 4 inches, 6 inches for northerns, and 12 inches for muskies.

After separating male and female fish, fisheries techs carefully discharge any and all eggs (female) and milt (male) into a bowl during the fertilization process, ultimately transferred to hatching jars before it’s time to introduce young fry to the wild.

Getting Results

Waters stocked with northern pike include the Passaic River, Spruce Run Reservoir, Budd Lake, Pompton Lake, Pompton River, Farrington Lake, and Deal Lake. While the 30-1/2-pound northern pike was caught in Pompton Lake in ‘09, there are nodding expectations that this record will be broken in either Budd or the Passaic proper. Not to be overlooked is Manasquan Reservoir.

Walleye (the state record is 13 pounds, 9 ounces from the Delaware River) recipients include the Delaware River, lakes Hopatcong, Greenwood and Big Swartswood, Canistear Reservoir and Monksville Reservoir.

A valid New Jersey fishing license is required for residents at least 16 years and less than 70 years of age (plus all non-residents 16 years and older) to fish the fresh waters of New Jersey, including privately owned waters. Resident anglers age 70 and over do not require a fishing license or Trout Stamp. Cost for Resident (age 16-64) is $22.50, a Sr. Resident (ages 65-69) is $12.50, while Non-Resident (ages 16 and up) is $34.  Trout stamps are $10.50 for residents, $20 for non-residents.  Get more license details, regulatory info and total fish stocking numbers by visiting

Buy A Lincense

The monster muskie munch can be encountered in the Delaware River, Lake Hopatcong, Greenwood Lake, Mountain Lake, the DOD in south Jersey, Furnace Lake and Monksville Reservoir. In fact, the long standing muskie New Jersey State record, a 42-pound, 13-ounce monster was hoisted through a widening ice fishing hole in Monksville by Bobby Neals in ‘97.

The long trail progressive policies and plans of New Jersey’s Bureau of Freshwater Fisheries has made it a fishing destination beyond its superlative trout fishing reputation. It took time. Decades. But now with the Big Three sweet water opportunities firing on all cylinders, it begs the question, why a road trip?

Great fishing is here, close to home; and it’s never been better!


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