Interior Travels: NJ, A Freshwater Fishing Destination? - The Fisherman

Interior Travels: NJ, A Freshwater Fishing Destination?

It may be time to give credit where credit is due.

The cover of the 2021 Freshwater Fishing Digest dramatically shows it all via the image of a proud angler horizontally hoisting a trophy pure strain muskellunge. To be sure, this fifth smallest and most densely populated state provides an expansive menu to satisfy even the most discriminating sweetwater opportunity palate, from a nymph-sipping, palm-sized native brook trout appetizer to 50-plus inch plug-pillaging pure strain muskie main course.

In between are the “exotics”: walleye, hybrid striped bass, lake trout, northern pike, tiger muskellunge, and landlocked salmon. Largemouth and smallmouth bass, chain pickerel and channel catfish continue as stellar fast action belly fillers.  And, of course, the nearly 600,000 rainbow trout stocked during the spring and again in the fall make for year-round trout fishing opportunities.

NJ 2021 SPRING TROUT STOCKING

All told, a baseline figure of 570,090 rainbows ranging from the 9-1/2 to 11-inch standard to spent breeders up to 23 inches and weighing 5-plus pounds will be stocked in the 172 waters on the statewide stocking roster. The breeders will be included in 2% of the stockings for the majority of waters. This translates into 156 of the 172 stocked waters receiving their total pre-season and in-season allocations allocation by April 10!

A rear guard action stocking is tentatively scheduled for the week of May 10-14, with the 70,090 ‘bows slated for this release in to the 16 previously “Closed to fishing until 5 p.m.” venues.  Prior to the May dosing, the number sits at the 500,000 figure; 360,000 by April 1 and another 140,000 by April 9. However, over production is the norm at the Pequest Hatchery, and it’s an odds-on bet that the 70,090 final release figure for that week in May will most likely be several thousand higher.

The three week pre-season stocking was extended to four weeks, with catch-and-keep fishing closed on all stocked waters from March 15 until April 10 (the exceptions are listed on pages 22-23 in the 2021 Freshwater Fishing Digest).  Catch-and-release fishing will open 8 a.m. on April 1 and continue through April 9 on all statewide stocked waters, with the second, and official opener to begin 8 a.m. Saturday, April 10.

From April 10 until Memorial Day, the daily limit will be six trout at a 9-inch minimum. After Memorial Day, the limit drops to four. Check special regulation waters for their respective restrictions.  See www.njfishandwildlife.com for more details.

However, it’s the initially mentioned species that make the Garden State a gut-busting stay at home buffet as opposed to traveling to a faraway haute cuisine lodge that could likely end up leaving one hungry despite the oftentimes exorbitant expense(s) involved.  “Really, why go anywhere else,” queried Craig Lemon, the superintendent of the Hackettstown Hatchery where the muskie, walleye, pike, hybrid striper and salmon programs emanate.

Hatched in 1986 as a new “Warmwater Fisheries Plan,” and under the auspices of now long-retired principal fisheries biologist Bob “Pappy” Papson, it has grown and pumped Olympic fishing legs in the decades since.

Pequest Trout Hatchery superintendent Ed Conley unknowingly concurred when it came to Lemon’s assessment, this time regarding the Garden State’s exemplary trout fishing opportunities, particularly when it comes to the massive rainbow payloads delivered during the trio of stocking programs. These fish range from the standard 10-1/2 inches to eye-popping 3- to 6-plus pound sizes.  “Whether you’re fishing a local trout-stocked pond, one of the lots of stocked streams and brooks, or our stocked premier rivers, you’re going to find plenty of great looking, healthy and hard fighting rainbow trout,” said Conley.

Adding the myriad flows under special brook trout (catch-and-release only) and wild brown trout regulations, as well as No-Kill beats and specially managed Trout Conservation Areas, well, all trout fishing bases are covered.  Hey, no one appreciates a fishing road trip more than yours truly, but in trying economic and travel-restriction/quarantine times, take a deep breath, sit back and explore what the Garden State has to offer. As per what the significant upshot in non-resident license and trout stamp sales indicate, many anglers in neighboring states are doing it already.

The high-tech and firing-on-all-cylinders Hackettstown Hatchery located in Oxford Township in Warren County, is the genesis for the Garden State’s high octane warm, cool and cold water inhabitants. It boasts intensive (28 tanks and three flow systems inside the main building) and extensive (65 outside ponds) cultures that are producing/rearing and/or raising monster loads of muskies, pike, walleyes, hybrid stripers, salmon, channel catfish, largemouth and smallmouth bass, and panfish. Predicated on weather and conditions (read: ice) crews from the facility trap net various lakes and impoundments to catch gravid female and male northerns, pure strain muskie and walleye.  The eggs and milt are stripped and fertilized; the parents released back in to their respective digs after a few days of recuperation.

Tiger muskies, the cross between a pure strain muskie and a northern pike are also reared and raised to stocking size here, albeit it far less numbers than both parent species.  “The tiger muskie fits a niche and is, in my opinion, the most beautiful of New Jersey’s freshwater gamefish,” said Lemon who said they usually produce 2,000 of these fish a year. “Unfortunately because of COVID restrictions regarding facility, labor and logistics, we didn’t produce tigers last year and won’t be doing it this year.”

Five-day-old hybrid striper fry, and advanced fingerling (6-inch) channel kitties are purchased from outside sources and raised to stocking size in the outside ponds.  The landlocked salmon come arrive at Hackettstown at 6 to 7 inches, having been traded for the Pequest Hatchery’s copious amount of surplus trout eggs. They are raised to a husky, thick-shouldered foot-long minimum possession length at a lickety-split pace, thanks again to the superlative Hackettstown Hatchery facilities. “The salmon also fill an important niche, taking the place of brown trout that have not been stocked since 2014.” Lemon said, adding “The salmon are thriving in those lakes and impoundments where they’re being stocked.”

Can’t do a major road trip this season? Here’s what’s waiting right here in the Garden State.

walleye
Walleye may be one of the tastiest freshwater species encountered anywhere in the U.S., and yes, they can be found in N.J. too.

Walleye

Available in lakes Greenwood and Hopatcong, Big Swartswood Lake, Monksville Reservoir, Canistear Reservoir (Newark Watershed/special permit required), and the Delaware River from the Montague-Milford Bridge just south of the apex of Sussex County down through Trenton in Mercer County. This fishery is, from this corner, tied with the muskie explosion popularity-wise for a three reasons: One, they are available in a decent number of swims, secondly they can be caught on artificials and live baits.  And finally, with the exception of its close kin the yellow perch, the most palate-pleasing freshwater quarry. The standing state record is 13 pounds, 9 ounces caught in the Delaware River.  “We’ve caught gravid (egg-filled) females in our trap nets during the past few years in Big Swartswood that were within a few ounces of the state record,” Lemon said, offering “I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if a new record is established from there.” But Lemon advised anglers to not overlook Hopatcong and Greenwood. “Lots of double-digit walleyes caught from these every year,” he said.

muskie
Top muskie waters in New Jersey include Lake Hopatcong, Greenwood Lake, Mountain Lake, Echo Lake Reservoir, Monksville and upper stretches of the Delaware River.

Muskellunge

Long, thick ‘n nasty, from both the pure strain and tiger hybrid sides of things. Top muskie swims include Lake Hopatcong, Greenwood Lake, Mountain Lake, the Newark Watershed’s Echo Lake Reservoir, Monksville Reservoir, and the Delaware River from the Montague-Milford Bridge down through Lambertville in Mercer County. Not to be overlooked are Mercer Lake on the outskirts of Trenton, and the diminutive but forage-rich 53-acre Furnace Lake a few miles down the road from Mountain Lake, both in Warren County. The state record is a whopping 42 pounds, 13 ounces caught through the ice by Bobby Neals in ‘97 on Monksville. Shots at tigers are available in the same mileage of the Delaware River as well as in Greenwood and Hopatcong. The tiger muskie record is standing at 29 pounds and was wrested from the Delaware River back in ‘90.

northern pike
The Passaic River has become a destination of choice for many kayak anglers on the move for big Northern pike possibilities.

Northern Pike

Ironically, the “pilot species” for the feasibility of stocking tiger muskies back in ‘79 (originally released in Budd Lake in Warren County), the northern has launched to “big game” status in the waters where it was introduced. Pompton Lake, where John Viglione caught the current 30-pound, 8.5-ounce state record in 2009, continues the front runner for a new mark. Its outflow, the Pompton River, provides good fishing, as do Budd Lake, Spruce Run Reservoir and Farrington Lake. When it comes to numbers, though, with lengths/weights rapidly approaching the Spruce Run and Pompton impoundments, and also Budd Lake, is the Passaic River winding through portions of Morris, Union, Passaic and Essex counties. Don’t be fooled by the sometimes narrow banks and city-like surroundings: this flow is packed with forage and the northerns are growing rapidly. Fish to 10 pounds garner more yawns than raised eyebrows.

Hybrid Striped Bass

The muscle and the hustle of the warmwater gamefish scene, with an attack on sight attitude to match. This white bass/striped bass half-breed is as tough and strong as its near half-moon wide body physique indicates, providing an unrivaled rod ‘n reel exchange upon hook set. The 16-pound, 4-ounce state record was caught from the privately-stocked Culvers Lake in Sussex County. The Division of Fish & Wildlife releases hybrids in Lake Hopatcong, Spruce Run and Manasquan reservoirs. Expect ‘brids to 7-plus pounds on the likes of Spruce Run and Hopatcong.

salmon
Runelvy Rodriguez of Northvale reeled in this new, state record salmon (8 pounds, 5 ounces) on June 2, 2018 while trolling a spoon on Lake Aeroflex

Salmon

The landlocked salmon stocking program that started in 2013 is proving as successful as all of the aforementioned, and the fishery is generating overdrive enthusiasm since the last century’s 1951 state record was shattered in June 2018. It was hauled from Lake Aeroflex (formerly known as New Wawayanda Lake) in Sussex County by Runelvy Rodriguez and tipped the scales at an impressive 8 pounds, 5 ounces. Since then, there’s been exponential angler interest not only on Aeroflex, but also on Tilcon Reservoir and Lake Wawayanda where the species is illustrating decent rates of growth.

lake trout
A big Round Valley lake trout gillnetted by Bureau of Freshwater Fisheries staff for data collection before release proves that New Jersey is home to a few of its own lake and river monsters.

Lake Trout

Lake trout are no longer stocked because the species is producing naturally in the Garden State’s two premier venues: Round Valley and Merrill Creek reservoirs. The former impoundment’s laker fishery has suffered from the crash of the herring forage base, but there are still some big fish to be caught. The existing state record, a monstrous 32-1/2-pound leviathan caught in 2002, actually bests the Maine state record by one full pound. How’s that for a Jersey trout!  The 650-acre Merrill Creek is an up-and-comer when it comes to lake trout opportunities and offers a smaller, more intimate (read: easier to fish) experience than Round Valley’s sprawling 2,350 surface area. Both are deep, well-oxygenated and provide good odds when it comes to hooking this pink-fleshed, fork-tailed char.

The superlative angling for largemouth and smallmouth bass, chain pickerel, channel catfish and panfish remain a solid foundation. New Jersey is a freshwater fishing destination?  You bet!

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