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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!