Fresh options abound with Round Valley lakers.
When water temperatures hover in the low 30s and air temps plunge into the 20s or high teens, most anglers are tucked safe and warm in their beds. The more adventurous among us are headed to “The Valley” in search of the elusive lake trout.
Arriving at the Round Valley Reservoir ramp – that is still under construction as I write this in the late fall of 2020 – one will find that the water level is down 16 to 20 feet, which hopefully will cut down the search area for these voracious feeders. It’s not unusual to be one of only a few cold water fishermen in the lot, yet the reward is well worth the effort.
For an outing that can prove to be brutal, rough weather anglers must be equipped to handle the sub-freezing temps, and be dressed to withstand the cold biting winds that prevail during this time of year. Layers upon layers of clothing are a must now. Long johns, preferably two pairs, are compiled with warm wool socks, pants and shirts, as well as an insulated hoodie, PDF life vest, heavy parka and a nice warm trappers’ style hat and gloves are all essential. My buddy invested in a Striker Ice Suite and sings its praises. Sorel boots that worn while hunting excel now as do pocket warmers distributed body wide. Hot beverages as well as copious amounts of fuel boosting foods are also imperative.
By now you’ve gotten the picture that this type of fishing is not for the faint of heart. Yet for who choose to target lake trout are in for a great fishing experience that once accomplished, will make you a laker hunter for life!
Getting The Bite
We usually start out our late winter lake trout hunt by cruising over likely looking bottom structure, searching for boulders, chunk rock, steep drop-offs, rip rap, any area that should hold these maulers. Once located on the Humminbird screen, a plan can be devised to tease them into hitting a well presented lure/bait. While searching for suitable structure we set out four rods and using Berkley Flicker Shads and Flicker Minnows set to troll at depths of 16 to 25 feet; we enjoy getting a few rainbows and brown trout out of the way as we pursue the spotted green treasures.
Rounding Ranger Cove we continue our piscatorial pursuit and head towards the rip rap, where a few casts with Fusion 19 Snap Jig tipped with 4-inch Berkley Gulp Minnows brings the first hard-hitting take of a nice lake trout. A few more casts with a Binsky 1/2- to 3/4-ounce bait “walked down the rocks” is rewarded with a nice 3- to 4-pounder. Puttering along we now see several big fish holding tight to the bottom, to be sure, just what we are looking for. All lines are in now as we switch over to walleye style outfits, 70/30 type rods with medium action and a fast tip, coupled with Abu Garcia Max DLC low profile reels spooled with 8- to 12-pound Berkley FlouroShield. A snap is tied to the end, and an assortment of blade baits, snap jigs, spoons and rattle baits can be utilized to entice the bite.
Once hooked lake trout are really worthy opponents, bubbles surfacing denote that your fighter is on its way up. Sensing the boat, they often take off on quick runs, so patience and a good working drag are the key to landing these denizens of The Valley. Don’t try and horse them, but instead take your time and get them to the boat where your partner should be ready to net the fish. Be careful not to remove their protective slime, take a quick pic, or fish while filming yourself with a Go Pro boat mounted camera. If you’re not keeping the laker get it back in the water fast.
Round Valley regulations allow you to keep six fish between 15 to less than 24 inches per day, and one fish greater than 24 inches per day. Although the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife stopped stocking the Valley before the turn of the century, a self-reproducing population has been established. Many of the lake trout are what I call cookie cutter fish, as it seems that nearly all the fish caught on the troll average from 17 to 20 inches. Every once in a while you’ll get one 24 or over, but that will usually only happen while jigging.
Lakers On The Jig
Our lake trout jigging set-ups consist of a medium action fast tip rod such as the St. Croix Eyecon series Snap Jigging rod, coupled with the Abu Garcia low profile Max DLC reel with lighted digital line counter which is great when you’re making fish in the 70- 90-foot depths in dim light conditions. Tie on a bait, reel it up to the tip, zero out the counter and release the lure vertically, watching the reel’s display until it’s within feet of where your Humminbird says that they’re located.
Start with slow upward jerks and follow the lure back down, pause and jerk again. The fish will let you know when you have the right cadence. Experiment with high jerks allowing the bait to fall 4 to 6 feet or shorter in place jiggling, calling the fish to your lure. Livingston makes a great 3/4-ounce Sammy rattle bait that emits a bait fish in distress sound that has proven its mettle on lakers far and wide. The Berkley Fusion Snap Jig can be used year round as well; its molded fins causes the Snap jig/ Gulp Minnow combo to glide ever so slowly in the cold thick water. Although the Gulp minnow is already scented some anglers swear by adding a drop or two of anise oil to the bait, for better results.
Nearly 20 years ago the state record lake trout weighing a whopping 32 pounds, 8 ounces was caught by Greg Young. Although some would tell you that the Valley’s best years are said to be in the past, fish up to 22 pounds have been gillnetted and released back into the cool deep recesses of this fabled reservoir. Those anglers who are looking for a real monster would do well to upgrade their jigging gear to the type that musky hunters use in the Great Lakes. Giant heavy tube type baits can be bounced along the bottom in search of these lunkers. Jigging Bondy baits with their Colorado type tail blade could be just the ticket for hooking into one of these rare behemoths.
If you’re content with hunting 3- to 6-pound fish stick to proven methods of using tackle and baits outlined earlier. On your way back to the launch reset your trolling rod and reel combos spooled with lead core line and 15-foot fluorocarbon leaders, get those lures into the 25- to 30-foot depth range, and you may just intersect with some high-suspended lakers, as water temps. are now nearly the same from bottom up. Make a final pass by the rip rap on both sides, and before leaving make several passes back and forth, off of the shoreline leading to Ranger Cove, raise your lures up to 15 to 20 feet and you may tie into a nice brown trout or tiger as a bonus.
Remember to carry a plush towel and wipe your hands thoroughly after each fish, to help keep them warm and dry. Always try and go out with a partner, and again, I can’t stress enough, wear a suitable PFD. This type of fishing will push you to your limit, but done correctly it will add memories to your gray matter, and a nice winter dinner for your efforts!