NJ Blue Holes: Tropics Style Waters Of The Pines - The Fisherman

NJ Blue Holes: Tropics Style Waters Of The Pines

blue-hole
The pretty, blue waters of a “blue hole” start when a distinct ledge drops off into the depths as much as 80 feet.

Quarry pits create blue hole lakes which offer unique local fishing opportunities.

New Jersey’s Pinelands have numerous unique assets that are largely unknown to those outside of the region. Affectionately known as “blue holes,” they are deep, manmade lakes gouged out of the sugar sands, remnants of prior sand and gravel mining.  While some mining operations continue and are thus largely off-limits to outsiders, abandoned sand wash ponds that are no longer in operation may offer adventurous anglers access.

Chemical components combined with temperature and depth equate to a surprising hue of blue or turquoise that one generally associates with the tropics.  First time visitors to these piney anomalies are often caught off guard; pristine, clear blue waters are simply not something one expects to find within the Pine Barrens. But there are a surprising number of these in the Garden State, and access varies greatly.

Locally, each community refers to their quarry lakes as a blue hole, and whether right or wrong, the name firmly takes root in the local vernacular.  Some landowners strongly restrict access while others may allow some recreational opportunity.  I received permission to fish a few private blue holes that were papered with no trespassing signs and even some fencing. One particular blue hole that I fished a handful of times was only accessible until the landowner tired of the litter, partying, quad riding and unsafe swimming that can become a regular, summer occurrence.

Blue hole waters often range from 40 to 80 feet in the middle and remain cold. Even in the dead of summer, temperatures can go from the 70s on the surface to 50s below the thermocline. Drownings are sadly a semi-regular event which is one of the primary reasons that landowners shut down access.

The easiest way to discover such spots is to use Google Earth or Google Maps which clearly show the bright, turquoise lakes with sandy contours and surrounded by pine trees.  Secondary searches using keywords may also revive old forum discussions and lake intel, however there is seldom talk of fishing.  But close attention may bring light to accessibility, trail guides and parking.

small-bass
Although lunker bass may be found in blue hole lakes, there are tons of bass of a slightly more diminutive size available to the adventurous angler.

Largemouth Bass Class

Largemouth bass rank as the top target at the blue hole ponds and lakes since they can tolerate the chemical make-up of the water while patrolling the shallows. Lakes where largemouth are introduced see fast growth in their population, and while the vast majority remain small from 6 to 14 inches, some larger models do get caught in the 4- to 7-pound class. Because the waters get colder with depth, most of the fishing takes place within 5 feet of the surface.

There are many tapered sandbars that extend out at some blue holes, perfect staging areas for largemouth that feed on juvenile bluegills and other tiny forage. In addition, there are defined ledges along many of the banks that abruptly stop and a substantial drop off begins. This is a telltale feature that sand mining took place. The waters closest to the edge of the decline see the best action. Baits pitched parallel and slightly out from the banks are prime targeting areas. Casts shot straight out, as far as one can throw also prove productive too, but only if there are some uprisings from the deep. Hook-ups over the deep will number less than those near shallow spots.

I like to use slow-sinking Senkos or Heddon prop baits and walk the contours of the entire lake if there is ample footing. Topwater walk-the-dog type lures, jitterbugs and chug-style poppers work wonders when strategically placed. It’s amazing how the bass seem to come from out of nowhere to slam the topwater offering. The clear waters also allow for sight fishing for anglers that walk the banks in stealth mode.

Light line in the 4- to 8-pound test range is best. With water so clear, it’s just prudent to downsize anything that may look unnatural. Fluorocarbon leader can even help with heftier, educated largemouth that can see well through the clear water. Older fish have seen a few lures in their time and can be harder to stimulate or trick.

Live bait in the form of nightcrawlers and earthworms are staples that crush bucketmouths. A bobber rig just over the ledge is as deadly as it was when we were all little kids finding our way in the sweet water. Furthermore, Berkley Gulp worms, red or brown, on those same bobber rigs work remarkably well. Freshwater Gulp is underrated in largemouth circles. Some fishermen may abandon the float and let their worms fall slowly with only the hook of the weight or a tiny split shot. When the line starts to peel away slowly, anglers know there’s been a take.

Many of the blue holes do, in fact, have sandy tracts that surround the water thus tree branches aren’t always a problem. This is certainly welcome to the hoof-it crew that doesn’t use a kayak or cartopper. Anglers can cover water faster without wading through a sea of tree limbs. Moreover, I sometimes wear waders so I can keep my feet dry and clean with all the wet sand.

Blue holes that have been out of operation for many years see their sandy edges forested by pine trees, thorn bushes and other various underbrush species that make access difficult. Like any freshwater destination, anglers have to cast between branches or find some pockets. Pants, a long shirt, hat and bug spray are a must due to the bugs and ticks that find us fishermen a tasty host. These spots are of course prime for kayakers casting toward the shore from their craft.

Other blue holes have tall, bluff-like cliffs around the perimeter. Remember these lakes originated from mining operations so there may be leftover concrete and wire cables at many destinations. What’s more, it’s common to observe rocks or boulders on the land and near the water’s edge. Rock formations aren’t a feature of the Pine Barrens; however, mining can unearth just about anything. Some of the boulders left along the shoreline make excellent perches for casting or just taking a break and soaking in the sun.

Early morning is the best time to fish blue holes, as the recreating crowd usually arrives a little bit later. Therefore, aggressive anglers can pick their choice presentations and walk the banks. As the sun gets high, the bite tends to tail off a somewhat anyway. Bass that were tight to shoreline often retreat offshore, if you will.

PICKEREL
Pickerel patrol the shallows and will often nail anything cast within eyesight.

Piney Picks

Blue holes are also home to healthy populations of Pine Barrens pickerel. Slime darts are the freshwater barracuda most associated with the forests in the region and the chemical make-up of the blue holes and surrounding landscape suit them just fine. Pickerel will gladly take the same presentations as largemouth bass allowing fishermen to catch a nice mixed bag while fishing these lakes.

Often pickerel will stage in the weeds and algae within inches of the shoreline. They completely camouflage themselves and come out of nowhere with torpedo like speed. Anglers are best to approach softly as not to spook weary pickerel that are almost at the base of one’s feet!  Never fear though, as pickerel are some of the most forgiving freshwater predators and they’ll continue to attack baits even after the offering gets pulled from their toothy jaws. For example, when fishing a Senko worm, many pickerel will grasp the bait, holding it sideways while attempting to swim away with their prize rather than inhale it. This is more common with pickerel smaller than 12 inches.  If fish don’t hook up, keep casting; most of the time those fish won’t get deterred. And if the lull is large, anglers should fish other spots for a period of time and then return. Pickerel don’t stray very far and will be ready to attack again after a brief respite.

Pickerel lures can vary if desired. Bright spoons, spinners, broke-back minnows, spooks or jerk baits will all get hammered along with those listed previously. The fish will inspect or destroy any presentation that looks like food. Live shiners or minnows under a bobber are a sure thing for picks. Largemouth bass will also respond readily to live bait intended for pickerel. It’s possible that fishermen may want to add a small length of thin wire leader ahead of the lure. Larger pickerel, in particular, will inhale the entire lure or bait and lines can severed easily. The wire will help catch more pickerel, but could hinder bass bites, however. Therefore, wire is needed if pickerel are the main target.

STEALTH
Pickerel (aka, slime darts or chainsides) live in the shallows often within the algae and aquatic growth, and can easily be spotted in the gin clear waters of a quarry lake.

Lake Audrey in Commercial Township near Millville is a former sand mining pit that continues to be popular for fishing. Its colors and clarity are as pretty as the largemouth that come from them. But what makes Lake Audrey unique is that the state once tried to establish a smallmouth bass population here with thousands of baby smallmouth introduced.  Initially, they thrived and grew to decent sizes, until the freshwater experts’ worst fear manifested itself as largemouth out-competed the smallmouth populations and basically took over. The chemical and PH levels that were briefly stabilized and favorable for smallmouth bass also oscillated, stunting the smallmouth expansion. These days, one doesn’t hear of smallmouth being caught at Lake Audrey, although it’s a great destination for largemouth by the bushel (albeit, lacking size). There are numerous blue holes in the immediate area surrounding Audrey for those that make the trip.

Another blue hole that is entirely different than the quarry pits is in Winslow Township, where a small blue hole can be found that’s been prominently featured online as one of the strangest stops in New Jersey’s wilderness. Tales of the Jersey Devil abound and talk of the glorified pond being bottomless are passed on from generation to generation. In reality, the pond is shallow and often overgrown with aquatic plant life. The water is clean and clear and the stroll through the woods is aesthetically pleasing, but I fished this spot one time many, many years ago while on an exploratory hike with some buddies and didn’t catch anything, though pickerel are rumored to live there. In contrast to the sand mining pits, this blue hole’s genesis is supposedly an aquifer traveling below ground. The spot has gained internet acclaim, despite being underwhelming; sometimes local legend trumps reality.

The Pine Barrens that hold most of the blue holes in the Garden State can be reached readily in a reasonable amount of time for just about in anyone in the state except those in the most extreme northern portions. These lakes are a break from the darker, tannic waters most synonymous with the area and make for an outstanding change-up in scenery while fishing.

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