Northern pike are an outstanding option for sweetwater sampling.
The Garden State’s northern pike fishery, while limited in its number of venues, continues providing stellar angling opportunities at most every turn of the calendar page for this most savage of the esocid clan, with late autumn into winter a prime pike strike time.
It was funny, really, the look(s) to my response when asked several times over the recent, and not so recent, years to be part of an out of state or north of the border quest for northern pike. Big stuff, I was assured, with, in some scenarios, the bonus of gut busting shore lunches, with walleye fillets the entree.
“I can catch pike here. Why bother with the hassle of the travel? And expense (rubbing thumb and forefinger together for emphasis)?”
Then, the gaping.
Suffice to say, the invitations have ceased.
NJ Pike & You…
Hey, I enjoy a road trip as much as the next person; truth be told, I’ve been on way more than a few for pleasure and business over the many decades, rods in hand for both. However, when it comes to catching northern pike, including trophy class fish, I’ve become comfortable and eager with the pike poking going on the home waters ensconced within this fifth smallest, and most densely populated state.
To be sure, from bucolic to suburban to, yes, urban settings, tremendous pike fishing is available in New Jersey thanks to an aggressive annual netting/rearing/stocking program (thousands of fry, fingerlings and advanced fingerlings are loosed every year) via the Bureau of Freshwater Fisheries (Bureau), with a possible expansion of venues via future on the water research and evaluation(s). Lake, reservoir and river opportunities abound, with double-digit weight specimens becoming more the norm than the exception.
In the 1980s, the Bureau embarked on an all-encompassing warm water and cool water rearing and stocking project including not only northern pike, but walleyes, hybrid stripers, pure strain muskies and tigers (a pike and pure strain muskie cross), as well as channel catfish. It’s been a resounding success, with northerns in particular being a success story once established in waters after a trial-and-error exercise over a few years. Originally, 15 venues received periodic doses of pike into 1996, with the shakeout as per survival via electro-shocking sampling, and angler success resulting in a roster of six, with a pair on the bubble that receive surplus fingerlings.
To date, the primary stocked waters include the Passaic and Pompton rivers (unlimited outboard), Budd Lake (unlimited outboard), Farrington Lake (electric only), Pompton Lake (unlimited outboard) and Spruce Run Reservoir (9.9 hp). Deal Lake and Cranberry Lake (both unlimited outboard) are dosed when surplus allows. One of our faves that did not make the cut after 2018 and where we’ve shined more than a northern or two was the Millstone River from the outflow at Carnegie Lake to its confluence with the Raritan River at Somerville. Right behind and below the now long gone Millstone Sport Shop was a particular hot spot for the spotted predator.
As for plans to add to the stocking list, Bureau assistant biologist Justin Rozema who oversees the cool water project said “There are guidelines that we work within, the primary being that the water considered is at least 100 acres, has cooler bottom water, adequate soft rayed forage and adequate subsurface vegetation,” while adding “No waters classified and managed as ‘Lunker Bass Lakes’ will be stocked with pike.”
Says Rozema when mentioning the Millstone, “The angler return was poor. Not many people fishing for them so not that many caught. There’s probably still pike in there, but on the overall, it was decided to stock those pike in one of our other waters.”
Fair enough. That also goes for a few venues that would appear tailor made for northerns but are not stocked. Wawayanda Lake, for example. It screams “Pike”, but owing to its established and growing landlocked salmon fishery and classification as a “Holdover Trout Lake” (a double whammy) is a no go for esocid introduction, as it already has a thriving lunker chain pickerel fishery.
As per our conversation with Rozema, a few other swims, north to south, could possibly be considered as per expanded research during the upcoming 3- to 5-year period. From this corner, who knows? There could be an expansion, albeit minimal for now because of the habitat and existing, and possibly pending management regulations, of the “I Like Pike” stocking program.
Not to get one’s hopes up, but again from this corner, consider it stratospherically unlikely that the 898-acre Union Lake in Cumberland County, southern New Jersey’s (and one of the Garden State’s) premier largemouth fishery will be on the Pike Hike list, even with its strong gizzard shad and golden shiner forage base and meeting the vegetative requirements.
The 300 something-acre Lake Lenape in Atlantic County? Fish ladder, gizzard shad, shiners, suckers, it’s an interesting thought. We’ve all heard it before, size matters, and bridging the gap between the chain pickerel, and muskies the northern displays in ferociousness what it lacks in top tier status. Yeah, pure strain muskies are bigger, and tigers more eccentric (as are most hybrid species) but neither strike with what appears a hatred for the prey it’s going to kill.
For comparison’s sake, the state record muskie stands at 42 pounds, 13 ounces, with the tiger coming in at 29 pounds. The Garden State top pike? A whopping 30-pound, 8.5-ounce dragon dragged from Pompton Lake in 2009 by John Viglione. “John’s pike is certainly a record to shoot for,” opined Hackettstown Hatchery superintendent Craig Lemon, adding “I think that the next state record, based on reports and photos we receive, will come from the Passaic River.”
Indeed, the 80-mile long Passaic is proving a northern nirvana from its upper stocking point in Chatham (Morris County) down to Elmwood Park (Bergen County). Fish in excess of 20 pounds are common here, with an increasing count approaching the standing state record weight. Some 25 stocking sites afford a combination of boat and shoreline access, affording anglers more than ample opportunities to connect with this major river’s apex predator. No kidding: country settings to highway traffic. Unlimited outboard, and a mix of power boat ramps and ‘yak/canoe/cartopper launching areas can be accessed via njfishandwildlife.com, clicking the freshwater fishing link, then going to the Hackettstown Hatchery stocking link and clicking the Passaic River Pike article. Not far behind is the 1,290-acre Spruce Run Reservoir. Pike in the lower teen weights are common, and those above 15 pounds not uncommon. Ditto Budd and Pompton, the former, as with Spruce Run, are favorite ice fishing pike venues when the hardwater surface is safe.
Also worth a look is the languid, oftentimes stained 8-mile Pompton River, with its five stocking points starting below the Pompton Lake dam, a major tributary to the Passaic, that hosts some surprising numbers of northerns stretching well beyond a meter.
Slow & Steady
The electrifying hair-on-end surface strikes, and those heart-thumping bulges a smidge below the liquid skin from kill mode pike are rare but there during the late autumn into early winter period, especially during a sun drenched afternoon when temps tickle the 50s.
For the most part, though, with chilling-to-getting-cold surroundings, it’s a slower retrieve, or the offering of live prey, that will draw this normally speed freak ambush attacker from its weed bed edge or laydown hideaway. Normal retrieve to slow rolling spinnerbaits and chatterbaits, twitch ‘n go suspending crankbaits, and up and down retrieve paddletails and hybrids thereof, will elicit smashes, thrashes and hits. Just like in March and April.
We like meat when it comes to meeting late fall/early winter pike. Live shiners and suckers preferred, as are trout, the latter requiring a receipt from the point of purchase if under the state’s 9-inch minimum. All under an inline circle hook under a float or livelined, it’s a demise and hook up assured scenario. Yeah, it’s not for everyone, but it is effective.
By all means, mash the barbs when plugging, ‘cos even if a stallion pike, it won’t be lost if worked properly and, more importantly, will make the release easier, safer and with less stress to the vanquished. The same goes for the live bait presentation.
Pike on the fly by? Sure. It’s been done for decades approaching a century (listening to some of the more hardcore), and it is a thrilling endeavor, for sure. Try 8 to 10-weight outfits armed with sparrow to grackle-sized “birds” surely account for rip-your-face-off strikes and fly reel drag squeals. More so than otherwise, a wire leader that can be cast and worked is imperative. The Rio Toothy Critter trace fits the pike bite bill to the chomp.
Choose your weapons, the late season pike duel awaits.