Wednesday, October 19, 2016

A Few Moments of Deeper Duration

When I arrived, I felt as if all of life's troubles are worth just coming up here a few times a year and writing first responses in a notebook I keep in my car. A practice that's made occasions of doing this since summer 2014 seem a long time. Arrivals can open up perspective widely and put you directly in touch with life's lastingness. Otherwise, who would disagree that 2014 was a short time ago? A day on the job may seem to last too long, but the weeks and months track by pretty quickly, a state of affairs I don't disagree with, so long as I am able to get away and experience the value of deeper durations.

I finished a couple of pages, set the notebook aside, and confidently jaunted to water's edge, wearing the hiking boots I much prefer for gravel and rocks, to cast a Chartreuse spinnerbait. Air temperature at least 80 degrees, sunlight abundant, water clear as a bell, clearest I've seen here. Not hits came on the first few casts, and I felt convinced by the general ambiance that this wasn't going to be fast fishing.

With that clear water and cloudless sky, I suspect most of the bass moved deep, although sunfish and yellow perch schooled abundantly in some shallow spots. I fished everywhere I could, and caught nothing, although a young man showed up and caught two on a white spinnerbait--about two pounds each--by casting out into deep water, which I did too, though not only that.

I sighted a largemouth of at least four pounds in close, which refused the spinnerbait. I switched to a plastic worm. By the time I pitched, the fish had vanished. At sunset after a few hours, I had pitched and cast that watermelon-colored worm a lot, last of that this year. I also switched to a red tandem willowleaf spinnerbait, which made no difference.

It was a tough one, but I didn't give up. I thought I was on my way out, parking near the exit to cast one last shoreline, when I decided to go back and slowly fish the area where I sighted the big bass with the worm. I caught a little peace. An outing that began so well became one of the most unpleasant I've fished in many years. I can't remember the last I felt my nerves as confused while fishing as today.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Rite of Passage Leaves Open Possibility of Return: Nine Years on Lake Hopatcong

The plan was to fish Lake Hopatcong on Saturday, the 22nd, since that third October weekend, in our experience, is the best of the fall fishing. My job won't allow it, and work comes first, of course. So I struggled with what we had to do--go fishing mid-week on this religious holiday when my son would be out of school, and even this got iffy, since job scheduling remained in question for a day. Whether or not Matt and I will ever fish Hopatcong again in the fall is yet to be seen, since he goes to university next year. We've done this--almost always that third weekend--since 2007. Almost always, either he catches a walleye or I do. Rarely have we caught more than one, but we've caught many more hybrid striped bass.

The five-pound, 13-ounce walleye, 25 3/4 inches, photographed above, is our catch. Strictly speaking, I caught it, but first I said, "There's a fish on that line. You want it?"

"You take it. I caught the catfish."

I guess I should have just given him the rod after I spoke of the life on the line. And as the sure death of the live herring used for bait ensued. After we got home, I told Matt once more I should have let him have that walleye. He insisted no again. So I said, "Well now we have to get back out there in the fall sometime, because the only fitting way for you to end these outings would have been your catching that walleye."

"We'll get back out there in the fall."

We made the catch at about 2:00 p.m. near the end of the outing.

Always, we've arrived at Dow's Boat Rentals about 15 minutes before the shop opens, unloaded our stuff, and with portable running lights--at least since about 2012--got on the water well before sun-up. We used to hang out until enough twilight made boating without running lights quasi-legal. At least once, we had to walk the docks very carefully, the wood coated with thin ice. This morning, temperatures in the 40's felt pleasant by comparison to cold and stiff wind past times. Never seemed to really warm as expected, though.

I wrote a post I named "Forget Chicken Livers, Hybrids Hit Herring," expressing my personal sentiment for the lively fish for bait over slimy innards, but I recently read an article by Lou Martinez about the secret that's kept this lake buzzing with catches for at least several years now, and underwent conversion. So I bought 25 cans of liver cat food and two containers of chicken livers. The cat food for chum, the livers to put on hooks. Along with us, a Tupperware container came to mix water with cat food by use of a spoon to create a soupy mix of embarrassing goo. Why does anyone lower his standards? I guess always it's for more stuff, rather than quality, but I remain convinced this method may have some merit, because I won't argue with that stuff--amounting to phenomenal numbers of hybrid striped bass caught by fishermen who go this way. Years ago--Matt told me this morning he remembers--we fished for channel catfish in the Delaware River with chicken livers, and though we caught no catfish, we did catch little 13-inch striped bass. As I remember that outing, drifting chicken livers in current had a certain delicacy about it, so maybe I just need to catch on, I don't know, but this morning not only did we draw a total blank on hybrids, we watched another boat doing as we did--flinging cat food with a spoon--and I had to laugh, mostly at myself. I then felt very tired and curled very comfortably on the bottom of the boat for a power nap, lines out and waiting, sort of expecting the men in that boat nearby to start hooking up. It never happened. And after an hour or two of waiting on this "best" spot on the lake, we motored off to try others.

We caught fish. Catfish, sunfish, perch, a rock bass earlier on. All on herring and nightcrawlers, besides one bluegill that pecked away on a piece of chicken liver I tried shallow. Later, back at Dow's, I was told very few hybrids, and small, had been caught.

We began the morning on our favorite spot. Not only did none of our herring lines register, very few panfish telegraphed any interest in our nightcrawlers fished on the shallow end. No largemouth or smallmouth bass as we typically catch the third October week. We've caught bass on both nightcrawlers and plastic worms. They'll hit other lures. I just like using live worms on Hopatcong in October. That's how I began with my son years ago and it's stuck. Like this spot we always go to first in October with only one exception I remember.

We returned there about noon, and soon I inferred that oxygen is not re-established in the depths. Water temperature 60-62 degrees, it's too warm. Herring died in the depths, asphyxiated, and I realized that when I had the boat positioned close to shallows for the panfish, our casts didn't get the bait all the way to the bottom line of the drop-off at about 35 feet down. Not until I moved the boat further out, and then herring came up dead. Experience has taught me main lake depths oxygenate sooner than more protected areas, so we motored out to a drop-off a couple of hundred yards from shore. That's where the big walleye struck, in about 28 feet of water, though herring remained alive about 37 feet down.

Lots of fog as we motored across Lake Hopatcong before dawn, just a trace of blue.

Matt's rock bass hit a live herring weighted on bottom about 25 feet down.

Lunker bullhead pulled from 37 feet of water on live herring.

Typical yellow perch.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Fly Fished Round Valley Reservoir for Rainbow Trout

Oliver Round and I fly fished for rainbow trout, the reservoir the lowest we've seen, this my first attempt with streamers and nymphs. Oliver's tried before when he aroused some interest from a palomino in clear view, if I remember rightly his telling me a couple of years ago. Steady wind made casting a little difficult, and after taking the blow sidewise after parking in the main launch area, we bagged it and drove over to Lot 2, finding a point out of the wind, but getting no hits.

Another of my outings before going in to work, I managed to get what I thought would be enough sleep, but I'm used to staying up until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. and waking late to go in, so it's not simple. I'll do it again. I'd like to fish for the stockers in the North Branch Raritan Friday, but I'll probably wait until next week, after my son and I fish Lake Hopatcong on Wednesday, since he has school off.

Until we got to Lot 2 and stayed put, talking and casting, I felt that sense of being out to sea without a paddle all of us anglers know and feel a little embarrassed about when it happens. We like it when we're on top of our game, and when things make us feel our efforts more futile than promising, it reflects badly on our prowess. I think this feeling goes all the way back to when our species were cave dwellers and getting meals had every bit as much pride involved in sport as it did necessity. I bet it was no more of a big deal to them as it to us.

Parked in lot 2, casting to possible trout began to make sense, because the spot we fished has proven productive multiple times, and for all we knew a pod of rainbows could have cruised along at any time.

I said, "Why wouldn't a trout hit that nymph with a red ass? They love orange Power Bait." I kept winging it out there and letting it drift to bottom. A lot like I fish a plastic worm for bass.

We talked about the possibility of fishing Delaware River striped bass at night next summer. We could get to one of my spots at about 9:30 p.m.--after I drive to PA and back in the morning a day prior buy live's all about getting sleep right...and fish until 1:30 a.m. I'll be asleep by 3:30 and fresh for work later in the morning. This would be a weekend night, since Oliver has to work early. My son Matt might come along.

I do think about it. What it would be like not to complicate life by taking risks outdoors...with sleep and other things. I now have a sensitive tooth, because I cut 15-pound test fluorocarbon between my teeth a few weeks ago. At first I thought I broke the tooth. I did, a little. And I dread my next dentist appointment...anticipating the one thereafter. It's so easy to forget prior self-recommendations like: Use the clippers, and if you can't find them, as is likely, dig the pliers with the cutting edge out of the bag.

All I know: I respect people who stay within established routines. So long as they respect my right to step outside. The reasons I do are so deep and so many I would probably bore you to death if I attempted any list of them.

Even when soaking bait with three rods, the typical shore-bound Round Valley trout outing, at least in my experience, results in nothing caught. Plenty do get caught, but it takes time. I've watched some other fly anglers try it. I've seen no results, but of course--it's possible.  

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Ice Fishing for Pickerel: A Complete Guide to this Classic Winter Quest

Classic Ice Quest: Pickerel

The sudden strikes of chain pickerel mark this species as one of the most impulsive freshwater fish, perhaps the chief reason they take scorn from some fishermen. The thick scale mucous is often cited, but some call them jacks, a sure indication that the eagerness is unsettling. On the other hand, many of us admire pickerel and all members of the pike family for the fierce determination and focus. Pickerel often miss the target when they strike, and yet there’s no denying the missile-like intent. Traditionally, pickerel regain seasonal popularity among ice fishermen. They remain a little more active than bass, and last winter, a number got caught in three feet of water beneath 18 inches of ice while it continued to thicken.

Ice Fishing Basics

If you’re unfamiliar with ice, don’t go out on it until it’s established by the community associated with a lake as safe. Early on, any large lake may be safe in certain coves, and yet feature open water at the wind-blown points. Be safe and begin a process of familiarizing yourself with ice conditions too numerous to discuss in this article. Like many fishermen, I got introduced to ice fishing by someone mentored years before by someone else. Guides will teach a fisherman of whatever experience plenty for a worthwhile fee, and books on the subject will too.

A plastic, flat-bottomed sleigh will carry the weight of a power auger and all of your equipment with ease. If you’re young and strong enough, you can cut thick ice with a splitting bar. It’s a workout I used to prefer, until I began to complain about the time it took to set tip-ups.

Five lines per angler allowed by law, both tip-ups and jigging rods serve effectively. Secure hooks by impaling dacron tip-up line at the spools, but to avoid getting the hooks stuck, don’t press beyond the barbs. The simple, inexpensive, wood-framed tip-ups are all you need. A propane catalytic heater helps warm hands, as do vermiculite hand and toe warmers. A small hibachi fits on the sleigh and hot dogs and burgers never taste better. If you jig some yellow perch, you may never enjoy them fresher. Keep tackle to a minimum--hooks, split shot, jigging spoons, fluorocarbon, barrel swivels, needlenose pliers. Place a straining ladle in the bucket with shiners to keep hands relatively dry when baiting up. Warm, waterproof gloves are available at many venues this time of year. Folding chairs for each participant make life easy. Don’t forget the coffee!

I’ve heard guys complain about cold feet. A good pair of pac boots will keep them comfortable and completely warm. We’ve ice fished at zero degrees without the slightest chill, and have slogged through water on the ice late in the season. Don’t skimp on gloves, layered clothing with quality thermal underwear against the skin, wool cap, and face protection if the wind is cold enough. Layer clothing with moisture absorbing wool, not cotton. You can always take layers off if you get too warm.

Shallow, Deep, and Always Weedy

Finding pickerel is an engrossing absorbing pleasure, if you really get into it. It’s possible to do a little roaming with the sleigh and quick-cutting power auger. Open water knowledge of a lake or pond isn’t absolutely prerequisite, but helps a lot, as do contour maps. We’ve caught pickerel in three feet of water in the back of a frozen Lake Hopatcong cove, 12 feet deep among the residual weeds of sloping shorelines, and 15 feet deep on a weedy flat of the same lake’s Great Cove. Years ago, we fished a six-acre pond in Princeton Township, tip-up flags popping up constantly throughout the range of the pond’s middle 10-foot depths, the bottom just fuzzy enough with residual weeds to hold pickerel.

As with any other species, you can find sweet spots and score a big catch while others never get the skunk off. Most of the time, you may have to settle for a fish or two and be happy you connected. No doubt, weeds hold them. But if you know of any spots combining weeds with cover like submerged brush, always fish them. It’s a good idea to take note during the warm water months of any weedbeds combining plant species--Eurasian milfoil with pads and the like—because any break that stands out in a pattern of homogenous habitat tends to hold more fish.

During the previous decade, before Lake Musconetcong got treated with weed killer to combat water chestnuts, pickerel catches of a dozen fish, many of them over three pounds, commonly accompanied efforts at placing tip-ups just right. The weed mass remained thick, and you could never tell for sure if the shiner would bury and entangle itself. Tip-ups required careful tending, and new holes cut increased the likelihood of getting a shiner in place, where it wriggled and swam about on the hook to entice a strike. Since Lake Musconetcong is about five feet deep everywhere, getting the shiner near the bottom wasn’t necessary. In some situations, we placed the bait halfway down, thus allowing free swimming.

Other lakes have heavy weed cover in the winter, which may characterize the best spots to fish, but carefully. In any event, we tend tip-ups by giving them a lift every so often, both to make sure the shiner isn’t stuck in weeds, and to give the bait a little life.

I’m the guy who involves himself in possibilities out there. The rest of the crew may be content to sit back and tell stories, but while I have my say, the edge of my mind is always ready for any crazy notion butting in that just might lead to a better cut. And besides, jigging with a chrome-finish spoon is a way to cover ground by cutting a lot of holes, letting things quiet down, and fishing the route you’ve created. The one-eighth or quarter-ounce Kastmaster is perfect—compact and fitting for jigging directly down.

A fine line exists between intuition and superstition, but on any lake, there’s a lot of water out there. Even the water featuring weedy habitat is extensive. It’s better to think you might have a sense of where a pickerel might be, than to just stand back passively and feel nothing’s doing. It’s true that some days—especially early and late in the season—pickerel feed more under the ice than on others, and the witching hour of sunset and dusk is typically best. But on any day, a lot goes on down there, and by meditating on your approach and experimenting with sets and jigging, it’s possible to meet a little of that activity halfway, when just setting up and sitting would have yielded relatively few fish or nothing.

Details About Tip-Ups and Jigging

One of us cuts holes and one or more of the others sets. With a power auger, this is quick business. We use size 6 plain shank hooks placed near the large shiner’s dorsal fin. By setting the hook as soon as we get to a flag-sprung tip-up, we almost never gut-wrench the fish. The exception is when we stand so close to a flag when it springs that we need to let the pickerel complete its initial dash, stop, and begin mouthing the shiner. A firm pull on a tightened line usually results in fish on. Needlenose pliers kept in the pocket quickly disgorge the hook, and the pickerel is released in active condition. Pickerel strike so that the shiner is immediately mouthed in the middle, although sometimes we do miss a hit, and sometimes catch a pickerel hooked at the tip of the mouth. Often the pickerel takes the shiner at the middle portion of the belly, not the dorsal area, though a shiner gets worked into the mouth after that first quick run.

Braided dacron should neither be so heavy that you can’t fit much on the tip-up spool, nor so light that you don’t get a good grip on it when playing a fish. Forty-pound test is about right. Tie a small barrel swivel to the dacron and about three feet of 15-pound test fluorocarbon leader to the other end. Tie on a hook and crimp a medium split shot to the leader with the pliers about 18 inches above. Don’t crimp lead with your teeth. We used to do that in our teens, but since any amount of ingested lead affects the brain, it’s not a good idea. Since fluorocarbon resists abrasion, 15-pound test will do for a single catch, but it often does not for two. Always check the leader after each fish on, and retie the hook if any nicks or scrapes present themselves.

The line will go loose when the rig reaches the bottom. Tighten the line by wrapping dacron onto the spool as you lower that spool to water level, making sure the split shot is directly on bottom. Wrap seven more turns, so the split shot situates a couple of feet or so off bottom. Make any adjustments needed for heavy weeds or other cover.

The shiner is enabled to swim more and less freely. That’s why 15-pound test fluorocarbon, rather than heavier fluorocarbon or monofilament, helps. The little hook and the relatively limp line allow freer motion.

My jigging rods don’t have the sensitive panfish tips. They’re stout, but allow enough play. I attach an ultralight reel loaded with 15-pound test Power Pro braid. A uni to uni knot connects a 15-pound test fluorocarbon leader, to which a small snap is tied, the Kastmaster snapped on. Experiment with jigging by using your imagination as if it’s a perceptual power, rather than frivolous fancy. Some research suggests active imagination helps create possibilities as if from thin air. Possibilities that may actually happen, because the energy of intention is energy just the same as any other form. Pickerel will likely hit a jig that suddenly behaves erratically, but tempt them in by subtly twitching the spoon.

Pickerel provide that jolt to make an otherwise frozen environment come to life. Ice fishing is much more than a way to get cold and miserable. It’s a way to connect with friends and fish alike.       

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Place isn't Swarming with Them, but They can Grow

After a tough couple of days, I gave the local pond a shot, but it really didn't do much to soothe. If I passed the exam after two days of classes, I'll have my first professional certificate. Sure I did well, it's just that after so many questions and tricky, I can't be certain. Looks like this evening's slow bass fishing in a shallow pond exhausted after severe winters is what I get after refusing to graduate college with a B.A. or B.S., just like they told us in the high school auditorium: You'll regret it, if you don't toe the line. But down deep I don't regret any of it, not that I would persuade any young reader to drop out, and certainly my son is an example of a young man about to take every aboveboard advantage. I certainly understand how someone could regret it, but only for not having dug deep enough with the rake of the mind. Down to bedrock to build one's own foundation of a worldview. Besides, if I've earned this certificate, I think it bodes well for mobility in society, after I spent years as a clam digger.

Started with a Strike King Senko-type, had a few very small bass play with it, and after 10 minutes decided I better pull that black spinnerbait out of my bag. I then caught a six-inch bass, fortunately hooked lightly, and then managed easily to make my way to the far shoreline, since the water's so low I got around obstructions. This is where starry-eyed Mike Maxwell believes the bass have gone. No. I did catch another little one like the other swiftly put back.

And then I was back in my safety spot, catching a bass nearly nine inches long. I thought of past half hours under very good fishing conditions like this here--water temperature in the bass optimal range, falling barometer, clouds, a fall breeze--and hooking one nice bass after another. It made the value of those little ones I caught stand out, not because they'll get bigger, but because they're just there, although the fact is some of these little ones around will likely grow, though the place is not swarming with them.

Where did they come from, I wondered. Offspring of resident bass? I thought of the mystery pond above with a fence around it and No Trespassing. And above that, a secret spring on Schley Mountain where this water I fished originates. That's what really counts. The wildness of that. Many years ago, my son insisted that we hike the mountain, and we spent hours exploring the slope, finding the tiny rill that feeds both of these ponds and eventually the North Branch Raritan River. We found a very small pond up there no one else or very few seem to know about, let alone have stood beside and seen. The rill flowing in, flowing out. All of these little bass stand a chance because of a source no one seems to have discovered. 

Monday, September 26, 2016

Vertical and Diagonal Jigging for Hybrid Striped Bass and Walleye

Vertical and Diagonal Jigging for Hybrid Striped Bass and Walleye

          Octobers have become a habit. Eight years ago, I first sampled the walleye action on Lake Hopatcong during the month’s third Saturday with my son. Every year thereafter, we’ve been back for more, having added hybrid striped bass to the pursuit. A number of friends and I fish together throughout the month, catching walleye up to six pounds, hybrids to just over five. We always tell the difference as soon as the fish is hooked. I would never say a walleye doesn’t fight, but hybrids are fantastic. Perhaps this year we’ll catch larger, as walleye and hybrids get caught in New Jersey every fall in the seven to 10 pound class.

          Besides the big lake, Greenwood Lake, Swartswood Lake, Monksville Reservoir, and Canistear Reservoir have walleye vulnerable to vertical and diagonal jigging from October on into winter. However, the method is equally effective for hybrid stripers at Spruce Run and Manasquan reservoirs.  

          Traditionally, Rapala ice jigs and Sea Striker jigs catch fish during fall. Both resemble plugs with tie loops on top. The Rapala Jigging Rap, classically an ice fishing jig, comes in five sizes from 1 ¼ inch to 3 ½ inches, the tie loops near the centers, treble hooks directly underneath, each with a single shank hook with the bend turned upward from the rear, and a single shank upward from the head. Sea Striker Got-Cha jigs come in 10 series from 1 ¾ inches to four inches with tie loops on top of lead heads, the rest of the bodies hard plastic or chrome metal tubing, with either a forward and rear treble, or a forward treble with rear single shank hook and bucktail. For walleye and hybrids, the larger sizes are preferred.

          These two types of lures have a proven track record of effectiveness by dropping them over the gunnel, allowing descent to 15 to 50-foot depths, and jigging straight down. The idea is to drift with the breeze, compensating with an electric outboard to maintain desired direction, or if the lake or reservoir is calm, using the electric at slow speed to cover range. Line drag slowly carries the jig from straight down on bottom, to a position slightly off bottom as line moves towards a diagonal position, and rather than constantly reeling the lure to surface and dropping it again, a little line is let out so the jig makes bottom contact once more. When the angle of the line becomes too steep, the jig is reeled in and the process repeated, jigging motions generally conducted by quick snaps of the rod, keeping line taut as the jig drops back. Often, a hit comes as the jig falls, and then you often must detect the subtlest of unusual motion or a tap. 

          Another option is to continue to jig at these more or less diagonal angles that develop without reeling back so soon to start over, and I have caught fish on the Got-Cha and Jigging Rap this way, saving myself the effort of keeping the lure straight down. Eventually, I discovered the Binsky bladebait, which I find more effective for diagonal rather than vertical jigging. I soon found I like bladebaits better than the two classic vertical jigs, though I’ve yet to catch many fish on them, since they’re still new to me. The vibrating action of any bladebait brand not only attracts walleye and hybrid bass; it imparts a tantalizing feel through 15-pound test Power Pro or other quality braid line to a graphite or lithium rod. I keep my index finger on the rod just above the reel seat. If I feel vibration cease, I set the hook. Sometimes the hit is a slam, other times it’s barely felt.

          Bladebaits seem most effective retrieved, ideally by casting ahead of the boat on calm water or when the boat is propelled by a very light breeze at most. If a fairly heavy breeze guides the craft, it makes sense to jig from behind with the boat positioned for you to fish off a side while drifting, although you will have to repeatedly let line out to maintain bottom contact. The other option in windy conditions is to anchor and cast, never staying very long in a single position, just enough to fish a range of drop-off thoroughly.

          Whether you prefer the traditional jigs or bladebaits, fish them on sharp drop-offs, particularly with rocks or other structure. Main lake points, ledges, humps—wherever drop-offs fall into at least 30 feet of water—serve possibilities. It’s possible to distinguish rocks or soft bottom by the way the lure makes contact—hard or soft. Take note of what you find, because rocks in one spot usually mean more in proximity, and the area should be fished thoroughly. Casts or drifts should run as parallel to drop-offs as possible. In early October, we’ve caught walleye as shallow as 15-feet among rocks on the Got-Cha; they go deeper as the month progresses with action in the 25 to 50-foot range for both species.

          I especially try to fish on or near a drop-off’s bottom edge, not always achieving the target, but no matter if the bladebait shakes along the slope. Not only do walleye and hybrids move up and down drop-offs; a lake or reservoir’s deepest drop-offs may not necessarily be the best. Lake Hopatcong has a couple that drop to 50 feet, but my favorite isn’t quite 35 feet where bottom evens out. I know of another more than a quarter mile long, most of it panning out at about 45 feet, some of it at 50 feet—43 feet or so the deepest I’ve hooked a walleye.

          Bladebaits can involve casting as far as possible, which is a long cast, and yet the line angles more or less diagonally as the lure is retrieved back to the boat, since water is deep and line angles downward. Simply hopping the lure upward, feeling that tantalizing vibration, and letting it fall back to bottom is all the action needed. Hybrids especially, compared to walleye, swim through differing levels of the water column, often suspending off bottom, but the best opportunity for a strike is among rocks where predators station as if to wait in ambush.

          Bladebaits no weightier than a silver dollar invite you to take a bet on every cast. Know the structure of the water you fish by use of both a topographic map and fish finder, but depend ultimately on nothing but your own mind. The feel in your hand keeps you directly connected.

Maintain that feel of the lure, whether casting or drifting bladebaits or traditional jigs. A matter of persistent concentration, the challenge is to fish a deep structure thoroughly and keep fishing more, if none produce, until contact with fish is made. And then action can be surprisingly quick. However, many days are very tough, but we find no matter how severe a cold front shuts down hope, it’s always possible to avoid getting skunked.  

Friday, September 23, 2016

Merrill Creek Reservoir Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass Outing

Fred Matero has talked about Merrill Creek Reservoir all of these years we've fished from his boat Round Valley Reservoir, and neither of us have fished this other reservoir in at least three. First time I came here, with my son and a friend of his in 2009, I caught a four-pound largemouth and another bass smaller from shore. Maybe most impressive about that introduction lingering in memory isn't the bass, but the beauty of the surroundings. Or really, my boy and his friend getting their feet wet. And they really did.

We got on the water at 7:30, sun having risen not long, shadows deep on the east side, and headed straight across through the middle of about 650 acres, because Fred had caught eight bass last he came here on the spot he had in mind, including a smallmouth nearly three pounds and a largemouth nearly four. He spoke of timber and rocks, and there is some timber (and weeds associated), but what caught my attention is its isolation along this shoreline--a real bass magnet. I felt that when conditions are right, there must be quite a few around. Well, eight bass for Fred wasn't bad. He told me he caught them in the middle of a September afternoon under bright sun.

As you can see in the photo, he did have a fish on. A smallmouth bass that lost the hook boatside. Senko rigged Wacky, about 12 feet down among submerged tree branches.

I later watched him miss two hits on two consecutive casts with the Senko cast to an isolated weedline eastward--surely the same bass--and then I watched five minutes later a largemouth of at least two pounds leap and throw that Senko. Fred was fishing further along the same weedline by about 20 yards.

That's all the action we had. Merrill Creek Reservoir is a New Jersey marvel of environmental value, but the bass see a lot of lures so they're less eager to strike. I suppose quite a number inhabit the various sets of habitat, but bass are hard to catch in New Jersey where nearly a dozen boats prowl on so small an acreage on a weekday. Some of the bass that get caught and released suffer mortality, but the figures I've read put the percentage at about five. That is a pretty high figure over the course of a year, though.

Witness the fallen timber. Before we got in the midst of the trees, I told Fred I had forgotten to study my Lake Survey Map Guides of the reservoir and bring it along. I told him surely bass are deep--about 30-35 feet on rocks--in this sunlight, especially smallmouths. Water is very clear, not as clear as Round Valley and Tilcon, but very. On Tilcon recently, my son and I caught largemouths with plastic worms weighted by bullet sinkers 30 feet down. But once we got in among timber here on larger acreage, I felt satisfied fishing a 3/8th-ounce skirted jig with a weed guard 35 feet deep, amazed at such depths with timber looming overhead. We fished long and fairly thoroughly, and I say only fairly so, because there's acres of water like this, excellent habitat, weeds mixed in where relatively shallow as deep as at least 15 feet.

Later, at the boat ramp, a bassboat owner from Pennsylvania docked right behind us, remarking that he had seen the guys we also saw out in the reservoir's middle catch two smallmouths back to back. I inquired, and he said there's a hump that rises to 30 feet. Surely plenty rocky, and altogether confirming of my earlier thought about smallmouths deep down under today's sunlight.

After nearly six hours of fishing, total, I had relaxed pretty deeply. Later, when we returned to Bernardsville, Fred remarked about getting work off his mind, and I readily agreed, although for me, it isn't my job I have to shake so much, since I've pretty much put it in place where I think about it only while on it, but so much writing I have to get done. I also told him I haven't quite felt like this since driving home from the Outer Banks last summer, thoroughly immersed in flow of experience, though nothing does it like a full vacation. And driving. I love jet travel. But that doesn't compare with driving long distance and total lack of concern about where I'm getting to. But what really makes the difference are the stops along the way. I slow down. I just set the goal and then do my best to utterly forget it.

It was my amazement in that timber environment. A long-duration epiphany that took me out of myself. As we eased off towards the ramp, Fred said, "It makes a difference with no gas outboards allowed. It's so much quieter."

Absolutely. It makes a total difference for environmental quality.

Moment of exalted loss after two-pound-plus bass leapt free.