I was amazed to find within the city limits of Morristown a small public park, under the stewardship of the Burnham Park Association, loaded with large pickerel and good sized largemouth bass. For a couple of consecutive winters in recent years, my son and I managed to fish open water on warm January and March days, catching pickerel averaging 20 inches on live shiners. Our largest was just over 23 inches, and I’ve wondered just how big they get. All were released in excellent condition without a word said to anyone, although plenty knew and fished the ponds. We fished here in 2011--before I wrote the following story for my column--and 2012, getting skunked repeatedly. I had hoped people would keep the fish in the ponds, which happen to be state-stocked with trout in the spring. With the very good water quality of both ponds, the fish will certainly make a return if they're allowed to. For now and until who knows, the following just seems to be a good fish story. I don't believe the people who seem to have taken fish were readers of the newspaper with upscale subscription lists, and I have nothing against a fish being taken home on occasion, but I will state my firm opinion that ponds like these should have better protection than general, state-designated limits on catches. Perhaps catch and release only is too stringent, but a limit of five pickerel, five bass can mean the bulk of a fish population vanishes.
The two ponds are separated by perhaps a hundred feet of lawn, the upper about two acres, the lower three. Most anglers fish them for trout which the state stocks during spring, and may miss any clue to the brawny denizens that stalk aquatic vegetation year round, although during warm water seasons this vegetation presents obstacles to fishing. I’ve been very grateful to fishermen who have discovered the fishing otherwise kind enough to practice catch and release, because these little ponds could lose the life thriving in their clean waters very quickly to series of diminishing limit catches.
Unless we have a winter like recent ice fishing opportunities, chances are January and February will present open water conditions at some time, and when ice melts in March, warming trends will arouse activity. The key to catching a number of fish in cold water here is to get out on an afternoon that peaks at least into the 60’s. One of those January days a four years ago hit 72, and pickerel fed fiercely. I remember catching 22 inch pickerel one after another, releasing them at water level, and letting them bolt off from the cradle of my hands as if from an experience they might want to remember—to avoid next time. As quick as they slayed our shiners—and any forage swimming near them—we turned their wedge shaped heads filled with razor-sharp teeth our way to give them a surprise in turn: a look at bigger guys.
Too much of a good thing begins to turn pleasure to dismay—unless you are far away on a wilderness lake. What I mean is that to have this sort of wild action within the civil city limits of historic Morristown seems a little odd to me. As I remember, I didn’t feel put off by long moments between assaults of strikes, and settled easily into quiet, methodical search as if relieved.
The method is simple, although warm enough weather may nuance technique by use of spinners, or especially floater/diver plugs like Rebels or Rapalas. It’s possible to catch more pickerel and bass on lures because a wider range of water may be fished by quicker retrieves, and the trouble taken with a small bait bucket and tending shiners is eliminated. But unless water has warmed enough and the fish are feeding actively, shiners work much better and can easily be the difference between catching fish or not.
Don’t let anyone tell you live bait is unsportsmanlike, because the subtlety of angling this close to nature puts you in touch with life in the way it’s really lived, basically. Anyone can stand back and observe predation on film, but to actually fish with live bait can put you past months of civilized anxieties in a short afternoon. It’s no mystery why I use less live bait during warm months; too much of close quarter with nature tends to take me under it's influence, which I like to some degree, but I also prefer to use the clever objects we devise, putting various lures at competition against one another and judging results.
A disadvantage to using shiners at the Burnham Park ponds is that casting distance is limited. Using a sinker would only destroy the needed action. It’s called live lining because the shiner is allowed to swim freely. Make sure to tie a plain shank, size 6 hook to a 15 pound test fluorocarbon leader, 12 to 18 inches between the hook and small barrel swivel. Fluorocarbon is abrasion resistant, but I don’t recommend less than 15 pound test against such teeth. Try to get at least large sized shiners—extra-large if you can—at Lebanon Bait and Sport, Efinger Sporting Goods, Stanhope Bait and Bait, or Dow’s Boat Rentals. The fish we have caught would take a 7 inch shiner with ease, and a baitfish that large would cast well.
Try right at the spillway of the upper pond in deep water (6 feet). Otherwise, pickerel and bass tend to be at least 10 yards out from shore and almost anywhere, hiding within and around residual vegetation. Cover territory and enjoy this natural oasis in an historic, urban setting. Find it along Washington Street and Mendham Road, which becomes Route 24. It may be what you deserve during drab months that may make you feel otherwise that the only activity outdoors is pedestrian and undesired.