Merrill Creek Reservoir Bass and Trout
Deepest freshwater body of water in the state, Merrill Creek Reservoir’s 210 feet of water is reminiscent of Acadia, Maine (one of those lakes is over 500 feet deep with about the same surface acreage). The lake trout grow large, too, with 20-pound fish possible as well as brown trout over 10 and good sized rainbows. The 650 surface acres cover a great amount of deep water with trout and the alewife herring they require as forage roaming freely. But largemouth and smallmouth bass also feed on alewife when they can, growing exceptionally large from the rich Omega fatty acids of these two to six-inch anadromous fish.
Interior Warren County is good fishing year ‘round thanks to Merrill Creek (so long as thin ice does not obstruct). Much like Round Valley Reservoir, large trout are caught from shore during winter. Plenty trout are being caught now from shore, although they tend to be small and recently stocked, but parking space is copious near the boat launch and a trail leads to lengthy accessible areas to the left facing the reservoir, and from Fox Farm Road far opposite the launch site.
If you can launch a boat, browns, rainbows, and lakers are caught regularly—browns and rainbows suspended 10 to 15 feet deep, lakers 60 or 70 feet and at or near bottom. Trolling crankbaits (downrigger and spoons for lakers), or drifting herring with an eye to the graph recorder involves how to locate trout. But a graph recorder has very narrow vision. You need a map. The plastic, table mat sized Fishing Guide Maps withstand an outing better than a computer printout. If wind is light, a medium to large split shot is all that’s necessary to drift herring in 10 to 15 foot depths. Just use a size 6 plain shank hook besides.
No bass are found out in the reservoir’s deepest open expanse, but the stands of flooded timber are excellent areas for largemouth bass as large as eight pounds and smallmouths as large as six pounds on the outside edges of timber stands. Crankbaits prove effective on these outside edges, plastic worms rigged with snagless worm hooks and topwater plugs become especially effective in and among the timber for largemouths once the warm water season is on. Choice worms are the Senko-types (Strike King is less expensive and just as good). Wacky rigging with hook through the middle is most popular and deadly, but here you can use a weedless hook. Otherwise, rig a plastic worm of whatever variety through a worm hook without weight. Depths are about 12 feet along the outside edge, fairly shallow, and a slow worm descent allows more time for bass to see the lure. Most of all, slow descent is a more natural correspondence to a worm, which is not a quick moving forage fish. (It doesn’t matter that worms don’t descend from the surface in nature.)
The spillway rocks are smallmouth bass habitat. Crankbaits retrieved at moderate speeds with the diving lips bouncing the lure off stone are dynamite—smallmouths hit like a hammer, typically much harder than largemouth bass do. A largemouth vacuums its prey more than smallmouths do, and often seems tentative, whereas a smallmouth seems to try to force the rod from your hands.
Tube jigs serve year ‘round fishing for smallmouths among rocks. Quarter and three eighth-ounce sizes are good for 10 to 20 foot depths, and half ounce isn’t out of the question down to 30 feet or more. Quicker retrieves become effective as water warms, but keep the jig in contact with the rocks and vary the retrieve, make it communicate, give it an actual cadence because all life responds to rhythm: the more complexly spontaneous the jigging, the more life-like.
The narrow finger cove all the way in the back where Merrill Creek enters is good for bass, rainbows, and brown trout. It’s deep. Don’t overlook the single long point near the mouth of the cove. It’s a deep point, but where it drops from 20 to 30 feet is smallmouth habitat.
You’re limited to electric outboards here, so time is short to try everything. But this reservoir has fascinating structure to fish carefully.
I think it is very possible the next state record smallmouth exists here with water more fertile than Round Valley where the current seven-pound, two-ounce smallmouth record got caught. Imagination entertains that a state record largemouth over 10 pounds may be present too; a dead bass this large once was found in Lake Hopatcong.