I’ve always had a penchant for small waters, simply because I undertook fishing on my own as a boy—no father or uncle to treat me to a boat. Although I fish many lakes now, large rivers, sounds, bays, and the Atlantic, the right setting and conditions at a pond can be like awakening to a new, fresh life sometimes, or arouse primal memory of more than what is specifically individual to you if the solitude and enclosure reach your core. They offer outstanding fishing as well. Not all ponds are simply dishes to cast into at random. In fact, some will test your casting skills to the maximum and many prove very demanding for finding fish.
Mount Hope Pond
This clear water, 18-acre pond in Rockaway Township, Morris County, is worth hoping for, and just such a test of skills as I've mentioned. It is tough, demanding, and slightly chimerical—you can catch largemouths averaging close to three pounds on weightless worms from May into July in the middle of hot, sunny afternoons. But towards the end of July this prospect becomes daunting. By August, if you fish during the day, it’s best to use larger weedless tube jigs along the bottom of the shoreline drop-off in 12 to 15 feet of water. In any event, Mount Hope is almost always stubborn to yield, but the size of the bass is amazing.
The east shoreline drops quickly to 15 feet, the west 12 feet. (Maximum depth is 15 feet.) The western two corners are the pond’s only shallow flats, these not extensive. Begin at one and move to the next with a topwater, if you try before dawn during summer. (Beware of bears! We encountered one!) My largest bass last summer, 4 pounds, 10 ounces, exploded on a 3/8th-ounce Pop-R on the first cast. Part of the secret behind pre-dawn topwater success is that bass eyes adjust to changing light intensity better than bluegills’ do. Bass hug bottom looking upward to ambush prey as sun approaches the horizon.
After sunrise, you need to go into the sticks. Trails exist all the way around, but not well defined. Pin-point casting accuracy makes a catch likely with needed persistence. Much of the process is simply pitching the worm—but often into tight targets. I don’t recommend Senkos here. They sink too fast. I like the Chompers garlic worms, seven inches. Worm hooks will save you loads of frustration with snags; 15-pound test Power Pro assures that a lunker won’t break off on the same snags, and 15- pound test fluorocarbon leaders protect against possible pickerel teeth, as well as the abundance of wood in the water. Often bass—even in mid-day—lurk in a foot of water right against the bank, but always try deeper edges of submerged brush, overhanging limbs, and trunks in the water as deep as 10 feet.
In May the bucks spawn, but it’s the females I’m after, which have abandoned their mates and brood. I don’t bother finding beds at all. But don’t just stand in a clearing and cast where it’s convenient. Get that worm right into very difficult, brushy spots.
Not a lake at all, Ghost Lake in Independence Township, Warren County, is 18.5 acres. Great for early season bassin’ into May, it becomes overrun by vegetation in the summer. Weedless soft plastic surface lures like Mann’s Phatrat and Phatfrog, among others, will produce, as will snaking weedless worms through the dragonfly months. But pre-spawn April weeks, and targeting females in May, is best.
Mostly shallow, Ghost Lake is separated into a larger and smaller pond by a dike with a large pipe underneath connecting them. The deepest water of about nine feet lies outward from the dike in the larger pond, and along and out from the earthen dam of the smaller. Water clarity exceptional, bass may be spotted especially in and near the corners, but mostly stay out of sight in the depths. Plenty of casting access places lures in water that is almost entirely open, with residual vegetation near bottom early in the season.
Choose lures and presentations according to conditions. Early and late, topwaters serve as a prime choice if water temperatures are above 60 or so. Small spinnerbaits and floater/diver plugs produce with wind on the water, unless bass are unwilling. To go subtler, try tube jigs. If you like using live bait, at times shiners really make sense, even though this isn’t Florida.
Last April 23rd, my son and I visited the pond, catching bass and crappies on an unusually cold day with water temperatures down near 50. A crew of young anglers came, outfitted with appropriate spinning rods but casting Rebels and Rapalas—to no use at all, I knew. Their lures flashed out with silver and bright colors. But on this day before springtime flourish, rather than appealing and appropriate, the lures looked garish and stupid to my sensibility. Large live shiners gave us no shame, and although they tempted none of the lunkers we hoped for, we loved watching largemouths to 14 inches rise from dark depth to snatch our offerings, and crappies suddenly transpire from nowhere.
With warm water in May, Senkos and slower-sinking worms come into their own, rigged on worm hooks. Vegetation grows rapidly; use it to advantage before it takes over. We’ve caught three-pounders, and I lost a bass close to five to a bad knot—I spotted the beauty, cast a worm to it, set the hook, and that was all.
Talk about a gem! I felt stunned when I first walked up to it. The water is as crystal clear as Round Valley’s. The next thing I did, I put down my tackle went to the information board at the carry-to boat launch. White Lake, near Blairstown, Warren County, is a 65-acre lake of fairly ancient origin, not by glacier, but giant sink hole. Rock, saturated by ground water, hollowed out, gave way, and released pure ground water to fill out this roundish lake with 44-foot depths, and a mean depth of 22 feet. It’s deep.
Much like Round Valley, the lake is not loaded with largemouths, but no one would claim either is without a very healthy population—and good-sized. Giants exist in Round Valley, despite the lack of the reservoir’s fertility, and White Lake is home to lunkers also. The key to this lake are the drop-offs.
They fall from fairly extensive, weedy shallow flats. When conditions become perfect, the action in the shallows, close to protective deep water, can be phenomenal. In late April or early May, try getting out during a warm, low pressure system that warms shallows, if only slightly. Bass will rake floater/diver plugs retrieved with jerking rod tip action as if trying to clear them out of the way of the spawning nest they’re about to brush out and breed on.
However the conditions suggest your approach on a given outing, keep with light tackle, use no more than six-pound test, and lose a lure to a pickerel if need be. If you have a boat you can carry, you’re in. Shoreline fishing is very limited. That’s the beauty of this place: most anglers are excluded, neither because the lake is private, nor because an expensive boat is most suitable, but because generally most either fish without a boat, or with a boat that needs a trailer, so pressure here is limited. If you have no boat at all, you can catch bass around the launch area and few other spots, especially early and late in the day. But you will find yourself scheming about your finances, perhaps, for purchasing a kayak or canoe.
New Jersey is the Garden State! The bane of the Northeast—the Meadowlands garbage pile—is a wildlife refuge now. And all this time gems like these three ponds, and many more, have existed unbeknownst to all who have thought this region is the New Jersey Turnpike’s old, ravaged vista. Stay tuned and I’ll let you in on more in the future.