Newark watershed reservoirs great gamefish havens
Four reservoirs in Passaic County, New Jersey—Oak Ridge, Echo Lake, Clinton, and Canistear—comprise the Newark Watershed Conservation & Development Corporation’s fishing opportunity. All are available under special regulations, such as permits that must be purchased in person at one of the two offices, and limitations on boats. Canoes, kayaks, sailboats, and inflatables are not permitted; all other boats must be 10 feet long or more; no gasoline outboards are allowed, but electric outboards are allowed. All the information you need on the nuts and bolts of access to these beautiful highlands waters is available online.
Another possible way to fish them is shore casting, although this is very limited. Having driven all the way to Newfoundland, N.J., to clear the legal hurdles, my son and I were informed that inflatables are not allowed. Since that’s all we had besides our feet and legs, we purchased the $30.00 family permit anyhow and set out to find smallmouth bass at Oak Ridge Reservoir from shore. We also visited Canistear Reservoir and Echo Lake Reservoir. All of these places have beautiful woodland settings with mountains in the backgrounds. The water flowing beyond the dams eventually reaches the Passaic River and flows right through Newark. Route 23 will take you to the Passaic River and the Verona urban sprawl, but approaching the calm surface of Oak Ridge Reservoir at the empty boat launch lot with the same highway’s traffic in earshot, we felt a world away from the city.
My second cast resulted in a crashing surface strike. Once again my favorite Hedden Torpedo had scored. A nice smallmouth leapt two feet and then ploughed under for cover beneath the rock shelves I had seen and cast to—faintly visible under still surface. I turned the rod down to my side, pulling to the right, and the bass shot to the left and leapt once again after a 10 yard streak. It proved to be a well-hooked 17-incher. A plug is especially vulnerable to having the hooks loosened by wild, rapid head shaking bass giving an aerial display.
The pattern was familiar to me: catch a nice fish right off the bat and the rest of the day is shot. The temptation is to get hopes high as if you’ll have a great day when realistically chances are you won’t catch so many, perhaps no more at all. That proved to be the case. Nevertheless, the little we found we could really fish from shore was compensated for by great views, as well as the chance to park and scout what we could of Canistear and Echo Lake. My son, Matt, had a great hit at the dam of Oak Ridge, and earlier in the morning or in the evening things might have been different with more bass caught.
If you have a boat, these 300 to 500 acre reservoirs have excellent rocky shoreline structure for smallmouth bass, as well as deep drop-offs, coves, and underwater humps. Check out New Jersey Lake Survey Maps online or in book form and see. Canistear is an excellent walleye reservoir. Echo Lake is known as one of the state’s best musky fisheries. I spoke to someone who had fished Echo Lake a number of times this past spring, and although he caught no muskies, he wasn’t trying for them either. He was too busy catching smallmouth bass as large as four pounds from shoreline rocks on tube jigs. A member of the Knee Deep Club associated with Lake Hopatcong once told me that Oak Ridge Reservoir is the best smallmouth bass fishing in the state. That’s what motivated us to visit. I knew enough not to get carried away by catching a nice one so fast, but the bass are out there if you can get to them.
However, limited numbers of anglers does not necessarily mean there are more bass than other waters in the state of comparable size. Most anglers, or at least most anglers who catch the most bass, release their catch—but bass that get caught become conditioned to avoid getting caught again. This is why fishing pressure is largely about the lures fish see and get hooked by rather than about the numbers that get eaten.
Maximum depths are over 40 feet in all four reservoirs but Echo Lake, which has depths over 30 feet. Trout are stocked in Clinton Reservoir and some of these fish holdover, although it is not a trout fishery comparable to Merrill Creek and Round Valley reservoirs. But for smallmouth bass, muskies, and walleyes, these are some of the finest waters in the state.