This is Surprise Lake, Union County, NJ, on May 22nd last year, complete with full summer foliage and very thick aquatic vegetation, so thick that weedless lures, only, could be used. In the article, below--I wrote it last year--I mention it's a good pond for early season with in-line spinners before weeds set in. I've been meaning to fish it, but monsoon rain has cut me off for the time being. Even so, when I get there, the likelihood is that trees will be just slightly greening and aquatic vegetation nothing like what you see photographed. We'll see, but I was at Round Valley today, and a lot of the trees are still brown, barely greening yet at all. It's tough to fish from shore, but there are some openings between bushes. Like all of our New Jersey spots, it's a good place to release catches in healthy shape, perhaps a little less likely to take the next lure encountered, and growing big and wise.
Surprise Lake for topwater largemouth bass and pickerel
The strike erupted like a baseball had swung up from below, the narrow form betraying a very good sized pickerel connecting with a Booyah Pad Crasher Hollow Body Frog. I had just asked the guy if he had caught any. “Not yet,” he said. Seconds later, Surprise Lake was true to its name.
We struck up conversation and I learned that the 23-inch pickerel he released was not an uncommon expectation. Largemouths as big as seven pounds have come from this 25-acre pond narrow like a green bean that makes me think of bayou rivers in Louisiana or a lowland swamp from Jurassic times sunk below ridges of the ancient, volcanic Watchung Mountains. Lily pads and other aquatic vegetation make fishing with soft bodied, weedless surface lures almost a necessity from May onward.
I asked the guy if fishing very early in spring—before weeds thicken—is good with in-line spinners, and he confirmed that, yes, you can catch as many as 20 pickerel on warm afternoons, but most of them are a foot long or so. Fishing is good through the summer, especially early and late in the day, by retrieving right over the vegetation and in among the open water pockets.
This is a shallow pond. Most depths seem to be two or three feet with the deepest water over five feet at the western end. Water quality is good. The Blue Brook flowing out of the Watchung Mountains empties into this man-made basin, and the water retains clarity despite mud bottom underneath. Don’t confuse this lake with that of the same name near Bearfort Ridge. The 25-acre Blue Brook impoundment is in Watchung Reservation just off Interstate 78, accessible by northbound exit 45. The hills rise around and such a shallow, weed-choked salad of a lake is a surprise in itself given the surrounding environment.
The launch at the eastern end for kayaks and whatever rowboat can be managed is not a trailer ramp. Union County reserves the privilege to anyone who buys a permit, and does not allow motors whether gas or electric. This is the sort of fishing situation kayaks are made for. While bank fishing will allow an angler to get his lure into many appealing spots, a kayak removes all the effort of getting through and around underbrush infested with ticks. If you want peace of mind and access to fishing across and throughout the lake, nothing beats a kayak here at dawn or sunset. However, trails are abundant in Watchung Reservation and Surprise Lake is no exception. You can bank fish all along the lake by moving from one open spot between the trees to another.
Medium-power spinning tackle is fine, but don’t try to fish the thick with light monofilament line, whether from a kayak or the bank. Quality braid like Power Pro 15-pound test will allow you to move a big bass or pickerel out of vegetation. It’s important to keep tension on the line and free a fish that dives into thick weeds as quickly as possible. Once a fish buries its head and the line in weeds, it can loosen tension on the hook and shake it off.
Soft-bodied surface lures like Booyah Baits, Mann’s Phatrat, Money Frog, and many other brands may be the most versatile lure choice. But you can rig a weightless plastic worm with an inset hook and fish it right on top of vegetation by reeling it slowly as if it were a small snake. This method is very effective especially for largemouth bass, which blast right through vegetation and leave a hole behind as if an M-80 went off. But setting the hook can be a problem, since often the bass gets the tail end and immediate reaction is hard to resist. Allow the fish’s taking the worm for a few seconds before setting. Set the hook hard because if you let the bass take, it will move off with the line at an angle to the weeds at the surface and not allow a direct pull.
Another advantage to using plastic worms is that they can be allowed to sink in open water pockets. If any bass or even pickerel are under the weeds at the edge of a pocket, a worm slightly illumined in the light penetrating through open water will be highlighted. Whichever method used, soft bodied topwaters or worms, Surprise Lake is a little taste of southern fishing near the Highlands that can satisfy any time of year.