Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Lake Hopatcong in the Fall: Hybrid Stripers, Walleye, Crappie, and Bass

Lake Hopatcong good for walleyes and hybrid stripers yet

By Bruce Litton

          Suction cups proved useless to mount portable running lights on one of Dow’s rental boats. I held the white stern light and my son, Matt, the green and red bow light as we chugged across Lake Hopatcong in the dark, wind rushing against cheeks and smattering our faces with cold spray. The moon was to the slightest degree less than full and neared the northwest horizon, bright and surrounded by stars in the clear sky. The 9.9-horsepower outboard pushed the 16-foot boat fast enough to get across the lake, but by the time I cut back on the throttle with destination not very distant, blue spilled on the eastern sky as if a bucket spilled on Earth’s horizon, paint oozing towards the west.

          Having rigged rods the night before, I weighted herring hooked through the nose by size 8 treble hooks with half-ounce steel sinkers set from 20 to 29 feet deep, leaving bails open and watching each reel for any sign of line motion. The anchored boat swung in the wind, but not enough to be a problem. Still dark, I saw line slowly unravel from Matt’s Shakespeare reel. This could be a walleye. Matt took the rod, tightened the line, set the hook, and promptly reeled in a crappie under a foot long.

          Before the hook was out, he said, “Dad, your rod just bent double.”

          The crappie splashed back into the lake.

          I grabbed the rod at the stern, aware that something must have hindered the line from unwinding freely, tightened up, and felt relieved the fish had not dropped the bait. A walleye over 20 inches long fought doggedly.

          Minutes before sunrise, hybrid striped bass began to hit, and they kept us pretty well occupied for another hour-and-a-half. They were good-sized, but not the great fish over seven pounds reported very frequently from Hopatcong. Our largest weighed less than four pounds, 20 inches long, and all of them fought with the jolting runs they are known for. 

          In the middle of this action, we had another instance of line slowly peeling off the reel, indicating walleye, rather than the very rapid pace of a hybrid. I thought I had another crappie, but the fish proved to have been swimming straight at the boat as I reeled. Once it sensed the boat, it dove for bottom, and I knew I had a good-sized walleye. When I lifted it to view in the clear water, I felt surprised how big. Twenty-six inches and an ounce under six pounds, this lobster of the lake—as walleyes taste—would make a delicious meal after eight hours on the water.

          A cold early morning, we didn't dress for it as we could have. All day, I never took my jacket off, but water warmer than 60 degrees made me consider that it’s a late fall season and largemouth and smallmouth bass action may be good into November. We caught plenty of bass on this October 20th outing, including a very good-size smallmouth, most of them by simply casting nightcrawlers into the shallows of a rocky drop-off with our herring set deep on the other side of the boat. In the past, I’ve caught bass on Senkos this way, and crankbaits might be effective too, since bass feed chiefly on forage fish this time of year.

          Most of Lake Hopatcong’s interest throughout November will be walleyes and hybrids. They can also be caught in December and through ice if any thickens this year. The lake's many points with rocky drop-offs, as well as a couple of mid-lake humps hold fish caught as deep as 50 feet. If you don’t know the lake, it’s a good idea to consult the Lake Survey Maps Guide online or in book form and have a map with you. A fish finder helps narrow down the search once the map has put you on a drop-off.

          Herring may continue to be effective, but in November, jigging Binsky bladebaits, Gotcha jig/plugs, and Rapala Ice Jigs vertically over the boat’s side is most popular. I jigged a Binsky for two hours on our recent outing and caught only crappies and a pumpkinseed about 30 feet deep. I’m headed back out to jig soon with Oliver Round. With fall running this late, trees will blaze with leaves secure on branches rather than piled on the ground.  



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