Happy New Year! Should be another good one, and we may have ice soon.
Pickerel and perch especially fish well through the ice, and plenty are being caught. The February 16th derby winning pickerel was 3 pounds, 12 ounces, and 2nd and 3rd place fish were also over three pounds. The winning walleye was also 3 pounds, 12 ounces, not large as this species goes, and the winning yellow perch was 1 pound, 3 ounces—larger than the winning largemouth bass at 1 pound, 1 ounce.
This does not mean that Hopatcong bass are small. They don’t fish as well as pickerel and perch through the ice, and no one happened to catch any good sized that day. I got a weekend report from Laurie Murphy at Dow’s Boat Rentals on Monday, February 24th, which included news of a 5 pound, 6 ounce largemouth weighed in at the shop’s scales. The bass was released. Perhaps a party cooler, filled by a siphon stuck through the ice, was used to transport the bass alive. How it was done I prefer to leave to imagination. On Gropp’s Lake, Mercer County, we used to construct live wells by hollowing out 18 inch thick ice, then cutting a small hole through the bottom.
I also heard from somewhere or other that during the February derby, a few small muskies of about 40 inches were caught. Muskies are not included in the contest, since the overwhelming persuasion on the lake is to release these fish.
If you want to try for muskies, walleye, or even hybrid stripers and big channel catfish, ice fish one of the many main lake points. If you can find parking at Dows, you can access Nolan’s and Chestnut points, or even walk clear across the lake to Elba or Pickerel points. In any event, purchase a Fishing Map Guides topographic map of Hopatcong, which shows the points, coves, and pickerel flats. If you do fish the main lake, most of the walleye, hybrid stripers, and catfish will probably be 30-45 feet deep. Muskies are not necessarily so deep, although they often are way down at bottom. Sometimes a smallmouth bass is caught at Chestnut Point, but whatever the reason, this species is stubborn through the ice.
Largemouth bass are better through the ice than smallmouth, but finding where they are is difficult. Pickerel are relatively easy to find and better acclimated to cold water feeding. The State Park flats, for example, about six feet deep when the lake’s level is normal, are acres of weed beds that pickerel prowl winter, summer, spring, and fall. The River Styx is another example of extensive weedy shallows that can be productive for ice fishing. Woodport is productive also, and a good bet with low water now. Perch are available in these spots too, and often rove about in large schools through other areas as well.
Most of the perch fishing is done by jigging a tiny jig with a mousy grub on the hook. A good idea is to exercise with the manual or power auger and cut a lot of holes. If a school swings in under one hole and is gone after a minute, you can move to another hole and possibly catch up. In any event, especially if you use a hand auger, this is a sure way to keep warm if it’s cold out. The effort expended on ice 18 inches thick is substantial.
Laurie Murphy told me recently that she remembers years when the ice wasn’t completely gone until early April. It was amazing to contemplate a photo taken of Lake Absegami in Ocean County on February 22nd this year completely ice free. The Highlands are certainly a winter attraction if you learn how to approach them, while South Jersey is another story entirely.
Even Round Valley Reservoir has ice a foot thick at the time of this writing, and ice fishermen are catching lake trout 60 feet deep. It will be interesting to see how long the ice fishing season extends this year. Even if you don’t care to actually fish through the ice, getting out on a frozen lake for a walk can be a very stimulating, brisk way to relax.