Saturday, July 5, 2014

Lake Hopatcong Smallmouth Bass Recollections: Maybe We'll Risk the Catch

Matt's 2013 18 1/2 incher.

I get downright analytical about our fishing sometimes. I had a brief episode yesterday, and ended up jotting down notes for this post. My son and I enjoy so many good catches; it would seem unnecessary to invest much reflection. And before I go on about this, I warn you it could seem ridiculous. I'll probably stop myself in my tracks. Besides, I'm not experiencing the obsession right now. I don't hone our results in hopes of tournament money. And as much as my son and I feel good about our catches, we don't do as well as some, either. I don't mean to boast, even though I've put pictures up of our best bass over the past three years fishing Lake Hopatcong once each year during summer, first week of July. We caught plenty others, some just as big, and this may raise your hopes.

Once we got to our spot on Thursday, I wanted bass and felt dismayed the first half hour or an hour, a 10-incher uninspiring, and then a smallmouth just more than 16 inches not up to par with what we've been catching these past three years. But the action had only just begun. A quick, very fast spree of feeding as a thunderstorm approached. I should have measured the larger I caught, which I released thinking it was just about 17 inches, but now think it was 17 1/2. When we're fishing, often I want to be more casual about the experience and release a bass without the complication of applying the tape. Then later my obsessive mind wants to know how it would have measured down to the eighth inch. Only the nice ones of course.

This larger bass did inspire. I fought it on my St. Croix ultralight. Nevertheless, it was all too much the same; we've been catching bass like this and bigger every time out for the past three years, with exception to vertical jigging outings, and my flat line trolling with Landolfi. Thursday was yet another success at our favorite spot, and I felt it's become all too expected. I'm left feeling as though the seven smallmouths we caught before 7:45 a.m. just leapt into the boat.

It may be wise to try elsewhere next year. We'll know we're risking likely success, which will take the complacency away from us. Once fishing gets to be predictable, it may be time to move on. It better be if it really begins to bore. At best, this move will revitalize interest with a big catch elsewhere. We still haven't broken the four pound mark, and a lunker smallmouth could await on any of the lake's rocky drop-offs. I'll study the map. I know what I have in mind, but this I won't divulge. 

July 2011, such a severe cold front we didn't take jackets off all day, into afternoon. I was cold in those shorts.
 July 2012. I measured that bass at 18 inches on the nose. Amazing how photographs deceive. The bass photographed below on Thursday looks longer, but it was 17 1/2 inches at most, I think, didn't measure.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Princeton Day School Bass Ponds Memories

We called the ponds McClure's in deference to the Headmaster by that name as though they were his personal ownership, a fitting name since we ourselves felt not the slightest dispossession. Doug McClure sang in one of the Trinity Episcopal Church Princeton Choirs my dad directed. When I was 13, he invited me and my brothers (younger) to fish for bass in the farm style pond behind his house. The fishing was good; we caught bass as large as 17 inches, the big one my seven-year-old brother Rick caught. Mr. McClure told me I was free to fish here any time I like, as well as free to fish the string of four impoundments at the eastern edge of Princeton Woods ranging between three to six acres.

So began years of privileged fishing. Since my family lived in Lawrence eight miles away, I usually pedaled my 10 speed to fish the ponds alone, and during the warm months of late sunlight, usually fished them after school. I was free to fish with a friend or two, often did, as well as with my brothers. I fished all over Mercer County and parts of Middlesex and Hunterdon from the age of 14, mostly getting around on that bicycle, but I valued no other place else as special as McClure's ponds.

Virtually no one else fished them. They were of course on private land and posted. I rarely saw anyone else fishing or otherwise. We named the ponds by number in descending order. The First Pond drained into the second. An anomaly, the Fifth Pond drained into the First, so named in order of discovery. Not on Princeton Day School land, we avoided this smaller pond as belonging to someone else, Sixth Pond likewise, named after daring to fish it at dawn. Across Prettybrook Road and below the fourth, the Sixth Pond also embellished another property. The Second, Fifth, and Sixth ponds attain five foot depths at maximum. The others, 10 feet deep. A friend and I took inflatable boats on ponds one through four and created topographic maps by difficult step measurements, triangulation, and depth sounding. I still have these maps and they appear no less than professional. Prior to the McClure's years, my favorite Boy Scout merit badge involve mapping, so I came prepared to get results.

At the edge of the Second Pond, a log cabin with fireplace stood for how many years I don't know, but I learned somehow or other that the ponds were created in 1955. I also found a tree engraving on the bank of the third pond dated 1955, which seemed ancient to my 14 years. We were allowed to stay overnight in the cabin if we wanted to, and we must have done this almost a dozen times over the years, even in January when the ponds were frozen and we left tip-ups in cut holes overnight, getting up at dawn and hand lining largemouth bass and pickerel, as many as a dozen flags tripped from First to Fourth ponds.

The pickerel became a problem for my brother Rick. "You destroyed the Fourth Pond."

At 17, I collected 16 pickerel from Colliers Mills in the region of the Pine Barrens closest to home with friends one December afternoon fishing, placed them in a big cooler filled with water, and transported them to Princeton in my station wagon, stocking the weediest Fourth Pond. They did well. Three years later--we still fished here on occasion--the pond throve with pickerel. Many years later, we discovered a chain pickerel in Stony Brook. The stream dammed to form the ponds is a tributary.

Take my word not Rick's. Bass in the Fourth Pond seemed undiminished. All of these ponds brimmed with bass and held some big ones. Although I never caught one more than four-and-a-half pounds, my two brothers once witnessed a five-pounder caught.

We seldom saw Mr. McClure, but when we did, he always expressed interested in us. Being enabled to fish here made great difference in my life. I fished so much I had no hope of doing exceptionally well academically and going to a great college or university, but by the time Mr. McClure invited me to fish the ponds, I was already so deeply fascinated in and enamored of the mysteries I encountered fishing, it seems unlikely that lack of the McClure's pond opportunity would have changed the amount of fishing I engaged; the fishing at McClure's greatly enhanced my experience and allows me to feel deeply indebted to a great generosity. Another Anglican angler long ago might have felt similar loyalty, as Izaak Walton yielded to the generosity of land owners to practice his fishing.

I never was a normal boy, if normality is keeping with the program and making grades appropriate to intelligence. Even in kindergarten, I could not keep with lessons, since I remained with thoughts and dreams in my own mind much more than followed along. As soon as we moved to Lawrence when I was seven, I spent many hours alone in the nearby hundred acre woods and at Little Shabakunk Creek. Most of my reading I found on my own rather than took assignment from school. I suppose my parents saw no hope for me to be a star pupil; perhaps more existed by my pursuing own interests. They were not limited to fishing, but when I would pedal home at 10:00 p.m. on school nights in June from McClure's, parents never protested, nor should they have.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Smallmouth Bass Feeding Spree before Thunderstorm Lake Hopatcong

Shepherd Lake such a good time on Saturday, the after effect great, I looked forward to Hopatcong today as perhaps the climax of more than two weeks' vacation time. I felt this unlikely, since the combination of the best day in Manhattan I've experienced, on Friday with my family, with Shepherd Lake the next day and no work in between really made all this time off worthwhile, mostly work on my book on fishing. The chances of yet another great trip didn't feel quite in the making. Sometimes you feel you've reached the peak of a vacation period and don't ask that it be surpassed; you're wise enough to anticipate disappointment, but I guess I just feared that I asked for too much.

I awakened at 4:00 a.m. and marched right downstairs, then stood outside the door in rain. No lightning, hmmm. I booted up my laptop before I awakened my son, Matt, and found rain forecast to stop by 6:00, possibility of thunderstorms again by noon. Rain stopped by the time we left. We got to Dows Boat Rentals at 5:23, backed the car down, unloaded when I found my GoPro in the trunk. I forgot all about it for weeks. Concerned that circuits may have fried in the heat, I tried to boot up, nothing. At present, the red battery light is on as it charges and I believe heat didn't damage, hope not. We paid for the boat and herring, on the lake by about 5:40. It took 10 minutes to get to our spot. In the meantime, I put concern for the camera aside.

Action didn't happen right away. All the rods rigged, herring drew surface hits from yellow perch in minutes, but nothing else happened and I wondered if this day was going to let us down despite seemingly lingering good conditions for feeding. Perhaps the feed ended with clouds breaking up, atmospheric pressure on the rise.

Maybe a half hour passed when I boated a 10-inch smallmouth, this just the beginning. We like using live herring chiefly because of the possibility of walleye or hybrids, but we know we're really after smallmouth bass this time of year, though we have caught walleye and a hybrid during summer. We like the idea of getting a really big smallmouth to take a herring, although usually our biggest is about 3 1/2 pounds. Our bass today didn't reach this mark.

Before I touched a nightcrawler, I fished a weightless Senko very thoroughly, having caught plenty bass on this type of worm in the past here. We caught a lot of white perch today, more than former outings, about as many white perch as bluegills and pumpkinseeds, and only one yellow perch. I also caught a smallmouth nearly 17 1/2 inches on a nightcrawler, very exciting on my ultralight, and it made me think, as it stripped drag diving for bottom 22 feet straight down, that using live bait for this thrill fully proved the value.

Action really picked up as clouds thickened heavily and we heard distant thunder. We've never experienced before such a smallmouth feeding spree on Hopatcong, only hybrids feeding like this in October. I caught four, Matt seven, the three best 16 inches, to about 17 1/2. Besides the two small bass we each caught, our other two weighed about a pound-and-a-half. We also lost several bass about the same size. Things kind of got disheveled and crazy with two herring lines out apiece while we also fished nightcrawlers.

Then we had to make a run for cover. We stopped at Nolan's Point, marking good fish right at the top of a drop-off at 14 feet. I wanted to fish this range, but thunder cracked nearby. We waited out an isolated storm at Dows for half an hour or less and headed back to our original spot. Nothing happened but perch and pumpkinseeds. Now the bass had finished feeding. My upper back killed me, filling me with fear that it's going to ruin fishing, but I won't say it ruined this trip.

We went to Air Castle Isles and cast Senkos to rocks and docks. We've caught some nice-size largemouths up to 3 1/2 pounds this way, but today the only hit we got came from a rock bass. In total, we fished out six hours.

The ways to fish Hopatcong are limitless, but it's nice to have our pet herring and nightcrawlers. This isn't how I fish smallmouths in Round Valley Reservoir, for one example, but Round Valley doesn't suffer oxygen depletion as does Hopatcong, either. Smallmouths tend to suspend over rocky depths during summer, and meeting them halfway with herring is effective. It's also a way to fish that puts you in suspense: you always know your herring swim out there over and in depths with rocks where smallmouth bass and possibly walleye lurk. It's very gratifying to see a line jump and feel a fish on.

White Perch