Friday, April 19, 2013

Fluke and Bluefish Fall for the Hopkins Hop

Try the Hopkins Hop

Reach Surf Fluke and Attract Blues

For several years I fished the surf on occasion during fluke season and did well live-lining killies with freshwater spinning tackle. The method is simple and fun. I wade out to my waist and cast a killie on a size 6 plain shank hook on six-pound test with eight-pound test fluorocarbon tied to the hook and a small barrel swivel. The leader protects against tooth abrasion due to fluke head shaking during fights, but I check it after each catch. Just above the barrel swivel a tin split shot is all the weight needed in ordinary surf conditions. I caught fluke after fluke with the same tackle and method reminiscent of one way I approach big smallmouth bass in small rivers.

But last year on a trip to Sandy Hook I hooked one nice fluke after about an hour—definitely a good-size keeper—with no other hits. I strained to get all the reach I could using a split shot. The surf was light and the beach sloped out beneath the waves at a very soft angle. I finally told myself--too shallow.

I checked my tackle bag to make I sure I didn’t have any bank weights or pyramid sinkers—I did have my eight-foot Tica—and as feared, had no such weights. Instead of giving up, I opened my mind to another possibility. Opening my shoulder bag full of lures, I quickly took out a three-ounce Hopkins. Directly, I took the treble hook off the split ring, then tied about 2 ½ feet of fluorocarbon leader from the ring to one of the simple plain shank hooks I had been using.

Letting Sit and Slow Retrieve

It seemed plain to me that if fluke lurked out there beyond the wave rises this would work, and it did within five minutes. That first cast I just let the Hopkins hold bottom and waited for the small fluke to come to the killie. But on subsequent casts I began to feel things out. I would let sit, then lift the rig off bottom and pull for a few yards, let sit again. I positioned the killie for the fluke, rather than just waiting for a fish to come along.

Fluke typically camouflage themselves against the sand and wait in ambush, looking up for any rainfish, peanut bunker, or other forage to pass overhead. As awkward looking as fluke are, they behave as remarkably swift and agile predators. My concern with any sort of heavy weight involves dragging it into a fluke and spooking the fish, but this never seemed to be a real problem with the Hopkins. When fishing a bay channel with a two or three-ounce bank sinker, for example, the situation includes the sand and muck kicked up by the weight attracting fluke rather than frightening them away.

So naturally I began to wonder if my shiny Hopkins might add to this sort of appeal. Fluke mostly sight feeders, they do scent prey much better than Spanish mackerel, for example, which don’t seem to scent prey at all. Fluke love smelly squid and cut baits, and inhabit dark channel depths of 30 feet, and ocean depths greater. But if they can, they’ll use their eyes first.

I continued my slow retrieves, covering range and catching a number of fluke, and became more aware that just possibly the flash of my Hopkins helped attract fish. If you were a hungry fluke and saw a fishy flash four or five yards away, you might be curious and swim over. And once you got there—aha! A nice killie to cramp down on in one fell swoop.

Fast Action

I had got into a rhythmic pattern of swooping the rig up, then letting it flutter back and sit awhile. On one of these rod lifts, I got a solid strike before the flutter. The Okuma’s drag allowed unmistakable straining thrusts to give—bluefish! In 15 minutes I caught two more, all of these about three pounds, with added speed to my retrieve. All of the bluefish hit on the uplift. My hopes rose. Perhaps quite a few blues had moved in and I could have a lot of fun, but as it turned out, I felt happy to find a quicker retrieve works best on the blues, and the Hopkins really does lure them straight in like a beacon.

But all of the blues went directly for the killie. It’s a puzzler, but given a choice between a slab of metal— not that they know its metal—and a killie trailing right behind, they slam the killie. Who knows, perhaps if I fished the Hopkins alone one or more of these bluefish would have slammed it. But they had to choose. The Hopkins fully evident to sight, so was the killie.

Teaser Effect

Teasers are essential surf tools because they excite fish by imitating predator after prey. Fish are like us—we see a happening and have a tendency to want to join in. Savage competitors that predatory fish are, a big striper will steal a little teaser away from seven-inch Redfin plug.

But the Hopkins is larger than the killie. Nevertheless, it works. Blues have no mind to get confused on the issue. What they see is a real fish swimming after something and that fits the pattern well enough.

So particularly if confronted by a slow sloping surf, try the Hopkins Hop to reach fluke distanced beyond breakers, and tease any blues that might show up. My suggestion is to use a 1/0 long shank hook if blues do arrive, not bad for fluke either. Personally, I prefer small hooks and don’t seem to lose fluke to them. Take that split ring off the Hopkins too. The knot can get caught on the ends and weakened.

A method for blues of about four pounds and smaller, I’ve had no problem with just the fluorocarbon because the blues get hooked on the outside of the mouth. I’m sure that with enough encounters some bluefish will bite off. But if you’re targeting fluke, don’t use steel. And possibly blues more likely hit that killie without such obvious and unlikely connection between it and the Hopkins steel would be.

Possibilities are endless for approaches to angling. More often than not we just stumble onto something when we have forgotten something else. But without keeping an open mind to what just might work, we would turn and walk off the beach.


Thursday, April 18, 2013

Post-Spawn Spinnerbaits: Largemouth Bass, Pickerel, Northern Pike

Post-Spawn Spinnerbaiting

Make Optimal Catches Now

          It’s May and aquatic vegetation is returning to full mass offering advantage by not being as thick as it will soon be. Eutrophic lakes and ponds, and weedy reservoirs with clear water, all offer some of the best largemouth bass and pickerel fishing of the year now. Bass and spinnerbaits go together like women and jewelry, but pickerel and northern pike are attracted to the flash as surely as they have struck in-line spinners for almost a century. I have reason for why I like using spinnerbaits to catch these species in water that is at least fairly clear; this will become evident as discussion progresses.

          Everyone hales bass and I have no opposition to this, but I love pickerel and pike for their savage attack nature. It’s as if they possess a much more concentrated focus of attention to unleash with powerful bursts of speed upon prey. Fall pursuits for pickerel are typical and shiner baited tip-ups are popular winter devices, but through spring’s warmer half into summer’s start amazing catches are possible. What adds such appeal is largemouth bass frequenting the same weedy structures just as willing to hit.

Optimal Water Temperatures


           Baitfish are re-established in relation to weeds as water temperatures have reached optimum levels for bass and pickerel. Largemouths spawn in 62 to 66-degree afternoon water temperatures. If smaller males remain on beds this month, be assured that females are feeding in a post-spawn mode, stimulated and thriving among weeds rich in forage with water temperatures reaching the 70’s before summer doldrums. Pickerel spawn shortly after ice-out in 47 to 52-degree water but don’t slow their feeding until July either.

          It’s common knowledge that cold blooded fish have metabolisms that burn more calories as water temperature rises. So the summer slump seems counterintuitive until you consider that bass and pickerel move less when water warms above their optimal range in order to conserve calories for that higher burn rate. This explains why during August heat spells an evening blitz of bass activity may happen for 10 or 20 minutes. They gang up and feed like mad to gorge themselves on as much as possible in little time to feed that metabolism—then return to inactivity so they don’t burn off too many calories gained by the intake.

          Similar to this conservative summer strategy, an individual bass has a built-in response to all conditions to maximize its growth on a lifelong scale. Until water temperatures get above the higher end of optimal—somewhere in the 70’s, probably highest in the south—bass are driven to feed more to take best advantage for their growth and lengthen their lives. In essence, the same phenomenon happens in the fall when temperatures return to optimal. This has nothing to do with fattening for winter; it’s all about maximal growth. The same goes for pickerel and pike, although pike like cooler temperatures, which involves why pike are smaller in New Jersey than northern New York.

Sunlight and Wind are Ideal


           During summer, bass and pickerel gorge at times during certain low pressure conditions. But another counterintuitive consideration for fishing now is that direct sunlight typically means better fishing with spinnerbaits so long as a breeze or wind chops water surface. Commotion scatters light and sets a shallow, clear water environment in motion. With calm sunlight, a clear aquatic environment about 15 feet deep or fewer absorbs the light straight into weeds and bottom with no action at the surface exciting life below. Only the weeds benefit directly. So long as depths are fairly shallow, water clear and wind-roughened under sunlit sky, bass, pickerel, and northern pike in some waters, seem to have a very hard time distinguishing a silvery spinnerbait blade from a nutritious shiner having abandoned caution in such an excited environment.

           The blade or blades of a spinnerbait reflect light irregularly when rays coming through a chopped surface are scattered. These reflections are variable as chop is varied. With calm surface, sunlight steadily reflects a direct light flow from a blade. Fish don’t get confused by subtle reflection irregularities and an excited environment: they don’t have minds as we do to get confused. Rather, the calm environment is simple and the excited relatively chaotic. The complexities of stirred up environments are all exponents of increased action. It’s not much of a leap to suppose that fish, including forage, are more active as well. My fishing log bears this out. So do the strikes. They tend to be much more forceful with windy light.

          Above all it’s that beckoning blade. And the more scattered the sunlight reflected from it, the more it compels. However subtle this difference in reflected light is, it goes along with a relatively chaotic environment, which is the main factor. But I think blade flash of any kind in these rough conditions is more attractive than head and skirt or attached plastic, although many choices between blades that reflect light differently are possible.

Choosing Blades


            What blade or set of blades you choose makes a difference. The following general guidelines may help, but detailed choices are detailed differences too. A hammered blade, for example, will reflect light more chaotically than a smooth finished blade. Blades attached to swivels by split rings are easy to interchange if you care to experiment. Fishing close to the surface, greater blade vibration tends to be better. Ultimately, a buzzbait would be used at the surface and some have triple blades. But tandem blades on a typical spinnerbait are effective buzzed or fished a few feet down. A combination of Colorado and willowleaf blades causes maximum commotion, which shows that the blades chosen may make more difference in vibration than in how light is reflected relative to surface chop or lack of it.

          The ratio of blade size to head weight determines the rate of retrieve at a given depth—larger blades mean slower retrieves are possible. But if you bothered to weigh a willowleaf blade and Colorado blade equally, the willowleaf would produce less resistance allowing a quicker retrieve. Blades produce pressure vaguely similar to aerodynamics, and a spinnerbait with a Colorado blade rides a little higher at the same retrieve speed a willowleaf blade would carry deeper. That pressure from a Colorado blade also releases more vibrations fish can sense by their lateral lines.

          I find large, silvery Colorado blades to be especially effective close to the surface, and rather than combine such a blade with a willowleaf (to combine it with a Colorado of the same size would cancel out action), I like them single. This is no more than personal preference. (Confidence and value go a long way for performance.) Fishing big blades three feet down may be effective among growing weed-tops over a flat or next to a weedline. If you sight isolated lily pad fields among milfoil or other vegetation, this cover is great this time of year. Fish the edges and right through whatever openings allow passage. I treat large pad fields as any other weedline unless openings allow a spinnerbait to get through.

          In six to 10-foot shallows, a willow leaf blade may be more effective since it imitates quieter environmental action at this level beneath an angry surface, not that these depths aren’t affected at all! Often the biggest bass or pickerel will situate to strike at the bottom of fairly deep weedlines, possibly deeper than 10 feet, and a heavy spinnerbait can be fished effectively at 15 feet with a small blade. In the depths fish tend to have a subtler feeding response and willowleaf blades cater to this. Lighter head weights that retain effective retrieves allow slower presentation to possibly tease reluctance to response. But a problem when fishing weedy flats about 10 feet deep with weeds growing towards the surface is that thick weeds near bottom foul your line and lure. Get a spinnerbait down about four or five feet. Bass and pickerel are not necessarily on the bottom. It’s easier to fish deeper now than in July. Otherwise, the time may be just right on a summer morning or evening for topwaters over the tendrils.

Skirts, Plastics, and Color


          Whether or not to use certain skirts or grubs and other plastics in place of them (or with them) are particular choices also. I sometimes use just a four inch section of straight, conventional plastic worm without a skirt, but I love to put on a soft plastic Hawg Frawg. Those rippling legs produce a tantalizing action. Color probably makes more difference as you like colors than fish do, but bright colors in bright sunlight are fitting in a lit up environment below. Bass, pickerel, and pike are not color blind, so color makes a difference. However, so many colors exist that to tell just what “they’re hitting” may be circumstantial. In my own experience I’m better at choosing blades than color.

          Having favorites of any kind may hinder further experimentation, but it may protect against confusion, frustration, and such an obsession with technicalities that your focus on the rhythms of fishing itself is overlooked. I think it’s usually more important to absorb the environment you are probing—besides, what you are fully aware of will generate original ideas. So if color is a concern, for example, see if you can get an answer from the lake itself rather than some compartment in your head. This may sound obscure and irrelevant, but on the contrary, relevant ideas always come from actual experience. Favorites make a fishing experience comfortable, secure, familiar, and often efficacious. But they also tend to make us complacent and stupid. If the day is getting slow, chances are it’s you, not the lake. But one afternoon I found that my green Hawg Frawg on a 3/8-ounce head below a big Colorado blade drew so many ferocious strikes the thought of experimenting would have seemed silly to me.

Habitat Behaviors and Getting a Spinnerbait at Them


          The color of largemouth bass tells us what they like best—aquatic vegetation. The same goes for pickerel and northern pike, although pickerel particularly are weed addicts. They need residual aquatic vegetation in order to spawn. They aren’t caring in the way bass build nests and the males furiously protect eggs and fry. Pickerel drop eggs in residuum; the males fertilize them, and go on their way. 

            Almost always pickerel stage from weed cover to ambush prey. I have caught three pickerel in the Delaware from rock structures, but it’s almost an absolute rule that the rare pickerel in this river stay among the weeds of slow stretches and pocket backwaters. However, as with largemouths, branches, fallen trees, or stumps combined with weeds are especially attractive to pickerel. Being elongated in shape, pickerel mold in to submerged branches. Their color may even shift to a dark golden hue.

           Cast well beyond wood cover, then run a spinnerbait right against it and stop the retrieve. The blade or blades will flutter as the lure falls. Often the strike comes just as you begin retrieving again before the lure would touch bottom. Another trick to try is banging wood with the lure, retrieving faster as you work the lure right into a branch then let it drop. Works for both species.  

          Unlike bass, pickerel will sometimes follow a spinnerbait to the boat and stay in place near the surface in full view. A few things to do include changing the direction of the spinnerbait and pulling it along boatside to provoke a strike, moving the spinnerbait in a figure 8, or grabbing a rod with a Senko worm rigged wacky with hook in the middle and just pitching it to the fish. I’ve found the latter method to be most effective. Yes, pickerel take Senkos, but make sure you use a 15-pound test fluorocarbon leader.

           Pickerel and pike are not as accurate at attacking prey—or lures—as bass. This is our fourth counterintuitive issue. Bass are swimmers. They have nowhere near the agility of pelagic swimmers, but they coordinate on their targets well from relatively open water situations. Pike and pickerel are ambush predators that use cover. They rely on a burst of initial speed to strike prey rather than suck and swoosh it in as bass do. Pike and pickerel contract their bodies in a sort of instantaneous, springing spasm and shoot for the target—or miss it. Since they often rush from two or three yards, the prey may move significantly off the aim fired at, even though pike and pickerel do judge motion for that aim. But pickerel especially don’t give up. If a spinnerbait was clipped or missed by a foot or so, closer to it the predator quickly turns and attacks again. But oddly similar to mammalian play, after initial attack a pickerel sometimes seems clearly to miss a lure by intent as if it senses it’s not food, but exercises aggression anyhow. If a pickerel comes after a shallow running spinnerbait a second time and misses it, speed up the retrieve and the fish may be provoked into a savage direct hit from behind.

Horse Them from the Mess


          Pickerel in New Jersey and New York eutrophic waters and reservoirs grow to five, six, possibly as large as 10 pounds—the former world record nine-pound, three-ounce fish came from New Jersey’s Pinelands. To imagine a grand average, they run about two pounds smaller than largemouths in our region. Like bass, when hooked they dive at the nearest, thickest weeds. If you can’t horse a fish from tangles of thick stems and weed mass, slack line between the lure on the jaw and the mess the line is buried in will result very shortly in head shakes and hook leverage against weeds that head is buried in. This would free the fish, which is why I use 15-pound test Power Pro braid. On a medium power rod I could pull a six-pounder from certain loss. Braid diameter is thin enough to cast freely as six-pound test mono gets a lure out a long way.

          A seven-foot medium power spinning rod with a fast action tip propels spinnerbaits such distances that Power Pro is good for its lack of stretch too. I’ve missed hits on long casts with mono I wouldn’t have missed with braid.

          It’s a great time for spinnerbaits. In my scheme of things the best time; I rely more on crankbaits and jerkbaits in the fall. The weeds are here and spinnerbaits weedless, but space between tendrils is just enough not to foul retrieves much and force you to switch to a worm or topwater plug.       


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

North Branch Raritan River Nice Rainbow Trout and Using Salmon Eggs

Fished for half an hour by the second bridge, above the crowd for which the North Branch Raritan River at AT&T World Headquarters gets dubbed the Zoo. I stepped in among them to try just a few casts as I left, friendly people; it's only a joke about a feeding trough I've taken from also.

Sometimes the rainbows just don't feed the day they're stocked and today was one of those days. I caught two on salmon eggs, including this nice one around two pounds. It made the reel sing with two-pound test. I saw three other trout caught. More than several others fished in the range of the second bridge. Never saw any caught in the crowd, and usually on stocking days trout come in frequently. Missed one or two good hits, had taps from trout that didn't really take the egg.

Current moved faster than last week, water higher, just slightly off color, so I used two swivel pieces on my snap for weight, which was just about perfect. (I cut the swivels from snap-swivels and keep them on a safety pin attached to my vest.) Felt real good fishing for a few minutes. The second trout hit shortly after the big one, and I thought I was going to have some fun. I left before my mood would have slipped into the negative.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

No Fishing at DeKorte Park/Tried for Stripers Hackensack River

Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc at DeKorte Park, of course. I had checked the Commission website--park open. But the Saw Mill Creek Trail is not. I guess they have it closed because construction tractors are back there and need to be protected. Saw Mill Creek Trail is where the striper fishing on Saw Mill Creek Flats happens. Fred Matero and I tried walking all the way down to the back of the rear flat in hopes that we could access the Saw Mill Creek Trail from the entrance I photographed, above. I noticed a couple of greater yellow legs or willets, wasn't certain, on our way back out. The distant ducks looked like mallards, although I've seen shovelers, teal, and other species in the past.
With my sense of things and Fred's phone map, we accessed Patterson Plank Road across the Hackensack and finally landed at Trolley Park and a way to fish the river after multiple complications but plenty patience and perceptions, the first time for both of us in these places and fishing this river known for stripers and some big. And the first thing I noticed, besides mud flat exposed, meaning shallow, was the channel marker near the opposite side. It did reach the low to mid 70's earlier today (chilly this evening). But I thought, who knows, if it were 85 or 90, maybe stripers would move on these shallow flats. I did count about five feet deep by letting the paddletail sink.
We fished. We had adventure in the urban wilderness, adding range to our experiential scopes of New Jersey, America, and the world.

 Sawmill Creek Trail photographed through fence bars.
 Jets fly low right over Sawmill Flats.

 Hackensack River/Izod Center

Monday, April 15, 2013

Mount Hope Pond, Ghost Lake, White Lake Largemouth Bass

Jersey Gems

I’ve always had a penchant for small waters, simply because I undertook fishing on my own as a boy—no father or uncle to treat me to a boat. Although I fish many lakes now, large rivers, sounds, bays, and the Atlantic, the right setting and conditions at a pond can be like awakening to a new, fresh life sometimes, or arouse primal memory of more than what is specifically individual to you if the solitude and enclosure reach your core. They offer outstanding fishing as well. Not all ponds are simply dishes to cast into at random. In fact, some will test your casting skills to the maximum and many prove very demanding for finding fish.

Mount Hope Pond

This clear water, 18-acre pond in Rockaway Township, Morris County, is worth hoping for, and just such a test of skills as I've mentioned. It is tough, demanding, and slightly chimerical—you can catch largemouths averaging close to three pounds on weightless worms from May into July in the middle of hot, sunny afternoons. But towards the end of July this prospect becomes daunting. By August, if you fish during the day, it’s best to use larger weedless tube jigs along the bottom of the shoreline drop-off in 12 to 15 feet of water. In any event, Mount Hope is almost always stubborn to yield, but the size of the bass is amazing.

The east shoreline drops quickly to 15 feet, the west 12 feet. (Maximum depth is 15 feet.) The western two corners are the pond’s only shallow flats, these not extensive. Begin at one and move to the next with a topwater, if you try before dawn during summer. (Beware of bears! We encountered one!) My largest bass last summer, 4 pounds, 10 ounces, exploded on a 3/8th-ounce Pop-R on the first cast. Part of the secret behind pre-dawn topwater success is that bass eyes adjust to changing light intensity better than bluegills’ do. Bass hug bottom looking upward to ambush prey as sun approaches the horizon.

After sunrise, you need to go into the sticks. Trails exist all the way around, but not well defined. Pin-point casting accuracy makes a catch likely with needed persistence. Much of the process is simply pitching the worm—but often into tight targets. I don’t recommend Senkos here. They sink too fast. I like the Chompers garlic worms, seven inches. Worm hooks will save you loads of frustration with snags; 15-pound test Power Pro assures that a lunker won’t break off on the same snags, and 15- pound test fluorocarbon leaders protect against possible pickerel teeth, as well as the abundance of wood in the water. Often bass—even in mid-day—lurk in a foot of water right against the bank, but always try deeper edges of submerged brush, overhanging limbs, and trunks in the water as deep as 10 feet.

In May the bucks spawn, but it’s the females I’m after, which have abandoned their mates and brood. I don’t bother finding beds at all. But don’t just stand in a clearing and cast where it’s convenient. Get that worm right into very difficult, brushy spots.

Ghost Lake

Not a lake at all, Ghost Lake in Independence Township, Warren County, is 18.5 acres. Great for early season bassin’ into May, it becomes overrun by vegetation in the summer. Weedless soft plastic surface lures like Mann’s Phatrat and Phatfrog, among others, will produce, as will snaking weedless worms through the dragonfly months. But pre-spawn April weeks, and targeting females in May, is best.

Mostly shallow, Ghost Lake is separated into a larger and smaller pond by a dike with a large pipe underneath connecting them. The deepest water of about nine feet lies outward from the dike in the larger pond, and along and out from the earthen dam of the smaller. Water clarity exceptional, bass may be spotted especially in and near the corners, but mostly stay out of sight in the depths. Plenty of casting access places lures in water that is almost entirely open, with residual vegetation near bottom early in the season.

Choose lures and presentations according to conditions. Early and late, topwaters serve as a prime choice if water temperatures are above 60 or so. Small spinnerbaits and floater/diver plugs produce with wind on the water, unless bass are unwilling. To go subtler, try tube jigs. If you like using live bait, at times shiners really make sense, even though this isn’t Florida.

Last April 23rd, my son and I visited the pond, catching bass and crappies on an unusually cold day with water temperatures down near 50. A crew of young anglers came, outfitted with appropriate spinning rods but casting Rebels and Rapalas—to no use at all, I knew. Their lures flashed out with silver and bright colors. But on this day before springtime flourish, rather than appealing and appropriate, the lures looked garish and stupid to my sensibility. Large live shiners gave us no shame, and although they tempted none of the lunkers we hoped for, we loved watching largemouths to 14 inches rise from dark depth to snatch our offerings, and crappies suddenly transpire from nowhere.

With warm water in May, Senkos and slower-sinking worms come into their own, rigged on worm hooks. Vegetation grows rapidly; use it to advantage before it takes over. We’ve caught three-pounders, and I lost a bass close to five to a bad knot—I spotted the beauty, cast a worm to it, set the hook, and that was all.

White Lake

Talk about a gem! I felt stunned when I first walked up to it. The water is as crystal clear as Round Valley’s. The next thing I did, I put down my tackle went to the information board at the carry-to boat launch. White Lake, near Blairstown, Warren County, is a 65-acre lake of fairly ancient origin, not by glacier, but giant sink hole. Rock, saturated by ground water, hollowed out, gave way, and released pure ground water to fill out this roundish lake with 44-foot depths, and a mean depth of 22 feet. It’s deep.

Much like Round Valley, the lake is not loaded with largemouths, but no one would claim either is without a very healthy population—and good-sized. Giants exist in Round Valley, despite the lack of the reservoir’s fertility, and White Lake is home to lunkers also. The key to this lake are the drop-offs.

They fall from fairly extensive, weedy shallow flats. When conditions become perfect, the action in the shallows, close to protective deep water, can be phenomenal. In late April or early May, try getting out during a warm, low pressure system that warms shallows, if only slightly. Bass will rake floater/diver plugs retrieved with jerking rod tip action as if trying to clear them out of the way of the spawning nest they’re about to brush out and breed on.

However the conditions suggest your approach on a given outing, keep with light tackle, use no more than six-pound test, and lose a lure to a pickerel if need be. If you have a boat you can carry, you’re in. Shoreline fishing is very limited. That’s the beauty of this place: most anglers are excluded, neither because the lake is private, nor because an expensive boat is most suitable, but because generally most either fish without a boat, or with a boat that needs a trailer, so pressure here is limited. If you have no boat at all, you can catch bass around the launch area and few other spots, especially early and late in the day. But you will find yourself scheming about your finances, perhaps, for purchasing a kayak or canoe.

New Jersey is the Garden State! The bane of the Northeast—the Meadowlands garbage pile—is a wildlife refuge now. And all this time gems like these three ponds, and many more, have existed unbeknownst to all who have thought this region is the New Jersey Turnpike’s old, ravaged vista. Stay tuned and I’ll let you in on more in the future.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Round Valley Reservoir Bass as the Weather Warms

Round Valley Bass as the Weather Warms

Before Memorial Day we have our special fun at Round Valley. Before the gates close on Ranger Cove and the west side of the pond and fees are charged for Lot 2, my son, Matt, and I catch some nice bass, plenty smaller. We’re not the only ones taking shore-bound opportunity and when those gates close, the action is about over until fall anyhow.

Matt and I avoid the bucks guarding beds—action viewed in the pond long before seen in the reservoir. Larger females in the pond usually orient to the edge just out of sight. Matt caught an 18- incher deep in the west corner on a Strike King Senko-type plastic. I do well wherever a little brush or weedline is involved. It’s much the same with the breakline in the reservoir, although at 10 to 15 feet, and I’ve clearly observed males guarding beds in 10 feet of water on a June 10th from a boat. The same brand five-inch worm yielded an 18 ½-inch fat female for me May two years ago from a steep drop about eight feet down. I keep hoping for a better bass, have seen and hooked them, and with persistence over the next few years this may not be asking too much.

I’ve met a couple of separate scuba diving parties who spoke in awed undertones about the giant bass deep in the reservoir. Everyone knows about the state record smallmouth. But by what I’ve heard, it may be possible a state record largemouth lurks as well, and this despite the bemoaned infertility of the water.

For years I’ve held the view that the biggest bass have subtle, seasoned discrimination and avoid angler’s offerings, particularly in water so clear. I am not the only Round Valley fisherman who thinks along this line; I spoke to a shore angler last year who told me he sighted a bass from a boat the previous year he estimated at nine pounds, then added that he thinks quite a few really big bass exist but don’t hit.

For me, the reservoir and the pond are two separate worlds. Water clarity is much greater in the reservoir, yet the pond is very clear relative to many other waters in the state. It’s not even the relative plethora of algae and other vegetation in the pond that makes me feel this way, but simply the better catches we make in rain and under cloud cover there, and another more important appreciation. As counterintuitive as it seems, I tend to do well in the reservoir with bright sunlight in the afternoon. Mainly, it just feels really good with that aqua-marine water everywhere. I would bet anyone that brain scientists could explain how the natural aesthetics affect our pleasure responses. How this has anything to do with my success with the bass, scientists might find more difficult to make explicit.

With bright sunlight marking vegetation patches, fish those dark spots in the reservoir carefully as bass stalk forage from among these conglomerations. I carefully fish a seven-inch Chompers weightless both in the pond and in the reservoir patches for that slow descent which allows bass to see the worm longer than by a fast descent. However, the reservoir is so deep and clear that a long casting, fast sinking (no sinker) Senko-type is usually effective. It is more effective for plumbing distant depths and covering range.

I used to think all the reservoir bass are 10 feet deep or deeper, not so. I’ve watched them snatch shiners at my feet in inches of water, and on a recent sunny afternoon when I could not buy a hit, I hiked far away from Lot 2 covering range fast, trying to find bass, wracking my brain. I found a willow hanging over very shallow water. 

Aha! I caught one on the Chompers, then sort of bushwhacked around to get inside this little cove. I noticed the cove produced a kind of eddy by wind action—lots of pollen and stuff on the surface, life material, a good sign. Thinking hard about finding bass had by then stimulated all sorts of thoughts, but I fished carefully to notice a 13-incher loom right behind my Chompers when I would have finished my retrieve had I not slowed down to complete the presentation. I caught the bass and yet another small one yards to the side.

Usually I fish the worms. But I caught three bass on a buzzbait in wind and broken sun on a recent afternoon fishing 45 minutes; usually I have little more time to fish. Yeah, a big white buzzbait at the surface through waves! Again, action was shallow. But a smallmouth did come up out of seven or eight feet of water.


Merrill Creek Reservoir Smallmouth, Largemouth Bass, Rainbow, Brown, and Lake Trout

Merrill Creek Reservoir Bass and Trout

          Deepest freshwater body of water in the state, Merrill Creek Reservoir’s 210 feet of water is reminiscent of Acadia, Maine (one of those lakes is over 500 feet deep with about the same surface acreage). The lake trout grow large, too, with 20-pound fish possible as well as brown trout over 10 and good sized rainbows. The 650 surface acres cover a great amount of deep water with trout and the alewife herring they require as forage roaming freely. But largemouth and smallmouth bass also feed on alewife when they can, growing exceptionally large from the rich Omega fatty acids of these two to six-inch anadromous fish.

          Interior Warren County is good fishing year ‘round thanks to Merrill Creek (so long as thin ice does not obstruct). Much like Round Valley Reservoir, large trout are caught from shore during winter. Plenty trout are being caught now from shore, although they tend to be small and recently stocked, but parking space is copious near the boat launch and a trail leads to lengthy accessible areas to the left facing the reservoir, and from Fox Farm Road far opposite the launch site.  

          If you can launch a boat, browns, rainbows, and lakers are caught regularly—browns and rainbows suspended 10 to 15 feet deep, lakers 60 or 70 feet and at or near bottom. Trolling crankbaits (downrigger and spoons for lakers), or drifting herring with an eye to the graph recorder involves how to locate trout. But a graph recorder has very narrow vision. You need a map. The plastic, table mat sized Fishing Guide Maps withstand an outing better than a computer printout. If wind is light, a medium to large split shot is all that’s necessary to drift herring in 10 to 15 foot depths. Just use a size 6 plain shank hook besides.

          No bass are found out in the reservoir’s deepest open expanse, but the stands of flooded timber are excellent areas for largemouth bass as large as eight pounds and smallmouths as large as six pounds on the outside edges of timber stands. Crankbaits prove effective on these outside edges, plastic worms rigged with snagless worm hooks and topwater plugs become especially effective in and among the timber for largemouths once the warm water season is on. Choice worms are the Senko-types (Strike King is less expensive and just as good). Wacky rigging with hook through the middle is most popular and deadly, but here you can use a weedless hook. Otherwise, rig a plastic worm of whatever variety through a worm hook without weight. Depths are about 12 feet along the outside edge, fairly shallow, and a slow worm descent allows more time for bass to see the lure. Most of all, slow descent is a more natural correspondence to a worm, which is not a quick moving forage fish. (It doesn’t matter that worms don’t descend from the surface in nature.)

          The spillway rocks are smallmouth bass habitat. Crankbaits retrieved at moderate speeds with the diving lips bouncing the lure off stone are dynamite—smallmouths hit like a hammer, typically much harder than largemouth bass do. A largemouth vacuums its prey more than smallmouths do, and often seems tentative, whereas a smallmouth seems to try to force the rod from your hands.

          Tube jigs serve year ‘round fishing for smallmouths among rocks. Quarter and three eighth-ounce sizes are good for 10 to 20 foot depths, and half ounce isn’t out of the question down to 30 feet or more. Quicker retrieves become effective as water warms, but keep the jig in contact with the rocks and vary the retrieve, make it communicate, give it an actual cadence because all life responds to rhythm: the more complexly spontaneous the jigging, the more life-like.

          The narrow finger cove all the way in the back where Merrill Creek enters is good for bass, rainbows, and brown trout. It’s deep. Don’t overlook the single long point near the mouth of the cove. It’s a deep point, but where it drops from 20 to 30 feet is smallmouth habitat.

          You’re limited to electric outboards here, so time is short to try everything. But this reservoir has fascinating structure to fish carefully.

          I think it is very possible the next state record smallmouth exists here with water more fertile than Round Valley where the current seven-pound, two-ounce smallmouth record got caught. Imagination entertains that a state record largemouth over 10 pounds may be present too; a dead bass this large once was found in Lake Hopatcong.