Friday, July 5, 2013

Lake Hopatcong Smallmouth Bass, Walleye, Bluegills, Pumpkinseeds, White Perch 1950's Style

We arrived at Dow's 4:35 a.m., backing down the drive, unloading all the gear including a 65-pound battery for the electric. We sat, my son sound asleep before I had the gear set aside, and the older gentleman, Jimmy, came around getting things in order in the dark for a 4th of July weekend. Dow's now opens at 5:30, but Jimmy got us going earlier with a 9.9 (as usual) and what bait we needed. When Joe pulled up in a boat from pre-dawn herring forays, Jimmy had already begun to prepare our departure as I moved our copious belongings into the boat.

"Business is a third of what it used to be and it's not coming back. The kids aren't fishing. It's a thing of the past now," I was told. I've been aware for years that kids don't fish like they used to. They don't do anything outdoors like they used to. In my old neighborhood, I visited the Woods about six years ago where I spent much of my childhood. There used to be well defined trails not made by adults. Absolutely all the trails I found grown over and no new paths.

Despite my knowing about the likes of all this already, it wasn't an easy ride in the pre-dawn twilight out to Pickerel Point. Honestly, I felt like a fool part of the way because I invest so much value in a pursuit that seems to have no future. It occurred to me that the animal rights persuasion doesn't need to get any laws passed against fishing. In another 30 years or so, no one will do it anyway.

Really? I bet fishermen will persevere. I had a rough start on the morning.

The clouds overhead passing swiftly without too much wind on Lake Hopatcong meant fishing should be good, but we experienced a slow start. Matt caught some big bluegills and pumpkinseeds on nightcrawlers and I caught the small walleye photographed on a live herring. I cast a Wacky rigged Senko-type worm into the relative shallows and worked it back patiently quite a number of times around Pickerel Point, while letting herring do their thing. I'll always remember when I heard the unmistakable pops of hybrid bass busting bait (herring) at the surface. I quickly looked in that direction and saw the splashes. Then it was over. We were preparing to move our herring out there when a jet ski ploughed right over where I saw the fish.

We went to a new spot and once again set up shop. Just like at Pickerel Point, Matt found large sunfish under the boat in about 16 or 17 feet of water instead of 20. Maybe it was 20, the drop is very sharp. I was getting 14, 15 feet on the graph recorder at the back of the boat towards the rock outcroppings. He caught a 16-inch smallmouth on a free-lined herring. This fish hit in about 15 feet of water. He lost something else on a herring as I did, also. I got my Senko snagged and let it be for awhile and would later lose half of my four piece Ugly Stick, while forcing a line break because the boat swang too close to rocks. When he line broke, the two upper sections disappeared into the lake faster than I could see.

The big excitement of the morning--Matt's 18 1/2 inch smallmouth. This fish made the day an event we'll never forget. He used a chewed-up piece of nightcrawler for the sunfish and white perch when the bass moved in. The fight on his ultra-light thrilled. That bass did not want to come to the net. "Let it go. Take your time," I said. It ran off line at least half-a-dozen times and once jumped.

Scarcity inspires alternatives, and out of nightcrawlers, I had us try cut pieces of dead herring. The white perch seemed especially to like them, but so did the sunfish, and can you believe I caught my smallmouth bass on a piece of cut bait herring?

We could have fished more conventionally by today's rules. Perhaps the way we fished today is more like an outing from of the 1950's, an era of bait fisherman compared to the corporate lure revolution of the early 1970's. One salient difference between then and now, however, is that we released all of our catch besides the walleye (Lobster of the Lake) and a white perch hooked badly. Outings previous years we've stayed on the lake eight or nine hours and fished plastic worms around the docks the way bass pros do. That way, we caught largemouths over three pounds. With the electric, there's no reason we can't do this with a rented 9.9. It's not as convenient as a bow mount, but I get about. We did almost hit the rocks and I lost a rod, but so what.

Today's a holiday weekend and boat traffic became oppressive. It's the first time we've fished the lake, besides in October and November, when lots of people have off from work. I felt happy to leave after six hours and Matt was ready to go too.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Swartswood State Park for Bass, Walleyes, and Pickerel

Swartswood Lake for Bass, Walleyes, and Pickerel

           494-acre glacial Swartswood Lake at Swartswood State Park in Sussex County is a reliable fishery for anyone willing to persist. If fishing conditions favor you—particularly a falling barometer or changing light very early and late in the day—success may come your way with ease. But sometimes nothing will move fishes’ interest to lures or bait; these are the times you should take incentive from difficulty to try again.

          An option for lengthening time to fish Swartswood Lake is to camp on park grounds for the weekend or even longer if you want. Sites are available near the lake—and rental rowboats. You can rent a boat for days running if you wish and be able to go out at dawn as well as fish into dusk. It may be a good idea to buy a 10-pound mushroom anchor and hundred-foot length of 3/8th-inch nylon rope. I use a portable graph recorder—my underwater eyes—in addition to the topographical map available in either the New Jersey Lakes Survey collection, or Fishing Guide Maps I have mentioned before.

          To go out in a rowboat and fish simply without examining bottom structure carefully is, for some people, a most uplifting and relaxing escape from daily pressures. Swartswood State Park is certainly a beautiful place to do this. My own relationship to the natural world is essentially the same as it was for me at age four. I needed to discover, examine, and identify everything in my reach. Fishing soon became part of this.  

          Always an active pursuit, I’m interested in endless natural features, conditions, and relationships that result in fish caught. And when no actual results come, I have at the very least participated in the natural world and have been reminded of the given level of existence. On this last point, the casual angler who cares only to let pressures go shares with me contemplation of the world free of routine demands.

          Swartswood Lake has been there—where we now can locate it by global positioning— before we had any civilized routines at all. In comparatively recent times, New Jersey Fish and Wildlife has introduced the wonder of walleye, also known as lobster of the lake. Difficult to catch but fairly easy to find (deep, rocky points and drop-offs), it’s special to take one or two home. Dip morsels in butter just like lobster.

          Largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, pickerel—my friends, son, and I release almost everything we catch. Fish catching is not necessarily covetous as may seem. To study history carefully enough is to become aware of fish as a spiritual symbol across all cultures. I like to think committed anglers are men, women, and children who intersect contemplative spirituality with frank connectedness and encounter with the natural world. Sport is essential. But no sport exists that does not have moments of great transcendence brought on by marvels of the game. The source of these exaltations is deeper than rivalry.

          The best opportunity for a grand moment on Swartswood Lake involves waking before dawn and not rushing breakfast, all equipment arranged the night before. You need to be fully alert and expectant on the water before sunrise. Two Swartswood options exist: fishing subsurface with live herring, jigs, or crankbaits for walleye; or fishing topwater lures through the period of changing light for bass and pickerel. Especially when the lake surface is calm, a great bass or pickerel bursting through is something you remember. A few are over five pounds.

         Great strikes are not remembered for any measure of the action you can simply experience. They haunt the depths of the mind because they are encounters with rare living beings. And none are so well recalled as that of a great fish.


Swartswood State Park NJ Salamanders

The Salamanders of Swartswood

The summer shroud of greens along the shores and deep into landscapes contrasted deep blues of the lake. What a contrast to a memory. More than four years ago I had approached a snow covered altar of locked-in frozen lake surface. Appropriate that the ritual of ice fishing introduced me to Swartswood Lake in Sussex County. Swartswood is well known for the hardwater pursuit. But now in 90-degree heat my ten-year-old son Matt, wandering the woods near our allotted campsite, called out, “I caught a peeper frog!”

“Peeper frog!?”  I called back. “It’s August!”

“Come see! It has the X on its back!”

The thick underbrush grazed my legs with no lush loam of marshland underfoot. What would a peeper frog be doing here? My son opened his hand, and sure enough, a peeper frog about 3/4ths of an inch long sat in his palm. He let it go, searched under more logs, and found another even smaller. Why they summer back in the dry woods I don’t know. But minimal moisture underneath rotting logs sustained them. I’ve heard millions of peepers in March and April. Throughout New Jersey, anyone can hear them who drives with windows down near any wetland. And as a boy, a number of times I had approached choruses of them, trying to at least catch sight of one. I never did.

My son inspired by his finds, we decided the next day to search the area near the Duck Pond. Matt’s big idea centered on finding snakes, although anything to find he would readily appreciate. Before we crossed East Shore Drive to the pond and the Group Camping Area (empty that weekday), we stopped into Swartswood State Park Main Office and read the wildlife log, a dateline for anybody to record observations. From this we took a clue. Another youngster had recorded his finding of a red backed and a long tailed salamander. Immediately I knew we would turn over logs.

The Duck Pond itself, at least a football field’s length, narrow and very shallow, hosts reeds that poke a full foot-and-a-half above much of its surface. We found indistinct, spongy  edges inhabited by green frogs, leopard frogs, and bullfrogs. Matt adeptly caught a number of them, releasing one and scouting down the next to do the same.

We saw no ducks. Nor in the winter, if the water yet remained open, would I expect to see any of the exotic arctic ducks that visit New Jersey. Arctic ducks are divers. The Duck Pond seemed to be so shallow as to accommodate no fish, although Matt speculated that there may be some sunfish.

We were about to discover a real charm. Our sneakers mucked up and dampened, we edged away into the woods to investigate what lay under such logs and large stones. The woods around the Group Camping Area are rather sparsely forested and the underbrush is not so thick as to make walking among trees difficult.  Soon happy to have found a redback, my son’s excitement remained contained, since his familiarity with this specie dated a few years. But what knocked my socks off was his sudden discovery of a spotted salamander. I had not seen one of these in the wild since I was his age, in Massachusetts, and I had told Matt so before he turned over a stone and gave his cry of surprise at just that.

With added vigor— but being very careful to exactly replace logs and stones as we had found them— we searched. “Do you think we’ll find a tiger salamander?”  Matt said.

“That I doubt,” I said. Tiger salamanders very rare, a few local populations limited to South Jersey, few ever get seen.

Soon we found several long tailed salamanders. Surprised again, we discovered a large number of red efts ranging from the tiny to about three inches. These we had never seen in the wild. It became abundantly clear that the pond served as breeding ground. The way its water melded evenly into ground without a defined bank seemed perfect for the salamanders’ exits and entries. The reedy, weedy shallow waters incubate and protect their eggs. Wave action coming up from depths, such as those of the lake nearby, would destroy them.

We spent perhaps an hour-and-a-half searching out a total of 21 salamanders (including a second spotted salamander), and a very large toad that had embedded itself underneath and inside the rotting humus of a thick, aged log. Every one of these salamanders, and the toad, we carefully returned to the environment, first making sure that replacement of log or stone in as exact position as possible did not harm the creature, which we sometimes placed immediately next to the repositioned cover. We exercised this way long enough to begin to merge into the forest ourselves. Humans are not really strangers to the wild, but after lengthy periods in civilization some reacquainting is needed. Better than detachedly observing while on a walk, it’s productive to be physically active in some way, such as searching for creatures impossible to encounter otherwise.

The salamanders themselves are uniquely compelling, having eyes that appear quite perceptive, and yet their being so small and amphibian separates them distinctly from mammals like us. That gives them the sort of gel-like strangeness that is so fascinating.  The narrower-bodied long tailed salamanders are swift, and can run similarly—but not so fast— as a lizard. Even the red efts we found to be surprisingly agile, although most of the time they remained very laid back. Spotted salamanders appear as classic wide-bodied amphibians that give the impression of being a real substantial animal. When I see a picture of one of these, I am reminded of the prehistoric amphibians from my childhood Golden Guide books that so inspired my imagination of prehistoric times. Neither of them we caught exhibited any agility. They plodded about rather slow, but certainly they catch their fill of insects, if mostly larvae.

For two avid fishermen to have left a Swartswood State Park overnight stay much more excited about salamanders than fish indicates an unusual plot twist. These four-legged creatures returned us to a deeper level of time—which is sustained as an ancient constant in forests and other wild lands even as they evolve—than fishing did, as up to date with techniques and our own tackle as we practice. We went into the woods with nothing but our clothes and a camera. And we left it renewed and eager to come back.