Warmwater Fishing In New Jersey - We Have It All!
Chief, Office of Information and Education
When I was a kid growing up in Warren County in the 1960s, fishing occupied most of my thoughts and much of my time. But back then, deciding where to fish and what to pursue was pretty simple. My fishing world and fishing choices were defined by how far I could travel on my banana-seated bike with the longhorn handlebars. It was either go to the creek and fish for trout or go to the farm pond for sunnies, bluegills and the occasional bass. If our fishing gang was feeling really spunky, we'd sneak into the limestone quarry and suffer hours of frustration trying to catch fat, finicky bass that we could see from a mile away in the quarry's crystal clear water.
Fishing opportunities were not only limited by my small world. I knew that even outside that world the variety and size of 'game' fish you could catch in New Jersey back then were rather limited. Trout, bass, pickerel, catfish and panfish were about all you could hope for in New Jersey waters. Magazines like Field and Stream and Outdoor Life provided glimpses of distant lakes that were homes to toothy monsters like northern pike and muskellunge the size of my 9 year-old brother. I remember sitting on the banks of that New Jersey quarry dreaming about the day I'd be able to go to those far off places and fish for those large and exotic fish. And when I was old enough, that's exactly what I did.
Many factors have combined to make our state a great fishing destination. Improvement of water quality since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, the state's natural aquatic habitat diversity, intensive management of existing fisheries and introductions of new species opened the door to expanded fishing opportunities. The creation of new reservoirs and increased public access to rivers, lakes and ponds, along with the increasing popularity of catch and release, enabled the success of entirely new fisheries and vitality of perennial favorites.
For those of you who have drifted away from fishing here it's time to get out there and see how much things have changed. For those of you that never fished here, or any other place for that matter, there's no better time than now to experience the great freshwater angling New Jersey has to offer. The information below will help you get started and provide a road map for navigating the warmwater angling possibilities close to home.
Despite being the fourth smallest (and most densely populated!) state in the nation, we have an astounding quantity and diversity of rivers, streams, lakes and ponds. There are over 4,000 reservoirs, lakes and ponds larger than one acre that provide more than 61,000 acres of open water.
New Jersey's geographic position, where northern ecotypes reach their southern limit and southern ecotypes reach their northern limit, provides an incredible diversity of water bodies. From the crystal clear glacial lakes in the northern counties, to the fertile ponds and reservoirs of central Jersey to the tea-stained acid waters in southern counties, there's water for every type of fish and every type of angler. In addition to bountiful open water, we have over 6,400 miles of rivers and streams, including the outstanding Delaware River which is rapidly becoming one of the top fishing spots in the east.
And there's plenty of access to these waters since over 400 of them - covering about 25,000 acres and many miles of rivers and streams - are open to public angling. Public access has increased dramatically in the recent past and promises to increase even further in the near future thanks to efforts of the DEP's Green Acres Program and the Division of Fish and Wildlife. For a listing of publicly owned water bodies and streams open to angling, along with links to maps of their locations, see www.njfishandwildlife.com/fishplc.htm. Handicap accessible and Delaware River boat access sites are also available.
So what has changed that makes New Jersey the present day angling paradise of long-ago childhood dreams? Most notable is the introduction of new game fish, including those toothy monsters that not too long ago most of us Garden Staters could only fantasize about on the pages of outdoor magazines.
The Division of Fish and Wildlife's Bureau of Freshwater Fisheries has implemented bold and ambitious programs over the last 25 years that have brought us those creatures of the north country, the muskellunge, northern pike and walleye. Now we can get in on the action without having to drive for days and sacrifice ourselves to flesh-eating insects.
Another game fish, the hybrid striped bass, has been introduced by the division and these fish have reels screaming from Sussex County to Cumberland County. These four species have added a whole new dimension to fishing in Jersey. Fishing just for these four species in Jersey lakes can provide all the angling excitement this middle-aged man can endure, not to mention consuming what little time I have to pursue them.
However, I live a stone's throw away from the Delaware River and the piscine sirens of the Delaware call to me often. This too is a more recent temptation and another major reason why freshwater fishing has taken a turn for the better in New Jersey. When I was a kid, the lower two-thirds of the Delaware was pretty much an open sewer. Eels, catfish, carp and the occasional smallmouth bass were all that you could expect in the sometimes multi-colored water near Phillipsburg. The pollution block was so severe near Philadelphia, that in some years few shad made it as far north as Warren County. And it had made the striped bass that migrated from the bay up into the river a memory long before that.
The Clean Water Act turned things around in a relatively short amount of time. Now, in April and May, thousands of feisty shad make their way up the entire length of the river, providing countless days of arm tiring tussles with anglers from many states that come here for this annual event. Although most of the action for shad is in the Delaware River, improving water quality has fish moving into some of the river's tributaries.
Rancocas Creek (Burlington County) shows some real promise for providing a spawning run of shad large enough for anglers to consistently catch. A shad fishery is also developing in the Raritan River thanks to a Division of Fish and Wildlife project in the 1980s that transplanted Delaware River fish there. The Division's efforts also resulted in the removal of migratory impediments such as the breaching of the Fieldsville Dam and the notch placed in Calco Dam.
On top of these anadramous bonuses, the resident fish populations, both native and newcomers, are doing well and make the river an awesome year-round hot-spot. One- and two-pound bronzebacks routinely reinforce their reputation with upper river anglers as the pound-for-pound fighting champs. In the tidal portion of the river from Trenton south, the largemouth bass is king. The average size bucketmouth in the lower river is fourteen inches and it is not uncommon to catch three- and four-pounders. The many coves and creek mouths on the lower tidal portion of the river provide ideal bass habitat, plentiful fishing spots and harbor more than a few lunkers in the 7- to 8-pound range.
Variety is definitely the key word when talking about Delaware River fishing. Some nights while fishing for stripers with live eels, it's difficult to keep the 3- to 5-pound channel cats off the bait long enough to let the stripers have at it. Of course I'm not complaining about catching these scrappers since striper fishing can be slow at times. And if you fish the river at night for stripers, be prepared to meet one of the river's newcomers, the muskellunge. An 8-inch crankbait I was casting for stripers on the river now has two tooth holes as a reminder to set the hook on every strike as if you were fishing for muskie. The fishery is doing so well in the river that river fishing guides can almost guarantee that you'll at least see, if not boat, one.
The river boasts two types of muskies. The pure strain musky is found primarily in the northern part of the river from Frenchtown to the New York State border. These brutes grow to 40-plus pounds and have surprised many river anglers that were fishing for other species. From Phillipsburg south, the river was stocked extensively with tiger muskies, a cross between a pure strain muskie and northern pike. These fish are generally smaller than pure strains but no lightweight by any means, ranging up to 30 pounds.
A fish that is increasing in numbers and popularity adds the coup de grace to Delaware River fishing. Best known as excellent table fare, hefty walleyes are now common in the river and give their fair share of thrills to upper river anglers. If there's any doubt about the thrills, ask George Fundell who caught the state record 13-lb. 9-oz walleye in the Delaware in 1993. What more could you ask for? A big fish that is a game fighter and tastes good to boot.
The Delaware has improved steadily over the last 40 years and is now one of the premier fishing destinations in the East - making my life difficult, if not torturous. In a span of 35 years, I've gone from not enough choices to too many. What's an angler to do in May when you can catch shad, the stripers are beginning to hit along with the muskies, the smallmouths are whacking anything that comes close to their nests and walleyes can be coaxed from eddies with nightcrawlers and minnows?! Life was simpler when fishing wasn't as good. As if this was not enough to gobble up any amount of spare time, there are many other choices besides the Delaware that that can't be ignored when deciding what to pursue and where to fish in New Jersey. Let's start with the newcomers...
The tiger muskie is a hybrid resulting from the cross of a pure-strain muskellunge and a northern pike. They were experimentally reared at the Hackettstown Hatchery and stocked by the Division in 1978 to learn the hatchery-rearing techniques for large esocids like the tiger's parents and to gauge how pike and muskies would fare in New Jersey waters. The tiger muskie program was also meant to measure the potential impacts such large predatory fish would have on existing fish populations.
Tiger muskies were stocked for three years in Spruce Run Reservoir (Hunterdon County) and one year in Budd Lake (Morris County). Within 5 to 6 years after stocking, 20-plus-pounders were being caught in both lakes with no noticeable impact on existing fish stocks in the lakes. Encouraged by the short-term stockings of relatively low numbers of fish, the program was expanded in 1989 to stock select lakes and rivers that had adequate forage and habitat to support a fishery.
Tigers were stocked in 19 water bodies in New Jersey up until 2006 when a decision was made to shift production entirely to pure strain muskies. There are still plenty of monsters out there and best chances for tangling with a trophy tiger are at Furnace Lake in Warren County, Lake Hopatcong in Sussex/Morris County, Rancocas Creek (North and South Branches) in Burlington County, Greenwood Lake in Passaic County and Little Swartswood Lake in Sussex County.
This is the largest member of the "pike family" and it is one of the most highly prized sportfish in North America. It originally occurred in southern Canada east through the Great Lakes to the St. Lawrence River and Lake Champlain, and also in the Ohio and Tennessee River systems to northern Alabama, and in the Upper Mississippi River in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Because of improved methods of artificial propagation and increased stocking programs that distribution has been extended, and more new muskellunge fisheries are being created each year - including those in New Jersey.
There are currently six well-established muskellunge fisheries in the state; Greenwood Lake (Passaic County), Monksville Reservoir (Passaic County), Echo Lake Reservoir (Passaic County), Mountain Lake (Warren County), Lake Hopatcong (Morris/Sussex counties) and the Delaware River. Close behind are rapidly developing fisheries in Deal Lake (Monmouth County), Manasquan Reservoir (Monmouth County), Shenandoah Lake (Ocean County), Carnegie Lake (Mercer County), Cooper River Park Lake (Camden County), Lake Mercer (Mercer County) and Little Swartswood Lake (Sussex County).
The current state record muskellunge, weighing 42 pounds, 13 ounces, was caught through the ice at Monksville Reservoir in 1997. It was estimated to be no older than 12 years old. The current world angling record was taken on the St. Lawrence River in 1957; it weighed 69 lbs. 15 oz. It is doubtful any fish taken in New Jersey will approach this size but it is almost certain that many more 40-pound class fish will be landed by fortunate New Jersey anglers and the future state record will top 50 pounds.
For a recent account of a nice musky from Mountain Lake, read about Eckhardt Debbert's surprise while fishing with his grandchildren.
This was the first toothy monster I had the pleasure of catching in the north woods of Quebec. The prospect of catching one excites me today as much as it did back then, so having them here in New Jersey is exciting.
The Division's current northern pike program was initiated in 1981 with the stocking of Spruce Run Reservoir and Budd Lake (Morris County) after hatchery rearing techniques for the "northern" were developed from 1978 to 1980 using tiger muskellunge. A total of 15 waters have been stocked since 1981. A number of these waters were stocked only once as "surplus production releases." Currently 6 lakes and 3 rivers are stocked with northerns on a regular basis. Northern pike fisheries exist in Spruce Run Reservoir, Budd Lake, Farrington Lake (Middlesex County), Deal Lake (Monmouth Couty), Pompton Lake, Cranberry Lake (Sussex County), Pompton River, Millstone River and the Passaic River.
Fisheries have developed in all these waters with Spruce Run Reservoir, Farrington and Budd lakes being the most consistent for numbers caught and chances for a large pike over 15 lbs. Cranberry Lake, Pompton Lake, Pompton River and the Passaic River between Two Bridges and Dundee Dam (Bergen/Passaic counties) are gaining popularity as northern hot spots.
Walleye fishing, in terms of popularity, is the fastest growing sport fishery in the country. A long-time favorite of the "north woods" fisherman, the walleye, through widespread construction of reservoirs, improved hatchery rearing techniques and intensive stocking efforts, is now available in more diverse regions of the country. Walleye have the potential to reach a large size and offer a challenging fishing experience. The walleye is also active during cold weather periods and is readily caught through the ice making it a fish for all seasons. And many consider it about the best tasting freshwater fish.
The construction of Monksville Reservoir in Passaic County in the late 1980s was the catalyst for developing New Jersey's walleye rearing and stocking program. It was determined early in the planning stage that the reservoir would provide excellent habitat and water quality for developing a walleye fishery. Walleye fingerlings stocked in 1988 survived and grew at an excellent rate and by the mid 90s fish up to 10 pounds were being caught.
Through an aggressive stocking program the Division has expanded the number of walleye lakes from one in 1990 at Monksville to four others today, including Swartswood Lake (Sussex County), Greenwood Lake, Canistear Reservoir (Sussex County) and Lake Hopatcong. Interest in walleye fishing has greatly increased in the last several years, especially at Lake Hopatcong and Swartswood Lake where reports of angler success are routine and fish weighing up to 7 pounds are common. In 2004, Division hatchery staff caught a 13.6 pound lunker in trap nets at Swartswood while collecting females that provide the eggs for the stocking program. This fish was as large as the state record and a new state record walleye could be caught any day from one of the lakes currently stocked by the Division.
The Division annually stocks this hard fighting hybrid in Lake Hopatcong (Morris/Sussex counties), Spruce Run Reservoir (Hunterdon County) and most recently, the Manasquan Reservoir (Monmouth County). Excellent, heart-stopping opportunities can be found at Hopatcong and Spruce Run, with Manasquan hot on their heels. Since this fish can grow to 16 inches by the end of its second year, it does not take long to establish a great fishery in a lake that has everything it needs to thrive. With the potential to grow to 20 pounds in seven years, the Hopatcong record did not stand long, being shattered in 1999 by a 16 pound 4 ounce fish caught in Sussex County's Culver lake.
With all this talk about the new kids on the block, it's only appropriate to switch gears by talking about one of the old timers, the chain pickerel. In fact, chains may be THE old timer since it is the only native predatory warmwater game fish native to the state. It is found in every drainage in New Jersey and its ability to grow and reproduce in acid waters allows it to thrive even in the deep Pinelands where other game fish can not. Chain pickerel are seldom raised in fish hatcheries because they are difficult to rear, but that is not a concern since they already fill practically every niche available to them.
Some hot spots for good chain action are Lake Hopatcong (Morris/Sussex counties), Cranberry Lake (Sussex County), Swartswood Lake (Sussex County), East Creek Lake (Cape May County), Sunset Lake (Cumberland County) and Lake Lenape (Atlantic County). The current state record for chain pickerel is 9 pounds 3 ounces, taken in 1957 from Lower Lake Aetna in Burlington County.
This species has been the main attraction for most warmwater enthusiasts ever since its widespread introduction to New Jersey waters over a century ago. Most ponds, lakes and even some streams provide the wide range of habitat conditions that allow this adaptable fish to thrive in our temperate waters. From High Point to Cape May, and in city ponds to huge lakes, 'black bass' bring millions of hours of excitement to everyone from beginners dipping a worm on a bobber to tournament anglers using the latest in high tech gear. Its popularity springs from an attitude spawned by a mouth large enough to swallow itself, which makes it susceptible to a wide variety of baits and relatively easy to catch.
In addition to the lunker lakes, other New Jersey lakes known for good largemouth fishing are Lake Hopatcong in Morris/Sussex County, Greenwood Lake in Passaic County, Union Lake in Cumberland County, Manasquan Reservoir in Monmouth County, Farrington Lake in Middlesex County, Round Valley Reservoir in Hunterdon County, Monksville Reservoir in Passaic County, Mercer Lake in Mercer County and Menantico Sand Pond in Cumberland County. But don't overlook the many small ponds and lakes that dot the New Jersey landscape. You're sure to catch plenty of decent fish and likely sprinkled in will be a few braggin-sized hawgs.
Some of the water bodies that meet this description in north Jersey are Wanaque Reservoir (Passaic), Monksville Reservoir (Passaic County), Clinton Reservoir (Passaic County), Echo Lake (Passaic County), Greenwood Lake (Passaic County), Oak Ridge Reservoir (Passaic County), Canistear Reservoir (Sussex County), Merrill Creek (Warren County), Round Valley Reservoir (Hunterdon County), Swartswood Lake (Sussex County) and Wawayanda Lake (Sussex County). Central and South Jersey boast three excellent smallmouth fisheries at Manasquan Reservoir (Middlesex County) and Union Lake and Lake Audrey in Cumberland County. The north and south branches of the Raritan, the Delaware, Wanaque, Ramapo, Paulinskill and Musconetcong rivers are best bets for moving water smallies, but they can also be found in smaller streams throughout the northern half of the state.
There are five species of the catfish family inhabiting New Jersey waters. Brown bullhead, yellow bullhead and white catfish are native, whereas, black bullhead and channel catfish are introduced species. As a sportfish, the channel cat is the most popular. First introduced in the Delaware River during the early 1900s, reproducing populations from the original stocking exist today in the river and its tidal tributaries where they provide substantial fisheries. There are no records of early introductions in inland New Jersey lakes and streams. However, a 28-pound channel catfish was caught in Greenwood Lake in 1918, indicating introductions took place there and probably other lakes as well.
The Hackettstown Hatchery now annually raises 45,000 channel catfish that are stocked in 90 waters throughout the state on a biennial basis. Some of the most consistent producers of channel cats weighing more than 10 pounds are the Delaware and Maurice Rivers, Assunpink (Monmouth County), Furnace (Warren County), Hopatcong (Morris/Sussex counties), Mary Elmer (Cumberland County), Rising Sun (Monmouth County), Stone Tavern (Monmouth County) and Sunset (Cumberland County) lakes. However, most stocked waters, even the smallest park ponds, are capable of producing trophy size channels as demonstrated by the 26 lb., 9 oz. monster caught at tiny, 5 acre, Holmdel Park Pond (Monmouth County) in 1988. Many a youngster will have the thrill of a lifetime when these cats mature in the many smaller urban setting ponds and lakes that are now being stocked with channel cats.
There you have it. The cat's out of the bag. Fishing has never been better in Garden State. The variety of warmwater and coolwater fish populations, the amount of aquatic habitat and the diversity of that habitat combine to make the tiny Garden State a fishing destination that could exhaust the most ambitious angler. The amount and diversity of water is even recognized by professional B.A.S.S. anglers from New Jersey. Several contribute their national success to the fact that fishing all the various water bodies and conditions found in our state has prepared them for many of the conditions they must face throughout the country. And that's just fishing for bass. When you consider all the other species we have and the variety of habitat they require it is easy to see how we can say, "We have it all."