Nothing shuts the door on winter as when the ice breaks up and the first of 9,200 annual trout arrive at Lake Hopatcong in the initial days after the vernal equinox. Rainbows, brookies and browns, averaging 10 1/2" in length and ready to catch, arrive at their final destination after a year and a half of pampering at the Pequest Hatchery in Warren County. Along with them come many more thousands of "fingerling" size walleye, channel catfish and the relatively unfamiliar hybrid striped bass in the ongoing "put, grow, and take" program. More stocked fish come from the Knee Deep Club, the lake's preeminent fishing organization. Thus begins the annual cycle of Hopatcong's favorite sport. Nothing brings more delight to all ages than catching a righteous fish.
Rich Giessuebel is a biologist by trade, teaches eighth grade, lives with his family on Lake Hopatcong, and fishes. He has fished all over the world. He is an ardent fly fisherman and has fished waterways from our own Beaver Kill and Musconetcong to the most famous trout streams on earth. He has written books and given talks on the subject. But he still gets excited when he describes, with passion, fishing on New Jersey's largest lake. He is the resident expert on how to make your fishing trip to Lake Hopatcong a success. "Our lake", Rich calls it with love and respect for the life it holds and the joy it can bring. Through his experience we can begin to appreciate the bounty of New Jersey's largest lake.
Every spring day spent fishing for rainbows or browns is precious. The life of an Hopatcong trout is tenuous- few survive through the year. Because of excessive weed growth and resultant oxygen depletion, the upper 20 feet of water in the lake become the only habitable place for trout by summer. And as the water temperature in this top layer approaches 75° (62° is optimal), trout become a rare sight. Undeniably, some survive by spending the dog days of summer in a cool creek off the lake. In fact the state record Rainbow Trout (most certainly a holdover at over 13lb.)- was caught in Lake Hopatcong a few years ago. But a trout over 10" is exceptional after July. Trout can be pursued before fishing season opens in early April as long as they are released unharmed.
To Rich, the lake represents both "the old fishin' hole" and big game adventure. He has spent a whole year learning about and locating the prized hybrid striped bass using down riggers and depth finders, mapping the lake and it's upcroppings. The Hybrid Striper, relatively new to the lake, is a cousin to the Striped Bass of ocean surf fame, and has quickly become the premium catch. The Hybrid Striper is the hardest to find and one of the biggest fish in the lake, growing up to 20 lbs. (The Knee Deep record is 9 lb. 9 oz.) In the days of the Morris Canal hundreds of barges crossed the lake dropping ballast at regular spots. These spots- where the lake's bottom now suddenly rises from 40 to 20 feet under the water- are popular with hybrid stripers. Using a depth finder and trolling herring, Phoebe or Rebel lures at about 18 feet, a good fisherman can expect only one or two stripers a week to start. That's until you find the spots. Try around the Yacht Club over near Bertrands Island.
Hopatcong's name originates from the Lenni Lenape Indian word "Huppakong" meaning Honey Waters of Many Coves. The coves are part of what makes Hopatcong a great bass lake, and many tournaments are held here. When you know the lake you can get a stringer of bass on any day in about 2 hours. Largemouth bass are probably the most fished in this water. The record is 7 lb. 8 oz., but consider anything over 3 lbs. a good fish and 5 lbs. a tournament winner. Rich has seen a dead 10 lb. largemouth. "There are fish out there that just don't get caught. Bass are part of that story". The smallmouth bass is the strongest fighting fish pound for pound. Growing to 4 lbs., smallmouths just don't like to get caught. They jump, contest your command, and would bite you if they had teeth. Find them in isolated locations over rocks, where they are hunting crayfish. Use frogs, real or rubber, with light tackle and your battle with the smallmouth is on.
Trout and bass aren't Lake Hopatcong's whole fish story. Walleye are rare, despite the thousands stocked each year. Pickerel are everywhere. The largest run about 5 lb. and can be found in the deepest, coldest water by springs and rock formations. Fishing at about 20 feet around Raccoon Island will yield 3-5 nice size pickerel a day. Cast anything- a worm, a hot-dog, whatever- into the lake at night and you will catch a catfish. In fact a night's fishing can yield 100-200 catfish a night! Channel Cats are Hopatcong's biggest - the state record fish (33 lb.) was caught off Nolan's Point a few years ago. And don't disregard the panfish. Crappie and perch can yield a memorable day of fishing for the whole family. As Mr. Giessuebel puts it, "People can come up here... I would advise them to use a 1/2" bobber, the smallest you can get and a little lure called a Rufus Jr., which happens to be a bucktail, 1/32 or 1/64 oz. It's very small.- no bait necessary. Put it 3 feet under the bobber, cast out anywhere along the shore line and watch it disappear!" Retrieve slow to get crappies, retrieve fast for yellow perch. Use light line because these fish are line sensitive. "The lake is loaded with fish. You can catch fish 8 days a week, 24 hours a day."
The lake's acquifers, refurbished by winter snows, run cold water into the lake through early spring. As summer approaches, the boats, skiiers, and swimmers take over Lake Hopatcong, and fish get harder to find. Spring is the time for hook, line and sinker, and the lake offers 28 miles of shoreline to explore.
Lake Hopatcong, of course, isn't the only large body of fishable water in the Skylands, but the principals are the same- look for structure in the water, fish the drop-offs, find the right temperature. Round Valley Reservoir in Hunterdon County or Merrill Creek Reservoir in Warren County both receive thousands more stocked fish every year. In these deeper, cooler waters you will find Lake Trout, a fish that has become rare in Hopatcong's warmer, shallower water. Round Valley approaches depths of 160 feet in spots, and Lakers lurk at around 80 feet on warmer days. Lake trout are big game fish. They grow to exceed 20 lbs. and must be over 24" to keep. Spring yields great fishing off the shore at Round Valley (they say trout favor marshmallows in the spring). The state record brown trout-18 lb. 5 oz.- was caught by a woman fishing live bait in shallow water off a boat ramp. The state record smallmouth bass (7 lb. 2 oz.) was also caught in Round Valley- by a woman.
Anybody can be a fishing boat captain for a day. Go to a bait and tackle shop and rent a boat and engine. Bring clip-on down riggers, a thermometer to find the right temperature and a portable depth finder to pinpoint locations and you are a big game fisherman like on Lake Ontario or anywhere in the world. Or try marshmallows, hot-dogs, or shiners under a bobber from a boat ramp or bridge. Either way you will quickly find something at the end of the line. And the surprises never end...