Saturday, January 31, 2009

Ice Fishing New Jersey in 2009

I've been ice fishing three times over the past few weeks. These three trips have consequently brought me to some of the Garden State's most revered freshwater fisheries: Round Valley Reservoir, Spruce Run Reservoir, and Jefferson Lake. As a fly fisherman whose primary interest is catching wild trout on rod-and-fly, I rarely, if ever, fish waters like the aforementioned lakes. Indeed, all three are well-regarded: in addition to claiming a significant amount of state fishing records, Round Valley is the southern-most body of water in the United States to contain a naturally reproductive lake trout population; Spruce Run is known for its hybrid bass and its ferocious northern pike; and Jefferson Lake is considered a solid producer of black crappie. It was therefore a fantastic experience to fish these three reservoirs (Jefferson Lake is a minor one, the other two are major water-supply centers).

Ice fishing is cold, strenuous, frustrating, back-breaking, and dangerously slippery. It is also rewarding, full of exercise, and fun. Most importantly, ice fishing is an activity that allows ardent anglers the opportunity to catch fish in the most difficult season of the year. For those who have never done it, I will briefly describe the process.

Firstly, you choose a body of water safely frozen over (the cold winter of 2009 has basically made every lake - and some sluggish rivers - in northern New Jersey good targets). You then pack up all the essential equipment you'll need: a device to cut through the ice (augers are the most common; my family, however, uses a spud bar), tip-ups (wooden instruments that alert you when a fish bites), an ice strainer (dualistically used to scoop ice from a newly formed hole and break-up ice that adheres to tip-ups throughout the day), bait (typically minnows), various tackle (hooks, sinkers, extra line, etc.), a portable chair, and food/drink (beer has sustained and warmed ice fishers for millennia). Next, you drive to the lake and place your equipment onto a sled (we use a cheap Wal-Mart plastic one) and begin cutting a hole in the ice. Once all your tip-ups are located in the water, you sit back and wait.

Last weekend's trip to Round Valley marked my fiancée Jackie's first ice fishing experience. After some initial trepidation, she stepped out on the ice and enjoyed herself. My best friend Will also came, as did my father Marvin, his neighbor Joe, his co-worker Brett, and my little brother Sean. After a few hours we had only caught one fish - a chain pickerel that my dad noticed had not set off the tip-up properly. Jackie, however, ice skated on a frozen lake for the first time. Everyone had a great time, even if the spot was overcrowded and over-fished.

On January 30th, I went to Spruce Run by myself. I arrived shortly after 11 AM and stayed until 5:30 PM. During the entirety of my stay I had one flag go up; it, however, turned out to be nothing more than an overzealous minnow. It wasn't a complete failure: I was able to spend a few hours to myself, get some exercise (10 inches of ice is a lot of work!), read a book, and enjoy a beautiful sunset. My decision to go there was based almost entirely on a desire to catch a northern pike. My father believes that pike are the holy grail of freshwater fish. He claims to have caught one twenty years ago, and ever since he's talked about how rare and singular a fish it is. It is not. And the only way I could ever prove its ubiquity to him would be to catch a few myself. Alas, I spent six cold hours on a windy, frozen lake because of an incessant need to prove a point. A point, it should be noted, that I have YET to make.

Today, though, my father and I drove to Jefferson Lake (located in Sussex County) and had much better luck. After parking in a very full lot, we made a bee-line to a cove once suggested to him by his wife's late father. It was an excellent spot. Thirty minutes after we got there I caught a 24+ inch pickerel; it was so big it almost didn't fit through the hole I chopped. We ended up with seven fish total (not a bad day, especially following my six hours of nothing on Spruce Run): 3 largemouth bass (one was about 16 inches and 2 lbs., the other two smaller), 2 pickerel (my monster and a smaller one), and 2 black crappies (my family's first crappies through the ice). It was an exciting day.

Ice fishing is also a great opportunity to see wildlife. During my three days on the ice I saw: a red fox, white-tailed deer, squirrel, vulture, red-tailed hawk, slate-eyed junco, tern, starling, flicker, pileated woodpecker, and a kingfisher (must be tough for kingfishers when all the water's frozen!).

If you've never been ice fishing, I suggest you bundle up and give it a try!

Image #1: Will and Jackie making a hole at Round Valley.
Image #2: Sunset at Spruce Run.
Image #3: Jefferson Lake.
Image #4: The big pickerel.
Image #5: A tip-up.
Image #6: The big(ger) bass.
Image #7: My dad's feast.


John said...

Hey Matt,

I also did some ice fishing in New Jersey this season. I had never gone before, and I really enjoyed it. I completely agree that it's frustrating, strenuous, and great fun.

Anonymous said...

Ha ha!! your old man was so proud that you guys caught those bass that day!! he had that picture of him holding the stringer up at work for like a month and a half telling everyone that came in about it! not to mention gloating to brett!!

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