Friday, December 30, 2011

New Jersey Pine Barrens Winter Pickerel

Imagine catching a 9-pound, 3-ounce pickerel. It happened in 1957 on Lower Aetna Lake, not named after the insurance company, thank God. Associated with the New Jersey Pine Barrens, though not deep within them to the best of my knowledge, it's unlike how some bogs virtually need to be stumbled on during a long hike to be found without a name. For about four years the Lake Aetna pickerel was the world record, and it warms my soul to know it came from the Pines, since this is a special place to me.

Nevertheless, that former world record, now state record, may not be New Jersey's largest. I take angler/author Art Scheck's word as the truth. Out of the remnants of a canal in Sussex County, not to be confused with the Delaware and Raritan, his wife caught a pickerel over 10 pounds--then released it. I would have taken the rewards, and possibly the trouble as so many record holders have taken heat, although they did messy PR jobs in some respects, but life tends to be messy in some affairs for everyone. However, I fully sympathsize with Art's story. The greatness and mystery of the world includes that it doesn't all get reported. I can't be an absolutely firm believer in this story because I don't know Art Scheck personally beyond his revealing book: A Fishing Life is Hard Work. But every indication I get from his writing style leads me to believe it's true. 

Something in me wishes such a fish were limited to the Pines. They just aren't; the world record 9 pound, 6 ounce pickerel came from Georgia. Always, always, though, the Pine Barrens are home to pickerel, which tolerate that tannic acid in water that doesn't freeze as much during the winter as that of the state's northern counties, since the climate is warmer, and aquifer springs are fairly common, which helps somewhat if you have a winter fishing adventure in mind to these desolate sandy flatlands and bogs. 

Lake Hopatcong pickerel are not native in their "Many Coves of Honey Water," a meaning the Native Americans are reputed to have given the lake, and which subtly suggests the dark, tannic, winding bogs found in the pines rather than Morris and Sussex Counties. Introduced in 1852, the Knee Deep Club's historical record is 6 pounds, 9 ounces. Plenty prowl Hopatcong, but in my experience fishing Lake Musconetcong (for years before it was virtually destroyed in 2010 by vegetation killing chemicals) how many over three pounds we caught I don't know off hand, many. They averaged about two pounds--but we never got one over three-and-a-half and 24 1/4". I heard a story about a 30- incher, but I also heard a story about a 32-incher from Mirror Lake at Browns Mills--in the Pines.

From a 15-acre pond in Stafford Township, I caught numerous pickerel averaging 10 to 12 inches, with one 19-incher slamming my Rapala in April. I've had the same experience at Turn Mill Pond, where others report larger fish. At Lake Absegami they averaged about 19 inches. But the real lure of these waters may not be numbers or size--if the thought of a real gator existing somewhere back there is appealing as an ultimate goal you almost know you will only reach in your dreams. The intrigue involves finding lakes and bogs themselves, then plying them to discover fish or not. If you go about it crudely, just showing up and not taking notice of environmental subtlety, you may not be disappointed, you may find it nice, but unless nature is contemplated and studied with the sort of attention rightly given an art work, the joy of being out there will not make itself known to you, nor will it be communicable to someone else. I freely admit I do not notice everything, and my moods are very changeable, sometimes more focused than other times, sometimes swelling slowly to surprise me with an internal high tide.

Yes, the lure of the Pines ultimately calls from deep within your own consciousness. But you have to actually go there to experience yourself in relation to the Pines alone. Here are some helpers on how to catch winter Pines pickerel.


The more you acquire practicality as your own second nature, the more it resembles art. But I don't know that any man has lived without some artlessness; not even Goethe was himself a perfect work of art. So take some winter pointers if you don't already know them and apply:

  1.  Using lively shiners (unless you can pot or buy killies, they are hardier). Medium size work, especially for the smaller pickerel, but large, and even extra-large allow long casts, and are attractive to large pickerel from further away.
  2.  Use no split shots or sinkers. A barrel swivel is enough weight (nearly none, it connects your leader) unless you fish water deeper than about six feet. In such situations, use a small split shot, or strip lead to adjust as you approximate. Lighter mono allows longer casts, and managabilty, but use no less than six pound test--a large pickerel and heavy cover may persuade the use of 15 pound performance braid. But braid will handle poorly if temperatures fall enough below freezing.
  3. The circle hook persuasion is on the rise, and some who use them claim no leader is needed. But 15 pound test fluorocarbon is not so thick, is abrasion resistant, is less visible than mono, certainly less so than steel, and prevents razor-sharp teeth cutting your line. Tie a 16 inch length to the swivel, other end to a simple, plain shank, size 6 hook. A long shank allows easier hook removal, but I prefer to use a regular length shank from long standing habit and proclivity to liking less metal on the line.
   4.  Set that hook pretty soon so you don't gut hook--allow the pickerel's mad dash, wait about six seconds for it to turn the shiner headfirst into its mouth, and set.
   5.  Always live line available cover--let the shiner swim and settle to bottom, then lift rod tip, retrieve, let settle. Often you must swim a shiner or killie over and into branches or stumps. (A hit, even in winter, may be a visible thrill.)
   6.  Any evidence of residual aquatic vegetation with enough depth (about two or three feet or more of water that may be too tannic to see bottom) is fishy evidence.
   7.  If you can fish a sunny, mild day, this is to your advantage, particularly in the late afternoon. If the afternoon has been especially mild and sunny, stick around into evening if you can. The magic hour around sunset may be most promising for a large pickerel.
   8.  Cast plenty of  range. Don't bobber fish unless you've brought along extra rod(s). Live lining is live finding, and laying a couple rods aside with bobbers out may only inhibit your freedom to fish an entire body of water, possibly not. It may be possible to fish multiple lakes, bogs and ponds, and even stream or river sloughs in a given day. You may not find cover or vegetation everywhere, so concentrate on fishing the "deeper" water, which is typically fairly shallow, when not much else is present. Springs may not be evident to you, but they are out there. During winter pickerel are drawn to the milder temperature of their influence. Keep them in mind even if you don't see them. If you get a strike, catch the fish (or miss it), and fish the same area in case it's a "hotspot." (Even though winter water is cold.)

Simple and Sweet (But Acidic)

Happy New Year!

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