New Jersey doesn’t jump out when you think of ice-fishing destinations. When I tell coworkers and other non-fishing friends that I go ice fishing in New Jersey, most of them are surprised. But, make no mistake, aside from exceptionally warm winters, the Garden State offers quality ice fishing every year, with a variety of species that rivals anywhere else in the country.
Whether you’re a bait-and-wait/tip-up ice fisherman or a jigging junkie, New Jersey has something to offer. With all the public water, it’s sometimes difficult to pin down where to catch what and how. Lakes that offer consistent action with panfish may have a noticeable absence of flags throughout the day. Other lakes that produce pickerel, bass, and even pike almost never produce even a sunfish on a jig. If you’re looking to start ice fishing in New Jersey or just need some fresh ideas, here’s a breakdown of popular ice-fishing species, where to look for them, and how to go about catching them.
• Walleye | Swartswood Lake
There is no question which New Jersey lake has the best population of walleyes. Every spring, the good folks at the Hackettstown Hatchery net pre-spawn fish from Swartswood to milk and produce the next generation of Jersey “marble eyes”. The numbers they pull are astounding, with a healthy amount of big fish.
Swartswood can be a tough nut to crack, but the sheer number of fish in the lake makes it your best bet to catch walleye, quite possibly a trophy. To find fish, a quality sonar or flasher is a necessity. A combination unit such as the Humminbird Ice Helix 7 Chirp GPS G3N All-Season wields both traditional CHIRP sonar and a flasher mode that allows you to quickly check for depth, structure, baitfish, and, of course, walleye by moving the transducer between holes.
While tip-ups certainly catch walleye through the ice, most anglers who target them choose to jig because it allows the mobility to move around the ice and look for fish. A slightly heavier jigging rod than the typical noodle panfish rod will give you more backbone to steer walleye to the hole, especially if you hook into a bigger fish.
A number of artificial lures can be used including spoons, small rattle traps, and a traditional ice lure like the Rapala Jigging Rap. Blade baits are a huge favorite among local anglers, and many rely heavily on the Jersey-made Binsky by Fish Sense Lures. Blade baits can be dropped to the bottom, and emit a ton of flash and vibration with a quick snap and lift of the rod. Continuously lifting the bait up and back down to the bottom has duped countless Jersey walleyes.
• Northern Pike | Pompton Lake
Ten years ago, you could ice-fish Pompton Lake on any weekend and see perhaps two or three other anglers. The state has been putting big numbers of northern pike in there for years, and the fishery was almost completely unnoticed. Today, things have changed, and on any given weekend, parts of the lake can look like a parking lot. Due to the crowds and what often comes along with them, “No Parking” signs have started popping up at some of the lake’s more popular spots.
Despite the traffic, there is no question that high numbers of pike remain in Pompton, and fish pushing 40 inches are not uncommon. And, even though the north end of the lake can get crowded, there are plenty of other spots worth fishing. Some pike move into deeper water in the 40-pound leader should follow. You’ll hear numerous hook suggestions from different pike anglers, but I’ve become completely reliant on circle hooks. A small 1/0 or 2/0 circle hook catches the corner of a pike’s mouth on most strikes. It practically eliminates gut-hooked fish and takes the guesswork out of when to set the hook since all you need to do is keep pulling with steady pressure.
If you can conjure up small suckers for bait, they will definitely work, but the extra-large or jumbo shiners sold at most bait shops will get the job done. Put the circle hook through the back of the shiner so it can swim freely, and be patient as you wait for your flag to go up.
• Trout | Green Turtle Pond
Catching trout through the ice in New Jersey can be tricky. Merrill Creek and Round Valley reservoirs have the best holdover trout populations in the state, but Merrill Creek is closed to ice fishing, and most years, Round Valley does not freeze over. Because of this, anglers looking for hard-water trout are limited to lakes with winter stockings.
Sitting on 40 acres in Passaic County, Green Turtle Pond is one of the best options with 330 winter stocked trout. The trout stocking program started on Nov. 23, 2020, and the trout are between 14-to-18 inches, according to the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife.
Trout suspend and cruise at various depths in the water column, so have the proper electronics. With Green Turtle being a small lake, you can move around while looking for fish. Don’t count out very shallow water with weed growth – I’ve caught rainbows at Furnace Lake in less than two feet of water.
Jigging for trout through the ice is the way to go, and having some type of live bait is key. Trout love butterworms, so you can skip the mousies and spikes. Use a small jighead, Little Cleo or Kastmaster just big enough to get your butterworm anywhere in the water column. Constantly keep an eye on your flasher. If you see fish moving through, adjust your depth accordingly. If there’s one trout moving at a certain depth, chances are it’s not the only one.
• Pickerel, Perch, Bass | Lake Hopatcong
No list of New Jersey fishing locales would be complete without Lake Hopatcong. The “Big Lake” sees more visitors to its hardwater each year than any other lake in New Jersey.
Hopatcong is a fish factory. A huge population of alewife herring supplies every predatory fish with a steady diet.
A day on the ice at Hopatcong consistently provides steady action. The shallow, weed-lined coves and bays hold a variety of fish the entire winter, and there’s really no trick to finding them. Targeting 5-to-10 feet of water with weed growth on the bottom is your best bet. And, Hopatcong is covered with large flats from the State Park in the South, to Woodport in the North, and every nook and cranny in between.
To make the best of your day on Hopatcong, set four tip-ups and save your fifth device for a jigging rod. Tip-ups should be in a perimeter from where you’ll be jigging, away from any foot traffic you’ll be making. If you don’t think it makes a difference, reconsider – it does. On my underwater camera, I watched fish scatter countless times when a friend walked over to the hole.
Jigging can be kept simple. An ultralight panfish rod will enable you to detect the lightest bites and still handle any bass or pickerel that bites. Any number of jigs will work, including the Rapala Jigging Rap, Bay de Noc Swedish Pimples, and tiny spoons. If you’re targeting bluegill, a very small jighead is best, and always finish your lure off with live bait. Larger jigs for perch, bass, and pickerel should be tipped with a mousie or butterworm; tip small jigs for bluegill with a few spikes.
For your fish-trap spread, any type of tip-up will work. With pickerel being prevalent, it’s safe to use either 20- or 25-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. Hook a medium or large shiner through the back on a size 1 or 2 baitholder and set it a foot off the bottom. Then, settle in with your jigging rod and wait for flags to fly.