During the 1970s, spotting a 16-inch smallie—which was considered a big smallmouth bass in Mercer County’s windowpane-clear Stony Brook— was enough for an afternoon. At the end of a week spent searching stretches and holes, the sight filled out the hours, and if you could maneuver that fish in the direction of your 3-inch yellow Mister Twister riding steadily on a size 2 hook, the sensation felt almost too good to be true.
We didn’t catch many that big, though the numbers of small fish were legendary. One friend claimed to have caught a 4-pounder at “The Bend.” The current careening against the rocks and forming a right-angle turn through 5-foot depths near Prettybrook Road held fish, but I never believed those words. A 17-incher—the longest smallmouth bass I know about from there—did not even weigh 3 pounds.
I took a long hiatus from New Jersey bronzebacks after 1979, when I moved to the Jersey Shore and harvested clams commercially, and occasionally fished for fluke. I did fish smallies on the Connecticut River, Quabbin Reservoir, and in a local pond while away at college near Amherst, Massachusetts, but I didn’t renew my quest for big Jersey smallies until the early 2000s.
In 2002, I took my son, Matt, then three years old, below the North Branch of the Raritan and Lamington River confluence. I’d caught a smallmouth in the Lamington River late in September 2000, and I knew plenty more were likely, but it wasn’t until the summer of 2006 that a big one appeared.
Hiking and wading far downstream one afternoon, Matt and I caught and released several average stream bass and some a little better on long twister-tail worms. On a return trip, we saw a smallie of at least 20 inches near the confluence. Matt said, “It’s bigger than any we would expect here.”
We came back with a bucket of shiners two days later, and encountered an old man fishing the spot who claimed to have caught a 21-incher the day before in the Lamington. “The hole near the iron bridge,” he told us. I imagined that larger bass had migrated upstream and into the other river. There’s a reason I thought that: Along with fishing that summer, Matt and I snorkeled, observing bass and trout closely. We observed half a dozen bass in a smallish hole one afternoon and found none in the same hole the next. They’d moved.
Shiners and my young son went together. I carried another bucket below the confluence during the summer of 2007, when a swirl as large as a tractor-trailer tire opened under a shiner I cast. After the smallmouth tested 6-pound mono, we measured the fish at almost 19 inches. I felt convinced it was not the big one we had seen, but regardless of big fish dying off and migrating, we thought larger holes were reliable. After we observed several smallies as large as 18 inches on the bottom of clear water 10 feet deep under a bridge the same summer, we swore to tell no one else the spot’s location, soon coming back with another bucket of shiners.
I instructed Matt to cast first, far back under that bridge where I imagined a big one lurked in the shadow. Then I simply side-armed a shiner 10 feet, the bait splatting against the surface a foot or two from a concrete abutment. Three large bass rushed forward. The red eyes of the bass nearest the bait targeted that shiner and his open maw engulfed it. That one measured 17 ¼ inches. We found time to return here only once more, but I caught an 18-incher elsewhere, below the confluence.
Two years later, I occasionally used live killies—leftovers from fluking—but primarily cast Senkos into the South Branch of the Raritan, sighting an 18-incher that wouldn’t hit my worm. In 2012, I caught a two-pounder within the town limits of Flemington, feeling embarrassed it took so long. The bass took a five-inch Senko whole, was hooked well and released in prime condition, but I had been writing about this river on my blog. Comments from readers spoke of big ones, as did a report in 2010 about a 6.6-pound smallmouth caught in the South Branch on a crayfish and weighed at Efinger Sporting Goods.
Persistence would yield results, I told myself, An angler always finds a way if he lets his mind lead. Catching a big bass is a thinking game, and all games require thought, yet walking, wading, paddling and grasping the reel seat are the only ways to get into position.
Reports are also essential to understanding the river, though secondarily, and every year I hear about 4- and 5-pounders caught in the Raritan system. What does that tell you? There are big bass in the river! Pinpoint where they might be by rejecting the rest of the flow.
That’s a lot of water to eliminate. By hunches, intuition, fish sense, whatever you care to call it, I was ready to connect in 2013.
First, I got another 2-pounder from Neshanic near a tailout where water deepened slightly to about 5 feet. Two months later, on a September afternoon after a night in the 40s, I trudged through cool water for at least a quarter of a mile. I knew where to go, and if I arrived only by a feeling in the gut, that feeling was planted there by my head, because I previously examined every feature of the river.
I winged a 5-inch Senko under the tree where that five-foot dip holds fish. As the Senko sank, I felt a tick, let 6-pound test tighten, and set the hook. The struggle lasted several minutes, and though the bass never leapt, it bulldogged, refusing to come easily, clearly visible, sidewinding. I measured 19¼ inches of thick-bodied bronze, and then released what I was sure weighed 4 pounds.
High flows and cramped time nearly left me ruing the loss of the remainder of the 2013 season, but I still wanted to take my son to the South Branch. I’ve usually gone solo, sometimes with Mike Maxwell, a friend who fishes the river.
I was with Mike when I hooked a large smallmouth. I fish 15-pound-test Power Pro on the other spool of my 430ssg Penn and hadn’t readjusted the drag when I switched spools for 6-pound-test mono. “It’s going to run,” I thought, and reached to loosen the drag too late. The line snapped.
Many lures will catch river smallmouths, but restrict yourself to just a few, and you can concentrate on a singular process: wading, searching out nooks, casting, and retrieving. Almost all the time, I fish a 5-inch soft-plastic stickbait. Average stream bass of 9 inches long take fat 5-inch worms without hesitation, so I could use a worm considerably fatter and longer for the big ones I seek. Buy an O-ring loader, place that ring at worm’s center, and slide a size 2 plain shank hook underneath the ring edge placed there. You’re ready for action!
The time we had left that day had narrowed, though I’d told Mike before we left for the river that a 4-pounder awaited. Two Septembers previous, I hooked a big one in the same stretch while twitching a wacky-rigged Senko. It zigzagged violently in slow water and pulled the hook.
The Raritan system is not the only big bass flow in New Jersey. Everyone knows the Delaware River has bruisers, but so do smaller rivers. In August 2014, my family went to Maine on vacation, and I hoped Matt and I would catch the biggest smallmouths of our lives.
Long Pond is a fine example of a Maine lake, situated on Mount Desert Island, seven miles long, deep, with boulder drops along steep shoreline. It’s full of bass, though we never caught any larger than 2½ pounds that summer, paddling long. The previous summer, we caught a couple weighing almost 3½ pounds.
The day after we returned to New Jersey, I took Matt to the Paulinskill River. We’d encountered big bass here in July 2012, one of them snapping Matt’s mono, another caught weighing 2 ½ pounds. I sight-casted to a bass looming large like a carp. It turned and struck clean as a Labrador retriever would snatch a duck. The struggle was lacking, as if the bass was too bloated to fight, but when it was lip-gripped before my eyes, my best smallmouth yet looked like a little armored submarine, measuring 19 3/8 inches. Thick bodied, it surely weighed more than 4 pounds.
We drove upstream a mile or so, stopping at a spot I thought too shallow to hold any big ones, but worth fishing for smaller bass. Matt cast to a pocket not much bigger than a bathtub, but deep enough to conceal what was there. I looked under the bridge upstream from where he cast and heard him holler, “That’s a big bass!” I shifted my look, seeing the fish swim in a semi-circle, threatening to break off against rocks, but Matt kept the line taut and clear, and soon grasped the 18-incher. It was comparable by weight to an 18 ½-incher he had caught on Lake Hopatcong the previous summer. We never expected to beat our personal bests in New Jersey, especially not the day after Maine had let us down, and we laughed at the irony.
This article was originally published online in August 2020.