The Making of a New Jersey Bass Fisherman

The Garden State's challenging fisheries nurture a resilient breed of bass anglers.

Ah, the Dirty Jerz. On the surface, one would hardly expect the most densely populated state in the union with the nickname “the armpit of America” to resemble anything close to a stereotypical fisherman’s paradise. Yet, generation after generation, the Garden State has bountifully produced an extraordinary number of skillful and dedicated anglers. So, what is it about being raised outta’ steel in the swamps of Jersey that forges such a passionate disposition towards bass fishing? Well, just like Taylor Ham vs. Pork Roll, there isn’t a singular agreeable answer, but the ambition, adversity, and appreciation shared across county lines codifies a common bond between Jersey bass fisherman that has continued to challenge the status quo and impugn stereotypes within the freshwater community. 

Growing up fishing in New Jersey is akin to playing T-ball and facing a 90 mile-per-hour fastball in your first-ever at-bat. The challenges faced in catching trophy—even relatively sizable bass—often dissuades potential anglers from pursuing the sport further almost instantaneously for many would-be outdoorsman. The skunks that fisherman face early-on in Jersey are metaphorically equivalent to the stench of the Northern Turnpike, and those who make it past this initiation phase are then met with stringent competition from numerous dedicated and experienced anglers vying for the same stretch of natural resources throughout the calendar year.

While many anglers across the country anxiously await a late-spring shad spawn or a fall turnover in a backcountry, isolated lake, the Jersey bass angler rises with anticipation in sub-freezing temperatures, desperately optimistic that the ramp will be cleared and the top layer of ice navigable in their aluminum 9.9. 

Despite sounding like a dystopian fishing reality, it is exactly these arduous conditions that box us Jersey natives into a corner, requiring creativity, tenacity, and our world-renowned toughness to succeed on the water. Suddenly, there is beauty in the warm-water release from the wastewater treatment plant and our perception gradually shifts as opportunity is revealed in the most unexpected places. 

jersey bass fisherman
Whether it’s breaking ice on 8-degree mornings, or traversing treacherous rocks at Patterson falls, you won’t keep Jersey boys away from trophy smallmouth.

One of the first things a New Jersey angler must learn to do is adjust expectations and redefine the understanding of “success.” You’d be hard pressed to find a truly dedicated Jersey bass fisherman who equates a 12-pound largemouth on a guided trip on O.H. Ivie Lake to a 6-pounder caught in the summer heat in the southern swamplands. Success on the water is subjective, and the Jersey angler understands this better than anyone in the outdoors. 

jersey bass fisherman kai richards
Jersey bass fishermen are no strangers to going off the beaten path for a chance at a trophy fish.

In an era of unrealistic social-media comparisons and increasingly widening gaps in technological and economic resources available to anglers nationally, this relativity mindset is an essential development that Jersey anglers face head-on early in their respective careers. Once this mental inhibition has been breached, the Jersey angler can begin the process of reinvigorating passion and imaging possibility on their native waters. There remains an imperative and simple fact regardless of how one perceives the fishing quality of Jersey waters: New Jersey holds bass, and those bass eat. 

Even during the coldest months of the year in the Garden State, big bass are willing to eat if you know where to look. (Pictured: the author displays a hefty cold-water Jersey smallmouth.)

Japan is famous for its innovative approaches in the bass-fishing community, bringing new techniques and approaches from overseas to more conducive fishing prospects in the west. Jersey is the gritty equivalent—not as pretty, not as technical, but equally productive in its ability to manufacture innovation through the sloughs of adversarial conditions. Put two native Floridians on the bank of Spruce Run during the spawn, and I’ll show you two Texas-rigged ribbon-tail worms with 3/16-ounce tungsten. Put two Jersey anglers on the same bank, and you’ll have five different opinions on the best method of attack. Bass are so reveled in the angling community because of the wide range of diverse targeting strategies, but anglers based in areas of low pressure are often not forced to take a creative or finesse approach to their angling strategies to catch. The Jersey angler is different. 

Doubling up hits different when you take the train from Times Square in waders to get to your favorite pre-spawn hole.

Have you ever experienced a day in which the only way to trigger a bite was to burn a wacky-rigged Senko across the surface during a pre-front? Or seen an angler win a lunker bag on a banana-colored glidebait (on multiple occasions)? Desperation paired with determination is a pungent concoction for creativity, and when creativity leads to success on a local level, it directly transpires to extraordinary accomplishments on a national stage. 

New Jersey has also found itself on the forefront of the modern angling debate stage in its relation to new widely available technologies, with Google Maps and social media inspiring discovery and rapid resource degradation. The consequences of the post-pandemic fishing age are more obviously discernible in their impact on New Jersey waters than elsewhere, with astounding results and precipitous quality decline being observed simultaneously. Google Maps has propelled forward a modern era of rediscovery pioneered by youth anglers, particularly those raised in urban environments where young fishermen, previously strangle-held by concrete confines, are given a powerful technological outlet that allows them to act upon their instincts of natural adventure and conquest. With each newfound local discovery and fish caught comes a strengthened appreciation for the angling possibilities and heightened connection with native waters, albeit limited by the laws of man and the destructive effects we continuously impose upon our resources. 

Such technologies—and the seamless adoption by the modern urban angler—creates an inverse correlation of which we have reached a pivotal inflection point: the availability of information vs. the availability of access. The youth Jersey bass fisherman is often conflicted between the laws of man and the laws of nature, such as when their local church pond reveals the same two-pounder on multiple occasions.  When a new blue hole is pinned within biking distance, the angler will undoubtably come across the all-too-familiar red-and-white sign displaying the most deplorable phrase known to man: “No Trespassing.” A philosophical argument rages at the heart of the Jersey angler, who has just begun to understand the boundlessness of their fishing dreams while Woodie Guthrie’s forgotten fourth verse plays repeatedly in their hearts. 

jersey bass fisherman
Wet wading along North Jersey power lines produces suprising results in overlooked suburban waters.

It is incumbent upon us, the veteran anglers of this beautiful but beaten state, to protect and increase access to these remaining resources for the upcoming generation. And it is incumbent upon the youth, who beautifully share their stories of success and possibility across the web, to respect the resources discovered and protect the fisheries that allowed them to find the same passion as generations before. Long gone are the days in which the biggest risk to a New Jersey “spot burn” was the location of Tony Soprano’s preferred body-dumping reservoir. In an age of clout chasing and social-media validation, it is our fisheries that suffer most at the hands of online insecurity and social affirmations. 

New Jersey – we might not have the best of anything, but we have a bit of everything. Where else in the country can you fish a cold, north mountain reservoir, a brackish inshore estuary, a shallow pad-covered swampland, and an amber pine river within an hour drive of each other? Where else is one required to fish with two-pound-test fluorocarbon 90% of days, only to lose a tournament on the same body of water to a local throwing a giant rooster tail on straight braid (because it was the correct approach)! Where else will one learn so quickly the humility required in this sport? Ultimately, we Jersey anglers understand that ours is not a trophy state. Gratitude is the motivating factor behind our angling success; nay, it’s the definition of success itself. Combine that with tenacity, adaptability, and intuition, and you’ll find a beautiful common bond between us urban Jersey anglers regardless of our style or approach to the sport. When we take these lessons with our world-famous attitudes out of state, best watch out.

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1 thought on “The Making of a New Jersey Bass Fisherman

  1. Raymond Lupkowski

    I’ve said that for years Both Paterson Falls and Garfield falls loaded with Bass Trout Pike and Musky and Shad below Garfield both species

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