Top 5 Bass Lakes in New Jersey

From Greenwood Lake to Union Lake, plus three other hot picks, here's where you'll find our state's best bassing this season. Is one of these waters near you?

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Bob Brunisholz

If you want to start a really heated argument, just walk into any greasy spoon that is frequented by New Jersey bass anglers, then ask what lake produces the best bass angling in the Garden State. Bass anglers are a passionate lot, and chances are better than even that not many of them will agree on which lake or reservoir is our state's best bass water. And when they defend their waterway of choice, it will be done so with no lack of enthusiasm. That much is guaranteed!

Undeniably, the method employed to choose the five top picks was done so in a rather unscientific manner. The method was based upon discussions with bass anglers. Some of these discussions were a bit more formal, like interviews with top competition bassers for my newspaper column, while others were picked based upon casual conversations with avid bass anglers.

You may not agree with each and every pick, but there is one thing for certain: Any or all of these bodies of water offer great bassing and should be included in any listing of New Jersey's top bass lakes.

In addition, this spring should, if all goes well on the weather front, prove to be one of the most productive, if only because of last spring when the monsoons came and stayed and stayed and stayed, almost until mid-summer.

According to Lisa Barno, chief of New Jersey's Division of Fish and Wildlife's Bureau of Freshwater Fisheries, the interminably wet spring of 2003 may prove a boon for anglers this spring.

"Last spring's exceptionally rainy weather often resulted in turbid waters. To a sophisticated bass angler, that stained water would not necessarily mean bass couldn't be caught. But the rains kept a lot of anglers home and the turbid waters aided in fewer bass being caught. Consequently, we should have had good recruitment for this spring's bass populations and there should be a surplus of mature bass that weren't caught last year," Barno said.

So, what are the choices? For starters, I and many like me wouldn't even start a list of the Garden State's top five bass waters without including Greenwood Lake in northern Passaic County. Then, to the south in Cumberland County is Union Lake, followed by Lake Hopatcong in Sussex and Morris counties, Budd Lake in Morris County, and the Manasquan Reservoir in Monmouth County. Incidentally, the preceding list is not compiled by order of importance.

Before attempting to justify the picks for New Jersey's top bassing waters, anglers should know that this year the Garden State's bass season for largemouths kicked off Jan. 1, 2004, and continued through April 15. During that period, the creel limit for bigmouths and smallies is five fish combined. Remember, the creel limit is five "in total," not five of each species.

Between April 15 and June 15, no bass may be creeled or placed in the livewell, if you will. That's zero bass on all state waterways, folks. The regulation is an effort to protect spawning bass. Starting June 16, the creel limit again reverts to five bass in aggregate on all state waters with a size limit of 12 inches with the exception of Lunker Bass lakes, which have a 15-inch size limit and a three-bass creel limit. Be sure to check regulations for the water you intend to fish before going.

The so-called Lunker Bass lakes are Assunpink in Monmouth County, Parvin in Salem County and Delaware Lake, Warren County. In addition, Boonton Reservoir, Morris County, also known as Jersey City Reservoir, is listed as a "smallmouth lake," though there are largemouth bass in abundance in this body of water. Nonetheless, Boonton Reservoir has a 15-inch size limit for smallmouths, and a 12-inch limit for largemouths. The creel limit is three bass in total.

Let's examine the five top picks for bass fishing this year, starting with Greenwood Lake in the far north country of the Garden State.

Greenwood Lake lies nestled in a valley that straddles New Jersey's Passaic County and New York's Orange County. Arguably, this 1,920-acre body of water has everything a dedicated bass angler could conjure up in his or her wildest dreams, from submerged stumpfields to small clumps of floating vegetation.

In addition, Greenwood also has three islands and fishing the shorelines of each can be productive, especially during the early season.

Greenwood generally runs north and south by the compass, but from its northern section, technically runs slightly south by southwest, with the northern reaches in New York and the southern portion being in New Jersey. The islands, starting with Fox Island to the south, are nearly always productive for smallmouth and largemouth bass. Storm Island is located about midway of the lake. Chapel Island is almost at the northern mouth of the lake where the headwaters of the Monksville Reservoir begin.

Greenwood Lake is not one of those lakes or reservoirs constructed back in the 1950s and '60s like Monksville, Spruce Run and Round Valley. Greenwood's roots go back to the mid-1600s, when it was called Long Pond and was rated No. 1 as a vacation spot for anglers, many of who were considered part of the carriage trade.

And therein lies a potential problem for anglers who may choose to fish Greenwood by using large, powerful outboard motors that zip around waterways like aquatic bullets. I can tell you firsthand: If you intend to run from one spot to another with the throttle wide open, you had better have a high-quality depthfinder aboard.

It is all too common to make a run, say from the north end of Greenwood, heading south, and start your run in 25 to 30 feet of water. Then, seconds later, you look at the depth recorder and you're in 2 feet of water, sometimes less. The reason for some of the sharp dropoffs and dramatically increasing or decreasing depth is due to the old dam that originally formed Long Pond.

Constructed in 1766, the dam separates the "newer" Greenwood Lake from its ancestor, Long Pond. The dam can still be found with a depth-finder. Nonetheless, on the south or Jersey side of the lake, one will find stumps, timber and a host of other snags in fairly shallow depths. Fishing these areas during the pre-spawn can be productive, but keep in mind, between April 15 and June 15, "ya' gotta put 'em back," as one of my bass-fishing cronies always says.

My favorite section, however, is to the north, where water depths can and often do measure from 20 to 35 feet. I like the northern reaches because they seem more p

roductive during the post-spawn than do the shallower stumpfields.

Wherever you choose as a location, bring a good supply of plastic and rubber grub- and worm-type baits. Fish them with care and precision along the edges of the islands or the stumpfields. Your patience will pay big-fish dividends.

Greenwood Lake is easily accessed by taking state Route 23 north to Secondary Route 513, and from there merely turn onto Secondary Route 511, which parallels the western side of the lake. Launch facilities are available at Greenwood Lake.

Next, but not necessarily in any sequence of importance, is legendary Lake Hopatcong, home of the equally legendary Knee Deep Hunting and Fishing Club; it is arguably the oldest hunting and fishing club in the Garden State, though members of Newark Bait and Fly Casting Club will undoubtedly and eagerly debate that point.

Located in Morris and Sussex counties, Lake Hopatcong boasts some 2,600 acres of the state's finest freshwater fishing, including trout, hybrid stripers, walleyes, perch, catfish, you name it, but here's the best part. According to members of the Knee Deep Club, more than half of Lake Hopatcong's vast acreage is less than 15 feet deep. Ergo, Lake Hopatcong is a bass fisherman's mecca.

Smallmouth bass weighing between 2 and 4 pounds have been hoisted from Hopatcong, and the bigmouths sometimes tip the scale at more than 5 or 6 pounds.

Lake Hopatcong also offers many submerged islands, rockpiles, or what bass anglers would call "structure" or riprap that is ideal for bronzebacks as well as bigmouths.

In addition, the shorelines of Hopatcong are nearly filled with docks used by pleasure boaters during the summer months. When fishing the early season in April, May and even the first two weeks of June, many of these docks are deserted, and working lures near the pilings or casting under the docks is often rewarding.

My favorite spots along the shores of Hopatcong are the shallower waters between and just slightly to the north of the midway point of Raccoon Island and Byram Cove, though that is merely the place in which I've fared better than I have at other locations. In reality, nearly the entire lake is productive.

The bass, smallies and bigmouths at Lake Hopatcong seem more oriented toward bait such as shiners, fathead minnows, alewives, and for that matter, sometimes even worms. Nevertheless, an angler with a good working knowledge of lures can fare well, especially along the weed edges of the shorelines. Lake Hopatcong is easily accessed from Interstate 80 or state routes 15 or 183.

Next, let's take a look at Budd Lake in Morris County. For my money, Budd Lake fits into one of two categories, possibly both: This demure body of water is either the most underutilized or underrated lake in New Jersey, or perhaps both.

Budd Lake is host to a growing smallmouth bass population, but that doesn't mean there isn't a sizable population of bigmouths within its shorelines.

Located immediately off state Route (SR) 46, Budd Lake is bowl-shaped with coves that are actually more like slight indentations around the perimeter of the so-called bowl. Budd Lake just doesn't "look bassy," and therein may lie the reason for its lack of popularity.

But the old bromide, "Don't judge a book by its cover," comes into play here. Budd Lake has a healthy, thriving population of smallies as well as bigmouth bass. In fact, there is a story among fisheries biologists and the local fishing population about an angler who hooked and landed what would have been a state-record smallmouth while fishing Budd Lake, but he declined to register the fish due to the publicity it would have generated. You see, the angler I'm told, called in sick to work that day, and he had a choice between keeping his job or being touted in the local newspapers as the man who upset the current smallmouth record. He (wisely) chose the latter.

Budd Lake is primarily rock bottom from its deepest depths right up to and including the embankments. Admittedly, I've fished Budd Lake perhaps only a dozen or so times, and one thing I found out is the riprap and rocky embankments are its hotspots. I've done much better when fishing small, midlevel lures near the shoreline and failing any action with that ploy, turned successfully to plastic and rubber grub baits. The tried-and-true rubber worm worked along the shores has been the best producer of smallies as well as largemouth bass.

There are two boat ramps at Budd Lake, one of which is located behind Nick's Tavern on the western side of the lake and is easily accessible from SR 46. But at this ramp, boating anglers will have to cough up a fee.

Next, there's a boat ramp behind Doc's Marina, located along Manor House Road, again immediately after pulling off SR 46. If you intend to give Budd Lake a try, lay in a good supply of plastic and rubber baits, but don't be surprised if you come up with a tiger muskie. The lake is full of them.

The late (and in my opinion, great) outdoor writer Russ Wilson was the man who initially introduced me to the Manasquan Reservoir. Admittedly, Wilson was primarily a saltwater angler, but he was equally at home on fresh water and he loved bass fishing.

"This is the home of lunkers," Wilson told me when I first fished Manasquan Reservoir more years ago than I care to reveal. In addition, I'll be the first one to confess that I haven't fished this body of water often, but a trip or three yearly keeps me coming back.

Composed of some 760 acres of water that reaches depths of 40 feet with an average depth of 20 feet, this impoundment is prime bronzeback and bucketmouth country.

Again, and thanks to ongoing efforts on the part of the division and local bassers, there are no specific hotspots at Manasquan Reservoir. Nearly a decade ago and after its completion in 1990, division officials, with the blessing of the New Jersey Water Supply Authority, began a project aimed at producing optimal conditions for fish and fish reproduction. Primarily geared toward assisting the smallmouth and bigmouth populations, the division routinely stocks both species in Manasquan Reservoir, and they also added subsurface structure.

Eight acres of tree stumps were placed in the reservoir, and downed trees, complete with limbs still attached, were "cable-wired" to the bottom to prevent the trees from coming to the surface at some future date. Additionally, other portions of this impoundment were filled with small gravel and some sand to provide spawning beds. Finally, standing timber was left along certain shorelines to provide even more structure.

Get the picture? The Manasquan Reservoir is a bass-fishing heaven. Beware, however, if you think you're going to run "full-out" from spot to spot. No outboards are allowed on the Manasquan. Only trolling

motors. And fishing from shore is verboten.

The main boat launch is located at the entrance to the reservoir on Windeler Road. At the entrance there is also a county-operated bait and tackle store as well as a boat rental. The Manasquan Reservoir is easily accessed just north of the intersection of U.S. Route 9 and Interstate 195 in Howell Township, Monmouth County.

Finally, we travel all the way to the southern portion of New Jersey to find what perhaps should be called the proverbial "dark horse," in the race for the best in bigmouth country: Union Lake in Cumberland County.

The 898-acre Union Lake was purchased by Green Acres funding and is part of 4,677-acre Union Lake Wildlife Management Area, all of which is administered by the division. Ironically, one of the first things the division did after the purchase of the lake and surrounding areas in 1987, was close the lake to all activities, including fishing.

The reason for the closure centered on a dam originally built sometime around the early 1700s. Quite simply, it was in unsafe condition. Adding to the woes of the division, it was discovered that the bed of Union Lake had an unusually high arsenic count. Dam reconstruction began in 1987 while the lake was closed, and was completed when Union Lake reopened in 1990. Happily, while the lake was drained, albeit not completely, the arsenic problem was also rectified.

But while the dam was under construction, the division used the downtime to build a public parking lot near the dam site located at Sharp Street, between SRs 49 and 47. In addition, division officials also began construction of a public boat launch ramp while dam construction was underway. As though that were not enough, after the lake reopened in 1990, division officials began construction of a fish ladder that allows gizzard shad and herring from nearby Maurice River to enter the lake, providing an excellent forage bass for smallmouths, largemouths, and indeed, even the exploding striped bass that make their way into Union Lake.

Keep in mind, Union Lake was never completely drained, and at that time the impoundment contained substantial numbers of game fish including largemouth and smallmouth bass.

Today, in concert with the original largemouth bass populations, which one would speculate were the precursors of bass now thriving in Union Lake, the division has continued to stock the waterway with largemouth and smallmouth bass, resulting in one of the state's most popular bass lakes.

And there is even speculation that the next state-record largemouth will come from Union Lake, according to local anglers and a division freshwater fisheries biologist.

In a press release, Hugh Carberry, senior freshwater fisheries biologist with the division, said, "The addition (of the fish ladder) was the catalyst for and explosion of the sport bass fishery (in Union Lake), and for all we know, the next state-record bass may be taken here."

Anglers may use outboard motors at Union Lake, but only up to 10 horsepower. Nevertheless, local anglers seem to favor topwater lures and spinnerbaits, especially in the areas of the western shores where depths rarely exceed 7 feet. The area is a virtual bass hideout with stumps and structure throughout most of that edge of the lake. Union Lake is easily accessed by taking Sharp Street off SR 49 near the town of Millville.

For my money, any of the aforementioned five bodies of excellent bass waters will yield the next state-record largemouth, and possibly even a record bronzeback. Even if that never comes to fruition, these five picks will offer any angler making the trip some of the best bass fishing in the Garden State.

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