Looking for a great place to kick off your Spring Fishing Season then enjoy this Lake Hopatcong Spring Guide, where professional fisherman and guide Aaron Graybill from Lake Hopatcong Guide Service explains everything thing you need to know about the start of the 2021 season.
Lake Hopatcong, the largest lake in New Jersey, is one of the top fisheries in the region. Located smack-dab in the middle of north Jersey, the lake draws large numbers of fishermen, boaters, and people looking to enjoy the great outdoors.
The reason Lake Hopatcong is beloved by so many anglers is largely due to the unique array of gamefish that call the lake home. All of the usual species typically found in New Jersey (Largemouth Bass, Chain Pickerel, Crappie, Yellow Perch, Panfish, Catfish, Carp) are found in abundance throughout the lake. However, it’s the Walleye, Hybrid Striped Bass, Muskellunge, and Smallmouth Bass that roam its depths that make this such a unique and amazing fishery.
We are in the midst of one of the hottest bites of the year right now, so Aaron Graybill from Lake Hopatcong Guide Service is here to help you land more fish this spring. While Aaron is a full-time fishing guide on Lake Hopatcong, these tactics will help you locate and catch more fish no matter where you fish.
Yellow Perch and Crappie:
Just after ice-out, Lake Hopatcong’s Yellow Perch and Crappie reward anglers willing to brave the cold with some of the hottest action of the year. The key to finding these fish during their spring spawning period can most simply be broken down into two factors – water temperature and bottom composition.
To locate perch and crappie early in the spring, you want to find the warmest water possible. To do that, start your search by focusing on shallow flats in the backs of coves, or other areas that will warm up faster than the deeper water found in the main lake. The second part of the equation, bottom composition, will have you looking for sand, rock/pea gravel bottoms, and other clean-bottom locations that conduct heat and warm up fast.
Not only do these areas warm fastest, but they are also the preferred environment for these fish to drop their eggs. If you can find a shallow, sand bottom spot to fish, chances are it will hold exponentially more fish than the muck bottom that dominates most of the shallows. As discussed, both Crappie and Yellow Perch will be shallow as soon as the ice is gone. However, the Perch prefer to spawn when water temperatures are in the high 40’s and will vacate the shallows before the Crappie, who will remain shallow and catchable for a few weeks longer than the Perch.
Now that you’re able to locate large amounts of Yellow Perch and Crappie, the next step is to get them to bite. While a lot of the same baits will catch both species, the way these baits are presented can make a huge difference if you’re targeting one particular species. Rod and line selection are important for these ultralight presentations. You will want to stick with either 4 or 6 lbs test line. And your action should be either ultralight or light action. As far as baits go, keep it simple. A few packs of 1/16 oz or 1/32 oz jig heads, some small soft-plastics baits, and a few bobbers are all that you will need in most situations. Virtually any type of small, soft-plastic will work, though tubes, shad-style baits, do-nothing straight-tail baits, or swimbaits are favored by Aaron. Bright colors typically work best, though they can vary from day to day, so carrying an assortment of colors will help.
The most important decision will often not be the bait itself, but whether you chose to fish it on the bottom or suspend it under a bobber. Crappie typically feed up, meaning they most commonly prefer to strike a bait that is suspended just above them under a small bobber. Putting your bait between 18” – 24” below your bobber will put it directly in the strike zone of most of the Crappie found in Lake Hopatcong this spring.
Perch on the other hand tend to be more of a bottom feeder, often hitting your bait on a dead-stop while lying on the bottom. Whether watching your bobber, or feeling a jig bite, it is extremely important to quickly slam your hookset at the slightest tick. Small Rapala Husky Jerks, spoons, marabou jigs, and small spinners all have a place in your tackle box this time of year, as well. Aaron recommends visiting Laurie Murphy at Dow’s Boat Rental for current reports, live bait, and shelves fully stocked with all of the lures you will need to tackle Lake Hopatcong’s spring Yellow Perch and Crappie.
Around the same time, the Yellow Perch begin to vacate their spawning grounds, they are quickly replaced by their bigger and badder cousin, the walleye.
King Walleye of Lake Hopatcong:
Walleye are the king of Lake Hopatcong in April and May. These predators, not found in most New Jersey lakes, leave the deep water they call home for most of the year and head shallow for their spring spawning migration.
On Lake Hopatcong, the walleye bite will begin to turn on when water temperatures get close to the 50-degree mark. While they can certainly be patterned and caught during the day in the Spring, Aaron from Lake Hopatcong Guide Service says that fishing around sunset or at night on Lake Hopatcong is the ticket to enjoy the best walleye fishing that New Jersey has to offer.
Your average fish this time of year typically falls around the 18” – 20” range, though the lake boasts an impressive number of walleye in the 4 – 6 lbs range with larger fish possible. Customers of Lake Hopatcong Guide Service boated three Walleye over the 9 lbs mark last year and Aaron is convinced that there are numerous state record-sized (13 lbs 9 oz) walleye waiting to be caught in Lake Hopatcong.
As with the Perch, walleye prefer shallow sand bottoms, rock, and warm water in the Spring. While many baits will catch fish, the best producer year after year is always a stickbait/jerkbait. Rapala Husky Jerks, Storm Thundersticks, and Bomber Long A’s are some of your top options for these shallow water walleye.
Anglers should carry both the larger, three hook-sized baits as well as the smaller, two hook models. Trolling and casting can both be effective. When targeting a large area with somewhat uniform depths, scattered fish, and minimal weed growth, trolling can be the best approach. Slower trolling speeds (0.8 – 1.4 mph) shine this time of year and once you locate a productive stretch, the action can be steady. Be active with your trolling approach – constantly monitor your rod tips to ensure that sure your baits are running clean of weeds and other debris and be sure to impart a snap/pause action when holding your rod.
When fishing smaller spots, isolated structures, or fish congregated in tight bunches that is when casting is more productive. A slow to medium speed retrieve is the way to go. You will want to experiment a bit with a slow steady retrieve and a twitch/pause cadence, as walleye will usually show a preference for one versus the other on any given night. Color selection can vary wildly, but also can make a big difference at times. Natural colors like a white with a black back or chrome with a blue back are consistent producers. Anything that looks like an alewife herring, the main forage fish in Lake Hopatcong, is a good choice. On the flip side, bright or UV-colored yellows, greens, oranges, pinks, and purples produce a lot of fish each spring, too.
The Hard-Hitting – Hybrid Striped Bass:
One of the fiercest, hardest fighting fish in freshwater is the Hybrid Striped Bass – often referred to as “Hybrid” or “Wiper”. And, unlike most lakes in our area, Lake Hopatcong is full of these voracious open-water predators.
Most of the year and during the daylight hours, these “water wolves” are packed up in large schools hunting for balls of herring in open water. In the spring, much like the walleye, these line-breaking bullies spend time shallow to feed during low-light or overnight hours. The same stickbaits used for walleye will put plenty of hybrids in the boat. However, as the water warms and we enter May, topwater walk-the-dog type of lures will offer some of the most explosive action that you can encounter in freshwater. These fish will explode on surface baits at night and can often be located simply by listening and scanning the surface. During the daylight hours, Aaron relies heavily on his electronics to locate schools of Herring and Hybrids in open water. This can be tough, but once you find what you’re looking for, the action can leave you with sore arms real quick. Chicken livers and live herring, once available from Dow’s Bait Shop (typically sometime in mid to late April depending on conditions), will outperform artificials when the sun is up, so carrying a combination of lures and live bait gear is important when targeting these freshwater freight trains.
Lake Hopatcong is home to countless bass tournaments throughout the year, and for good reason. The dominant bass species in the lake is the Largemouth, which grows large here. And while not as plentiful, the lake holds more smallmouth bass than it is given credit for, with many being large-quality fish.
Again, focus on the warmest water that you can find (noticing a trend here?). The northern, Woodport, section of the lake and the shallow southern end below Bertrand’s Island are always the quickest to warm and will be crawling with bass in April and May. Some of the biggest bass of the year, fat pre-spawn females, will be caught and released in the coming weeks. Suspending jerkbaits, vibrating rattle baits like a Strike King Red Eye Shad, and small finesse plastics will shine when the water is still cold. As the water warms, your lure options expand and Lake Hopatcong’s feisty bass can be caught on just about anything that passes through their strike zone.
The Mysterious Musky:
Perhaps the most mysterious and elusive fish residing in Lake Hopatcong is the legendary Muskellunge or Musky. Known as “The Fish of 10,000 Casts”, these freshwater giants can grow to over 50” in length in Lake Hopatcong. While catching a musky is never an easy task, these coming weeks will offer anglers their best chance to boat the fish of a lifetime. Again, target the shallows, Musky prefer to spawn when the water temperature ranges from the mid to upper 50’s. Shallow spawning bays with healthy, green weeds will hold fish. Top baits include large in-line spinners such as the Musky Mayhem Double Cowgirl or slower-moving glidebaits. The term “large” is relative in this scenario, in the spring you want to downsize from the giant baits used later in the year. Hard baits should range from 6” – 8” this time of year and you’ll want to downsize your spinners/blades, as well. When seriously targeting Musky, anglers should use proper gear. Musky expel so much energy during a fight, that their mortality rate greatly increases the longer the battle lasts. Spool your rods with 65+ lbs braided line be sure to use a heavy fluorocarbon leader (80+ lbs). Steel or titanium leaders work well, also, though Aaron prefers how Fluorocarbon handles in comparison. Set your expectations, you will not catch many of these elusive fish, but when you do it is a magical encounter that you won’t ever forget.
Regardless of whether you’re a diehard angler looking to experience the best freshwater fishing in New Jersey, or just learning how to cast, Lake Hopatcong offers something for everyone. Take the time to study contour maps, apply the concepts and tips discussed above, and (most importantly) get out there and fish! If you would like to speed up your learning cove, visit www.LakeHopatcongGuideService.com to book a trip with Aaron.
If you have an interest in becoming an active member of the Lake Hopatcong fishing community or would simply like to support a good cause, Aaron urges all anglers and members of the community to consider joining or supporting the Knee Deep Club, the local fishing club on Lake Hopatcong. This legendary club was established in August of 1946 and still going strong today. The club (once COVID allows) has monthly meetings and has performed countless initiatives to either benefit the lake, or the good people that call the area home – fish stocking initiatives, outings with Veterans from the Wounded Warrior Project, and kids fishing derbies are just a few examples of the great work that the Knee Deep Club performs around the lake each year. Happy fishing and tight lines to all!
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