NJ Skillful Angler
Catch and Release qualifying length is 40 inches
Qualifying weight is 20 lbs.
The muskellunge is the king of all freshwater fish growing in excess of 50 inches, they must be at least 36 inches to be considered a keeper in Lake Hopatcong. The Knee Deep Club requests that all muskie regardless of size be returned to the water as quick as possible to help develop a trophy muskie fishery in Lake Hopatcong. While still a recent addition to the lake fish have been caught that measured over 40 inches in length and estimated to weight about 20 pounds, most muskie anglers don't weigh their fish because it causes undo stress to the fish. Muskie stocking in Lake Hopatcong began in 1997. Not to be mistaken with the chain pickerel, who's green and black chain colorations make it easy to distinguish, the muskie comes in various color patterns. Ranging from a clear strain with few markings, a spotted strain distinguished by it's spots, to a barred strain pictured above. The hybrid or tiger muskie looks simlar to the barred strain but has much darker brown markings with broken or hollow barring on the body and rounded fins. The tiger muskie has a much shorter life span (8-10 years) than pure-strain Muskellunge (15-20 years).
Lake Hopatcong's top predator is the muskellunge, or muskie for short; it is also the most elusive. Commonly known as the fish of 10,000 casts (or maybe ten hours of trolling or more). The muskie is generally not thought of as a "good eating" fish but more often as the fish of a lifetime. Most muskie anglers practice catch and release in hopes of being able to catch the fish again another day. It's the thrill of the hunt and making contact that brings the excitement but it's a successful release that gives satisfaction. The muskie is a true challenge to find, hook, fight, land, handle, and release as healthy as possible. The preparation for and practice of catch, photo, and release or CPR enables muskie fisheries across the continent to grow and improve.
The Knee Deep Club and the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife stock many fish into Lake Hopatcong that are meant for the frying pan but the muskie is not one of them. In hopes of creating a trophy fishery for muskie in New Jersey, the club hopes that all of our members learn and practice catch and release for this grand species. The club omits the muskie from all of its contests to help discourage anglers from bringing them in to weigh stations for any reason. As you may have gathered I hold muskie in high regard and although I regularly fish for many other species in the lake, it's the muskie that excites me the most. Their awesome power and sheer size make any encounter a memorable experience, one I hope we can continue to not only share with our children but with their children as well.
Thinking about it before hand is absolutely the right way to start fishing for muskie. Due to the fact that most people aren't prepared to handle these surprisingly fragile fish, the incidental muskie catch is the one that is most likely not to survive. So it's my hope that by writing this article I can help my fellow anglers be better prepared to handle these fish and help ensure the fishery continues to prosper. If one is going to target muskie one must be prepared to deal with a big, heavy, strong, sharp toothed critter. Be aware that it is much easier than you think for you to get hurt when handling these big fish (hooks are more often the culprit here, not the fish) so having the proper tools at your disposal makes all the difference, and could even save a trip to the emergency room.
A checklist of necessary tools to have ready begins with a big strong muskie net to hold the fish. Having a sufficient sized net allows it to be used as a holding pen to keep the fish in the water while removing the hooks and lure. Scooping the fish from the water and letting it flop around on the floor of the boat is a recipe for disaster causing unnecessary harm to the fish and potential injury to the anglers. Long needle-nose pliers to grab hooks, jaw spreaders to hold open their mouths when needed, a hook removal tool or hook-out, and small bolt cutters to cut hooks, split rings, or leaders are all needed to help free up the fish quickly. Cutting the hooks from the lure often is needed to make removal faster and easier while reducing the risk of injury to yourself and the fish. If hooks are cut, be sure to remove all the pieces whenever possible while trying to limit tissue damage. Lip grip tools are also useful in holding a fish in the water while you work on removing hooks providing they can swivel, those that do not swivel can tear up the fish's mouth if they thrash around while holding it. If you use a grip tool be sure to use the lanyard that comes with it so you don't loose the unit and possibly the fish at the same time. It's a good idea to have a long ruler available to measure the fish and the ones that float are the best because they allow measurement right in the water.
Heavy tackle is a must to facilitate landing a fish as soon as possible in order to reduce stress on them. Heavy line, steel or heavy fluorocarbon leaders, and strong snaps and swivels will reduce the possibility of losing a fish before you're able to land it and retrieve the lure. Losing a lure in a fish's mouth is the worst thing that can happen: you loose the lure and the fish more than likely pays the ultimate price with its life. Keeping the fight as short as possible and keeping the fish in the water are the two most important things you can do to ensure a successful release. Fighting big fish like these on light line wears the fish out and it stands a lower chance of survival than if you use heavier equipment suited to handle the job.
It's best not to pull the fish from the water until the angler is prepared to deal with getting it back in. Wetting the hands before handling them reduces the risk of removing any of the slime, which is a protective coating that reduces the risk of infection, or using gloves made for fish handling is another option. Small fish can be grabbed by the head holding the gill plates shut from above, but to hold a big fish you need to use the lip-lock grip; slide the fingers under the gill flap, being careful not to touch the red gill rakes, and bring them as far forward as possible, your thumb should move forward along the outside of the jaw, then squeeze the thumb and fingers pinching the thin layer of skin firmly between the lower and upper parts of the lower jaw. Practice this hold on smaller fish like a pickerel before trying it on a big fish like the muskie. Once in your grasp, the proper way to hold a muskie is horizontally using the other free hand to support the stomach, do not hold a muskie hanging vertically with one hand, additional support to the mid section is needed to avoid internal organ damage.
Although some anglers like to weigh their catches of some species, try to resist the temptation with muskie. Weighing a fish usually requires hanging it vertically from its jaw and is not recommended, besides most everyone talks about muskie in inches not pounds. As an alternative to actually weighing the fish you can find out the weight by getting its length and girth measurement (the cross-section length or circumference around the fattest part of the fish's body) with a tailor's tape. The girth and length can then be plugged into a fish weight calculator that can be found on the Internet or use the formula: weight = girth x girth x length / 800. Ideally the only time a muskie should be pulled from the water is to hold it up and take a picture, so have your camera nearby and ready. If you fish alone, like I often do, a camera with a timer or remote can be used to get the shot. Take a few practice shots ahead of time while pretending to hold a fish so you know the important pictures will come out the way you had hoped.
A successful release requires patience, particularly if the fish was caught on light tackle or as an incidental catch while fishing for other species resulting in a long battle. Help the fish to regain its strength before letting it free by holding it in the water by the tail with one hand and under the mid section with the other until it swims off under its own power. If they remain on the surface following them with the boat may be necessary until they submerge in order to prevent another boat from running it over while recovering. A slight side-to-side motion with the tail can help the process along but forward and backward thrusting of the fish is not recommended. Carefully releasing them is the only sure way to ensure trophy fish in the future. Any muskie caught in Lake Hopatcong which is less than 36 inches in length must be immediately released by law, but please do not transport any muskie anywhere, the fish most likely will not survive the trip and no bait shop or other business on the lake is equipped to handle these large fish. Remember a fish doesn't need to be kept to have a mount made, fiberglass reproductions are the way to go and can be made with pictures and dimension information. Be prepared, keep your tools handy along with your camera, practice catch and release or CPR (Catch-Photo-Release) and help grow this fantastic fishery.
Please, let 'em go to let 'em grow.
Trap nets are placed into Monksville Reservoir and Greenwood Lake targeting walleye and muskellunge. Echo and Mountain lakes also are trapped for muskellunge. Echo Lake Reservoir contains a strain of muskellunge known as the Leech Lake strain. This strain, stocked by Muskies, Inc., originated from Leech Lake in Minnesota. New Jersey's other muskellunge lakes contain several strains, including Leech Lake, Chataqua (N.Y.) and Pymatuning (Pa.). The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife received eggs and fry from the Pennsylvania Fish Commission and the New York DEC to begin its stocking programs in Greenwood Lake, Mountain Lake, Mercer Lake and Lake Hopatcong. The program promises to be self-sufficient in the future, using broodstock populations from New Jersey lakes to provide all the necessary eggs. Muskellunge reared at the hatchery in ponds are fed fathead minnows and reach 10 inches by Sept. 1. These fish are stocked in the fall in Greenwood Lake, Echo Lake, Lake Hopatcong, Mountain Lake and Mercer Lake.