Managing Monster Muskies
New Jersey Freshwater Fishing
By Scott Collenburg, Senior Fisheries Biologist
From its humble beginnings in 1983, the muskie fisheries in New Jersey inland waters has changed considerably. A small group of avid muskie anglers formed a New Jersey chapter of the national organization called Muskies Inc. Through fundraising—and with approval from New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife—the chapter purchased and stocked 300 fingerling muskellunge in Greenwood Lake in 1985.
Since then, the program has expanded, muskie introductions have occurred across the state, and now Fish and Wildlife raises and stocks over 10,000 10-inch fall fingerlings annually. Quality muskie fishing and the excitement of catching this fast, powerful, mean-looking fish attracts anglers to fish in these stocked waterbodies.
Assessing Suitable Waterbodies
While some waterbodies have been successful in producing quality muskie fisheries in New Jersey, others were subsequently discontinued due to minimal success. Recently, a three-year initiative was completed to assess the stocking of coolwater species such as muskies, northern pike, walleye and hybrid striped bass. These species do not readily reproduce in New Jersey waters and are maintained by annual stocking programs from Fish and Wildlife’s Hackettstown State Fish Hatchery. The initiative included a review of management goals and objectives plus an assessment of current fisheries. The assessment also included an online angler survey concerning angler opinions and experiences on their warmwater/coolwater fishing opportunities in New Jersey. Over 1,000 anglers participated.
A significant part of the coolwater assessment was data collection. To assess the status these populations, biologists from our Bureau of Freshwater Fisheries set trap nets, the most efficient means of capturing these species. Over the three-year study, the Bureau set 273 trap nets, 13 gill nets and conducted 17 days of electrofishing—a total of over 251 man-days of work. Sampling for muskies was conducted primarily between the spring of 2014 and 2016 on Carnegie Lake, Echo Lake Reservoir, Furnace Lake, Greenwood Lake, Lake Hopatcong, Little Swartswood Lake, Manasquan Reservoir, Mercer Lake, Monksville Reservoir and Mountain Lake.
Sampling Findings: Greenwood and Mountain Lakes
Results from sampling ranged from high quality fisheries to low abundance muskellunge populations. Six waterbodies met or exceeded the baseline standard for a quality muskie fishery (see graph), with Greenwood Lake and Mountain Lake exceeding the high-quality standard (three muskellunge in every four nets). Greenwood Lake had the best catch rate for muskellunge out of the sampling period with a total of 38 captured. Not only did the catch rate indicate an abundant population, the sizes of muskellunge captured were impressive. Twenty-nine (79 percent) were larger than the minimum size limit of 36 inches, 21 (55 percent) were larger than 40 inches, and 5 (13 percent) were larger than 46 inches. Greenwood Lake has been known to produce giants. The first 50+-inch muskie was caught in this waterbody in 2002 which has continued to produce a trophy fishery. In the spring of 2017 during their annual brood stock collection from of Greenwood Lake, Hackettstown Hatchery staff collected the largest muskie they’ve ever trap netted weighing 38 pounds! This same fish had been captured and tagged by hatchery staff in 2010, then weighing 28 pounds.
Echo Lake Reservoir Results
Not to be out done, Echo Lake Reservoir (Passaic County) boasts an impressive muskellunge fishery as well. It is the second oldest inland waterbody in New Jersey to be stocked with muskie (starting in 1991) and the only waterbody that is stocked exclusively with what is known as the Leech Lake strain of muskellunge, identified by having dark spots on a light background. The Leech Lake strain genetics can be traced to the Upper Mississippi Watershed (which includes Leech Lake in Minnesota) and are known to achieve impressive sizes. Leech Lake itself boasts of “world-famous” monster muskies.
During the Echo Lake Reservoir assessment, sampling results documented the third best catch rate, with all captured muskellunge exceeding the state minimum size limit of 36 inches, and half of the muskie encountered exceeding 44 inches. One impressive individual achieved 50.2 inches and 33.5 pounds. Hackettstown Hatchery has regularly utilized Echo Lake Reservoir as a source of broodstock, finding consistently impressive catch rates dating back to 2003.
Monksville Reservoir Inventory
When serenity and picturesque beauty are among your key reasons to go fishing, try Monksville Reservoir in Passaic County. Surrounded by Long Pond Ironworks State Park, Monksville Reservoir has continually supported a great Muskellunge fishery as well. Some anglers protest this claim and assert the nickname “Skunksville” as a better fit. However, Fish and Wildlife has sampled time and again, finding quite the opposite. A complete lake inventory in 2003 refuted the Skunksville moniker by revealing—even prior to stocking muskie—that a good population existed, along with an abundant walleye population. The current reservoir assessment echoed similar results. The population here is doing well and according to a recent online survey, it’s a popular waterbody for many muskie anglers.
Lake Hopatcong Plus the Smaller Furnace and Mountain Lake Exceptions
Muskellunge are most abundant in large, fertile, shallow lakes with extensive submerged weed beds. Lake Hopatcong fits this bill where a great muskie fishery is found. But there are exceptions to the perfect muskie habitat. Furnace Lake and Mountain Lake, both located in Warren County are 53 and 122 acres, respectively. Both of these small waterbodies have shown abundant populations of muskellunge. Mountain Lake had the second-best catch rate during the assessment. Even during a largemouth bass survey there, seven muskie were encountered—an impressive number in terms of electrofishing surveys. To the shock of the survey crew, a few muskie even jumped into the boat!
However, prior to 2018, Mountain Lake had a Trophy Muskie regulation that prohibited anglers from keeping any muskie over 40 inches. Data from the recent lake assessment here revealed evidence that this regulation was falling short, literally. Of the 10 muskie captured, the largest measured 37 inches and it was clear that the lake’s fishery has become unbalanced. Two of the muskie-preferred forage fish that were once present—yellow perch and creek chubsuckers—were absent. The forage base is now dominated by a population of small, stunted bluegills. The abundant muskie population at Mountain Lake has become stunted in size due to the inadequate forage base. To restore balance, Fish and Wildlife is reducing the stocking rate and no longer regulating Mountain Lake as Trophy Musky Water which would have increased the size limit to 44 inches.
Science Drives Management
Results from the Coolwater Fisheries Assessment stimulated several key changes to the state’s muskie program. Due to the ever-increasing size of muskies caught, the minimum size limit has been increased from 36 inches to 40 inches. Muskellunge are reaching impressive sizes, often exceeding the previous minimum and trophy size limits. In fact, during the assessment period, 57 out of the 77 captured individuals (74 percent) during the four-year sampling period were larger than 36 inches; 48 percent were larger than 40 inches. In addition, the Trophy Musky size limit will be increased to 44 inches and now includes Greenwood Lake, Echo Lake Reservoir, Monksville Reservoir and Lake Hopatcong.
To further enhance the state’s muskie program, in 2018 the Hackettstown Hatchery will stock spring yearlings (one year old fish at a size of 12–14″) on an alternate-year basis with smaller fall fingerlings which will average 10 inches in length. In the past, fall fingerlings were stocked almost exclusively. Both a literature search and the experiences of other states demonstrate greater success in survival of spring yearlings compared with fall fingerlings.
Another change to stocking will be to discontinue annual stockings of waterbodies that were documented as having poor catch rates. This includes Carnegie Lake and Manasquan Reservoir. This doesn’t mean they won’t be stocked at all; instead, only surplus muskies will be stocked when available. By following consistent stocking rates in a waterbody, it’s easier to assess fish populations to determine future stocking strategies. In addition, with the variability in hatch rate success that occurs with certain species, it’s necessary to have a waterbody for placing surplus fish where it will have a positive impact. Cooper River Lake in Camden County and the D&R Canal are two other places that will potentially receive surplus.
As fishery managers, New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife constantly strives to enhance fishing opportunities for anglers. Waterbody data assessments, examining muskie management goals combined with input from anglers’ surveys allows our agency to adjust strategies to create a quality fishing experience for monster muskies.