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Merrill Creek browns offer trophy potential

HARMONY, N.J. — As you approach the last squiggle in the series of roads that lead up to Merrill Creek Reservoir you will see a little traffic sign that says "No Outlet."

It is indeed true that once you reach that point, you have gotten to a dead end, therefore, "No Outlet" is correct.

However, for those of us who use fishing as our best "outlet" for personal problems and strife, one can easily find humor in those two words, because Merrill Creek Reservoir is one of the finest outlets that you can find in New Jersey!

Opened in the early 1990s to the public as a combined effort of the N.J. Division of Fish & Wildlife and the actual owners of the reservoir, Merrill Creek is a fine example of how business and government can work together.

Seven electric companies own the lake, which is fed by the Delaware River, as well as by "Merrill Creek" itself.

As water demands rise, the reservoir is drawn down and water is released back into the river. And as the river is sufficiently filled, the reservoir comes back up to full volume.

The horrible drought of 2001/2002 lowered the level down quite a bit in the reservoir.

As a result, it was closed to boating for a month or so, but the lake was re-opened in April and should not have problems as severe for some time to come.

Depth matters

Author Manny Luftgl [no swearing please] holds an 11.35-pounder he boated in late May

Quite a bit less than 1,000 acres in size, the lake contains considerable amounts of water due to its extreme depths. In fact, over near the southwest corner, it reaches down to 200-plus feet of water.

Traveling from one end of the lake to the other, most depths will run 80 to 100 feet about 100 feet off shore.

Because Merrill Creek is so deep, and also is one of the few lakes in the Garden State that has no dissolved oxygen problem, it can and does hold over large numbers of lake trout.

Not far away is Round Valley Reservoir, which we told you about a few months ago.

Because Round Valley opened many years before Merrill Creek, it does hold lakers far in excess of the size of M.C. fish.

As a case in point, the state record for lakers was just broken at Round Valley on May 4 when Greg Young netted his 32½ pound monster "Green Giant" laker.

But don't sneeze at the Merrill Creek population — its fish are growing well!

Lake's lunkers

Lake trout grow very slowly but reach considerable size. Both Merrill Creek and Round Valley have significant populations of lakers as well as brown and rainbow trout.

What Merrill Creek has, though, is some outsized brown trout.

The N.J. record brownie was caught at Round Valley in 1995 by Lenny Saccente and it weighed 21.38 pounds.

Chances are we will never see one that big again in New Jersey, and we may not even get another 10-plus-pound brown in The Valley again, but Merrill Creek is another story.

In the first four months of 2002, three brown trout were caught at Merrill Creek which weighed in excess of 10 pounds!

No brown trout that size have come out of Round Valley for quite a few years.

Merrill Creek is occupied by three species of trout, with lakers probably highest in occupant total. Next come brownies and then rainbow trout.

The lake is stocked with 4,600 brown and rainbow trout yearly and from time to time, with lakers as well.

Laker regs

Andy Still of Middlesex, N.J., caught his 11-pounder May 24 using live herring.

The lake had so many lake trout in it that the state changed its regulations for catch and keep.

Prior to a few years ago, the law was the same as at Round Valley — one fish a day, at least 24 inches in length.

While I had caught three or four Merrill Creek fish that size until the law changed, not many other anglers had done so.

The fish were somewhat stunted and, of course, were very slow growing too. To reduce competition and get fish to grow quicker, the law was changed.

It could come around again, but as we wrote this article in 2002, the rules said "up to two lake trout per angler, if at least 15 inches long each."

Between Sept. 16 and Nov. 30, no lakers can be removed because that is the time that, theoretically anyway, lakers spawn.

In order to allow them to do that, all lakers, regardless of size, must be released during the "closed season."

The new regulation is working quite well. Where a catch aboard the good ship Gone Fishin' might have hit the 60-plus-fish mark up to two years ago, that may be a thing of the past.

We really hit anywhere from 60 to 73 fish there not less than four or five times. But nearly all of the fish were skinny and pretty small.

A 15-incher was, at best, average, and one that stretched out to 18 to 20 inches was considered big.

Not any longer, though! So far this year, most lake trout caught at Merrill Creek Reservoir went from 18 to 23 inches in length.

Yes, some were smaller but a good number would have hit the prior 24-inch keeper size of the past too.

Big bubba browns

As nice as it may be to catch a 3- to 4-pound lake trout, though, many anglers started targeting the big holdover brownies this year and the lake still holds hundreds of them.

Three- to 5-pound fish were not uncommon and quite a few bigger ones were taken too. (As noted above, three in excess of 10 pounds before May alone.)

Until I caught the 11.35-pounder, my personal best this year weighed 8¼ pounds and was promptly released after photos.

Last but not least of the trout population are the rainbows that are in the lake. They grow quicker than lakers but slower than brown trout.

More brownies are stocked because of this, but the 'bows sure are pretty, especially in the fall when they show spawning color.

Largemouth and smallmouth b [no swearing please] round out the population of game fish in the lake. A considerable number of sunfish are here too, with alewife herring the main forage.

Unfortunately, the trout and b [no swearing please] often catch up with the bait population, but the reservoir is stocked yearly with large numbers of herring to supplement the natives.

When the lake gets stocked each May, several osprey appear from nowhere, and quite a few loons show up to hunt too.

It is an awesome site to see the osprey circle overhead and then suddenly crash dive into the water in an attempt at picking off a meal of fresh trout.

At the same time, though, big fat brownies are crashing upward. An angler caught a 5½ pound brownie one day after the lake was stocked this spring and it had a 9-inch freshly stocked rainbow inside!

At a glance
Fishing and Hunting News

What: Merrill Creek Reservoir.

Where: Near the town of Harmony, off the Delaware River.

Species: Lake trout, trophy German browns, rainbow trout, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass.

Why: Trophy browns lurk here — the author nailed an 11-plus-pounder near the end of May, and fish in the 5- to 10-pound variety are well within reason.

When: The lake was stocked in early May. Good fishing exists through summer

Tactics/Techniques: Slow troll or float baits off the bottom.


Slow trolling up high produces well for the bigger brown trout. Anglers will either pull stickbaits that look like herring or small trout.

Early each year, this is generally done way inshore but now that the water is warmer, figure that the holdover browns are more offshore.

Once the lake gets cold again, many of the fish will return to shallower water, rising back up to near the surface.

But now, in June, figure to pull your plugs down at around the 20- to 30-foot level. Later on, in July/August, go even deeper.

Trolling with live alewife herring often beats the sticks but some anglers will pull one of each just in case.

Still more fish, nearly all being lakers, are caught trolling jingle bell rigs way down near bottom, but this is risky business due to the large number of sunken trees that line the bottom.

Lakers must be reeled up very slowly or else they will get the bends.

However, if you make a mistake and pull one up too quickly and don't want to take it home, "belching" it might allow its distended stomach to burp and permit it to go back to the bottom.

We catch most of our lakers at bottom, in depths from 80 to 130 feet, on shiners or herring.

A shiny jig will often produce good numbers of laker too. I had eight one day on a dead-sticked ava-style 1½-ounce jig as a bycatch.

Of course that was one of the 60-plus-fish days.

Browns and rainbow trout take bait well, and a slider float set at 20 feet or so with live herring is best.

If your float goes flat, that is probably the sign that a 'bow or brown is eating it, because they hit up, making the float go flopping around.

Wait for it to start down and rear back, slamming the hook home.

Please practice catch and release, but if you want to take a legal laker home, go ahead.

They make fine eating and in fact, I find them far less gamey than browns and rainbows.

Regs, facilities, etc.

Merrill Creek is electric motor only, and your boat must be at least 12 feet long.

Every occupant must have a Coast Guard-approved wearable life preserver, and a few other regulations exist as well, all in the interest of your own safety.

Some boats are powered, by arm, of course, and your boat can have a gasoline engine on it, with propeller lifted out of the water.

In times of emergencies such as severe and sudden storms, you are certainly allowed to put the kicker into the water and crank it up for a ride back.

The boat ramp is very well built and two experienced anglers can launch and/or take out at the same time. With the docks in, a few more can be accommodated also.

The parking lot is quite large, built to handle as many as 100 or so cars/trucks and trailers.

I've never seen it near full but its real beauty is not how few boats but how quiet it is. Electric power? Wonderful indeed.

The lake is only open during daylight hours and a sign is posted telling when you can and cannot enter.

A second smaller parking lot is near the main one and folks in cars without trailers use this. They can park and walk the whole east side of the lake.

Some fish from shore and still others just walk and do the nature thing. Over around the other side, near the creek itself, at the northwest corner, if you are careful and lucky, you might encounter a resident eagle or two.

No outlet? Oh my, no indeed. Merrill Creek Reservoir, in Harmony (how's that for a name anyway?), Warren County, is among the best outlets you may ever find.

Scuze me, gone fishin'.

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Good post. Don't let Manny Luftgl [no swearing please] or Fishing and Hunting News see you reprint this. It spells law suit. Not to complain, but this is a copyright law. I know for a fact that some members of the OWAA (Outdoor Writers Assocation of America) watch these sites. Just a bit of info.

Till our trails cross,
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