LAKE HOPATCONG – Diehard fisherman, including men, women and children, were on hand at Dow’s Live Bait shop in Nolan’s Point Saturday afternoon to help float 1143 new brown and rainbow trout into Lake Hopatcong at the annual Knee Deep Club trout stocking event.
The fish, ranging in size from twelve inches to twenty inches, were purchased by the club from the Musky Trout Hatchery in Asbury, NJ, a state certified hatchery. The hatchery needed two trucks to transport all the fish to Lake Hopatcong. The price tag for this year’s float is over $8000 said Jim Salerno, a past club president and current director. The money used to purchase the trout comes from membership fees and donations to the clubs fish stocking fund he said.
Using volunteers and their boats, the majority of trout floated into the chilly lake waters on Saturday, 800 of them, range in size between twelve and fourteen inches, said Stan Mikulka, stock chairperson. There are 142 at the sixteen to seventeen inch range, and 50 each at eighteen to nineteen inches and nineteen to twenty inches.
Then there is the big one, the one everyone present on the docks at Dow’s was waiting to see. With the help of volunteers on the dock, Chase Mancini, son of hatchery owner Jeff Mancini, offloaded the first truck of fish, bucket by bucket, onto the five waiting pontoon boats, which then ferried the fish to specific locations, 30 in all, around the lake. Each boat averaged three to four trips out and back, each time adding news volunteers to their crew on board. It took about an hour to completely offload and float the fish from the first truck.
When the second truck rolled down the hilly driveway at Dow’s, the anticipation grew. Using a large fishing net, the elder Mancini carefully searched through the remaining trout in the truck and unveiled the largest of the fish, a 25 inch rainbow trout, tagged for identification and donated from him to the club. Using both hands to control the fish out of water, Mancini showed it off like a proud father showing off his first born. Most people oohed and aahed. Some snapped pictures. All were sure they’d be skillful enough, or maybe lucky enough, to hook the beautiful creature sometime soon, maybe even next Saturday, opening day of trout season.
Stocking the lake with trout is a Knee Deep Club tradition that dates back to 1953, when club members used the event as a way to build membership and bring more people to the lake. Since 1984, Laurie Murphy, owner of Dow’s, has offered her docks as the staging area for the event. On Saturday, a warm, sunny and calm afternoon, Murphy commented on the amount of people who came out to help and to ogle at the colorful fish.
“This is a good turnout,” she said. “This is the most I’ve seen in a very long time and I’ve been doing this since 1984. It’s nice to see all the kids.”
According to Salerno it’s the kids the club is most interested in on a day like Saturday. With membership holding steady between 800 and 900 members annually over the past few years, getting kids involved early can only help the club stay together. Each time a boat left Dow’s docks, a new crew of kids was on board and ready to do their part in getting the fish into the lake.
For Joseph Wiebe, 8, not only was it his first time helping stock trout but it was also his first time on a boat on Lake Hopatcong. Along with his uncle, Dan Neczepir, the two Clifton residents were permanent crew members on board the boat of local club member John Fernandez. According to Wiebe, scooping fish from the large holding tank on board his boat was “pretty fun.” This is Neczepir’s fourth year helping stock the lake but what he’s most excited about is bringing his nephew back this summer to fish the lake, he said.
For local fisherwomen Olivia Oberman and Cara Orlando, both 10, being on the lake is nothing new but helping stock the lake is a brand new adventure and both were excited but confident when it was their turn to use the nets to scoop fish from the large tub. Both Oberman and Orlando, like all good fishermen, are already telling fish stories, but have only fished off Oberman’s dock. They already have plans to fish from a boat.
“Next week is the first day,” said Oberman, reminding everyone that opening day for trout season is Saturday. “Me and my uncle will be in a boat and Cara will be with me too,” she said.
The Knee Deep Club will hold its annual trout contest on Sunday, April 21, beginning at 5 AM. Usually held in May, the contest was moved to April for a couple of reasons, said Salerno.
“We believe we can give the local economy-the marinas, the bait shops, restaurants-a jolt by moving the contest to April. It’s also better fishing. There is less weed growth to deal with and the water is cooler. It’s the best time to fish for trout,” he said.
Salerno is expecting anywhere between 60-80 people to participate in the contest. Prize money is awarded to top anglers. And a $100 prize will be awarded to any fisherman who snags the tagged 25 inch rainbow trout floated into the lake on Saturday. For registration and rules and to see a list of other club contests visit their website at www.kneedeepclub.org.
In the warmth of the late afternoon sun as the boat was making its return trip to the dock’s at Dow’s to pick up more fish, Neczepir jokingly boasted about his fishing skills to anyone on board who would listen.
“Yea, I’ll probably catch most of these fish next week when I come out,” he said, referring to the hundreds of fish he helped float into the lake.
“Not if I get them first,” shot back a giggling four-foot tall Oberman.
Eddie Mackin carries a tub full of trout from the hatchery truck to the waiting boats.
Spectators crowd around to view the size and beauty of the brown and rainbow trout being stocked in the lake.
Thomas Fernandez dumps a tub of trout into a larger tub on the deck of a pontoon boat.
Volunteers head out across Lake Hopatcong with a tub full of new trout.
Spectators create a "red carpet" effect as Knee Deep Club volunteers tranfer brown and rainbow trout from the hatchery truck to boats in the water.