N.J.’s ‘Bermuda Triangle’: Mystery surrounds Clinton fishing hole’s deep, dark past
CLINTON — A fisherman’s paradise, Round Valley Reservoir in Hunterdon County stretches across 2,000 noise-free acres and is stocked with plenty of trout. On a good day, you can gaze down about 20 feet into its blue waters.
But there’s also a dark side to the popular Clinton Township fishing hole, one of New Jersey’s deepest man-made lakes. Somewhere in its depths lie six presumably drowned men who’ve been missing for years, and surrounding it are tales about its death toll, which numbers roughly a couple dozen within the past 40 years.
Some locals call the reservoir “the Bermuda Triangle of New Jersey,” a nickname that’s being uttered once again after a fishing hook snared a skeletal human foot earlier this month.
But don’t tell that to the authorities or local fishermen, who say there’s nothing supernatural at work here. To them, the only monsters are the wind gusts that can kick up within minutes and the water’s cold temperatures, both of which have long caused trouble for those venturing out onto the lake.
“I doubt there’s a secret bogeyman somewhere who’s creating wind cycles to harm some poor sap of a boater,” said Manny Luftglass, a fisherman who’s written about the reservoir.
Round Valley Reservoir’s otherworldly mystique took shape in recent decades as the deaths mounted. Not only did they occur soon after fishing was allowed there in 1972, but they didn’t slow down, occurring as recently as March when the body of a hiker — an apparent suicide — was found.
The legend took hold because six of the bodies have never been recovered, and authorities believe they’re somewhere in the reservoir’s 180 feet of water.
The first victims to go missing were Thomas Trimblett, 27, of North Arlington, and Christopher Zajaczkowski, age unknown, of Jersey City. Both men were fishing in a 12-foot aluminum boat on May 4, 1973, when it capsized on the reservoir’s east side.
Four years later, Craig Stier, 18, and Andrew Fasanella, 20, both of Trenton, were last seen traveling along the north shoreline. Their canoe washed ashore days after their reported disappearance.
On March 18, 1989, John Kubu, 37, of Rahway, vanished during a fishing trip with Albert Lawson of Linden. Lawson’s body was found in 1993.
The last to go missing was Jeffrey Moore, 27, of Ringwood, who was last seen on a fishing trip on Oct. 22, 1993, with 26-year-old Raymond Barr. A passing boater was able to rescue Barr, who reportedly said Moore drowned after their boat took on water.
There have been multiple attempts to find the missing — authorities scoured the lake with a submarine in 2006 — but no human remains have been found. The Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office, meanwhile, is awaiting lab results on the foot to determine whether it is a clue to where a body may be.
All of this has helped the myth of the reservoir reach new heights, but local fishermen believe there really is no mystery. The answer is quite simple, they say: With the proper preparation, the danger can be greatly minimized.
A common thread in many of the deaths is that the victims were in too small a boat, said Anthony “Randy” Guerrera, president of the Round Valley Trout Association. He said any vessel smaller than 14 feet is in danger of capsizing in the wind, which can reach speeds of up to 40 mph because of the valley’s bowl shape.
Those winds don’t necessarily start out strong, but they become trapped in the valley and spin around before they kick up waves several feet high, said Kenneth Lang, a trooper with the New Jersey State Police’s Marine Services Bureau.
According to Luftglass, the wind can be at its worst between 10 and 11 a.m., and there are strobe lights along the shore that flash when the water gets too choppy.
Once a boater is thrown into the water, the cold temperatures, which can dip to about 50 degrees in the deepest parts, can become deadly.
“That cold water, when you get in, is a shock to the body,” Lang said.
The shock could cause a person’s body to spasm and inhale water, or the body could cramp easily because of the cold water. There’s also the chance of hypothermia.
“Sometimes it can be a matter of 30 seconds before your body goes,” said Lt. Stephen Jones, state police spokesman.
The cold water is what causes bodies to remain below the surface, authorities said. Bodies don’t decompose as quickly, which means there’s a lack of gases from decomposition to lift them to the surface.
What also makes the reservoir a tough swim is its tendency to play tricks on the eyes, said Rhonda Quinn, assistant professor of anthropology at Seton Hall University. Quinn, who visits the reservoir regularly, said its round shape makes it hard to gauge the distance to the shore, disguising how far someone has actually gone into the water.
“Even the best of swimmers would have trouble swimming the lake under those (windy) conditions,” she said.
As for what exactly lies beneath, that’s only added to the legend. For years, there were tales of buildings, trees and roads that remained standing after the reservoir was created — claims no one could confirm.
What’s known is that homesteads were razed before the reservoir was built and that the site was once occupied by the native Lenape tribe, Quinn said. Hence, it wouldn’t be a surprise if ancient remains eventually made it to the surface and complicated identification efforts.
There’s also the possibility the bodies might have become entangled in dead trees at the reservoir’s bottom, making it hard to spot them on sonar, Luftglass said.
So why do people still flock there if the area is that dangerous? The cold waters may have made the reservoir infamous, but they’re also what makes the reservoir one of the state’s prime hotspots for trout.
In fact, Round Valley Reservoir is home to state records for the largest lake trout, brown trout, small-mouth bass and American eel, according to the Round Valley Trout Association.
Despite the dangers, the man-made lake offers a lot of beauty that can’t be replicated, Luftglass said. Just be sure to bring a big enough boat, keep watch over the weather reports, wear a life jacket and stay within boundaries that you know are safe.
“Bermuda Triangle? I think not,” Luftglass said. “This is a beautiful place. You see it, and it’s like, ‘Holy cow.’”