The Good 'Ole Days are Now!
by Jim Sciascia
"Ahhh, if we could only return to the 'good ole days' of trout fishing in New Jersey. I'll bet the surfaces of streams and lakes were boiling with all kinds of trout a hundred years ago, and probably too large to land without a huge net. Probably had half-mile stretches of stream all to yourself, too."
Most of us who grew up fishing in New Jersey and elsewhere have probably heard similar yearnings for yesteryear, or created a fantasy in our minds of how much better trout fishing must have been in the past. And I'd say it's a pretty safe bet that most of us forty-something adults still carry these visions in the recesses of our mind. Sorry to spoil the fantasy folks, but that's just what it is - a fantasy.
Reality is, trout fishing in New Jersey today is better than it has ever been. Hard to believe? Let's look at the facts.
That vision of half-mile stretches of stream to yourself? Blown away by Assistant Fish and Game Protector Cudney's 1930 statement that Opening Day looked "almost like a carnival" in Warren County and Warden Small's observation of 200 people shouldering each other for a place to fish at Saddle River in Bergen County the same day.
"But surely," you ask, "I can keep my vision of the pristine streams of yesteryear (though with fewer fish) that can't hold trout today?" NOT!!! Surveys conducted between 1918 and 1920 found 6 major waterways devoid of trout due to pollution. The same surveys found about 20 that had natural reproduction of brook trout. Guess what? All of those streams still support reproducing trout populations and in some cases, brown and/or rainbow trout can be found today where only brook trout occurred back then.
A lot of factors have combined to make New Jersey a great trout fishing success story. One factor is our good fortune of having more than 8,600 miles of streams and 4,100 freshwater lakes, ponds and impoundments larger than one acre. Many of the streams that course down and through the steep, wooded terrain of the Ridge and Valley and Highlands regions and the rolling plains of the Piedmont provide the cold water habitat and the natural beauty that both trout and trout anglers need and enjoy.
The Clean Water Act of 1972 and regulatory programs implemented by the NJ Department of Environmental Protection have significantly improved water quality in our streams. Providing natural buffers to our most sensitive streams and providing public access to the best trout fishing areas in the state are nearly one million acres preserved through land acquisitions funded by fishing and hunting licenses, the Green Acres Program, federal programs and private conservation groups.
Last but not least, the Division of Fish and Wildlife's talented and ambitious fisheries staff have been able to increase the quality and quantity of trout fishing opportunities in our state thanks to the investments the division has made in its hatchery facilities over the past 20 years.
New Jersey's Trout WatersWe are all familiar with the saying, "The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence." Not until we honestly take stock of what we have in our own backyard do we realize how fortunate we are. This can be said for trout fishing streams in New Jersey. We have over 500 miles of streams with water quality capable of supporting trout reproduction and/or adequate for the year-round survival of trout.
Quintessential trout streams tumble, gurgle and roll through the northern third of our state. The legendary Flatbrook drainage in Sussex County provides many miles of trout fishing pleasure on the 15-mile expanse of the Big Flatbrook and the 10-mile length of the Little Flatbrook. Crystal clear water and varying stretches of fast riffles and runs over classic gravel and rock bottoms, mixed with deep, silt-bottomed holes, satisfy all trouters from the experienced flyrodder to the angler that prefers to pitch a worm or spinner.
There is more public access to the Flatbrook than any other trout stream in the state. It runs through thousands of acres in High Point State Park and Stokes State Forest, Flatbrook-Roy and Walpack Wildlife Management Areas, and the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area before emptying into the Delaware River at Walpack Bend. The Flatbrook drains some of the most picturesque and wide open spaces of the state. A visit to the area for the scenery alone is worth the trip. Great trout fishing is a bonus.
A discussion of New Jersey's top trout fishing waters would not be complete without mentioning the stretch of the South Branch of the Raritan River that flows through Ken Lockwood Gorge. This two and one half-mile stretch of river begins near Califon in Hunterdon County and ends near High Bridge. The Gorge is a deep glacial scar with nearly vertical walls, deeply carpeted with evergreens, hardwoods and a lush understory. Sections of the river in the Gorge are strewn with car-size boulders and deep clear pools. The scenery is breathtaking, as is the trout fishing.
Until 2002 the Gorge was restricted to fly fishing only for most of the season. Now this area is managed as a Year Round Trout Conservation Area. While fly fishing will surely remain the dominant technique, the loosening of tackle restrictions with a creel limit of one fish greater than 15" in size will enable more anglers to benefit from this gem of a stream. Ken Lockwood Gorge is a state-owned Wildlife Management Area and access to the river is made easy by a streamside road maintained by the Division.
The Pequest River is born in the Whittingham WMA in Sussex County but much of its upper portion is not considered classic trout habitat. Not until the Pequest flows from the 'Great Meadows' does it take on the rocky, rolling character of a trout stream.
The best stretch of the Pequest has over four miles of fishing access where it runs through the Pequest Wildlife Management Area in Warren County. This is where the Pequest Trout Hatchery and Natural Resource Education Center is located, as well as an Accessible Fishing Site. This well-known stretch of stream is heavily stocked and a popular spot for both fly and spin anglers. Anyone willing to walk a little can find nice isolated stretches of classic trout water, even during the height of the season.
Other notable northwest Jersey trout waters include the Paulinskill River (Sussex and Warren), Musconetcong River (Morris, Hunterdon and Warren) and the Black River (Morris). In addition to these major streams, there are numerous tributary streams that are stocked with trout by the Division and many more that are inhabited by wild trout.
Wild trout streams support naturally reproducing populations of trout, mostly brook and/or browns. About a dozen streams have rainbows. Only 3 streams, Flanders Brook, VanCampens Brook and the Mulhockaway Creek, support all 3 species.
Although hatchery raised trout are beautiful fish, wild trout are the "supermodels" of the trout world. The vibrant colors and exquisite markings of wild trout result from diet and genetics. Genetics and survival skills also make wild trout very challenging to catch. This combined with the usually small, brush-choked streams where they are found make catching one a unique and satisfying trout fishing experience.
Special regulations exist for a select number of wild trout streams, designed to protect the population from being over-harvested. A listing of all New Jersey trout stocked and regulated wild trout waters are found in the Freshwater Fish Digest, available at division offices, license agents and on-line. Weekly stocking schedules are available through the Website or by calling the trout stocking hotline at 609-633-6765.
Trout fishing in streams is not limited to the northern part of the state. Notable central and south Jersey waterways such as the Manasquan, Metedeconk, Delaware and Raritan Canal, Toms River, Cohansey and Maurice Rivers receive generous allotments of trout and provide the stream structure and access that combine for successful and enjoyable trout outings.
For more information on some of the trout streams mentioned and more of the smaller streams, I'd recommend the Sportsmen's Guide publication, "Discovering and Exploring New Jersey's Fishing Streams and the Delaware River". Along with location information, the guide provides great information on hotspots, techniques and lures. The guide can be obtained by calling 856-783-1271. A stream map of New Jersey can also be obtained through this number.
In 2002 the Division revised its Places to Fish publication and included Delaware River Boat Access areas. This valuable booklet lists lakes, ponds and streams open to public angling, along with boat access points along the Delaware. For the print version send a self-addressed, stamped #10 envelope to Places to Fish, NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife, P.O. Box 394, Lebanon, NJ 08833.
Lake fishing for trout is a completely different experience than stream fishing but this is where the opportunities are for trophy-sized fish. In fact, state records for three of the four trout species in the state are from large water bodies. Both the brown trout record (21lbs. 6oz.) and the 2002 lake trout record (32˝lbs.) were caught in Round Valley Reservoir.
Trout grow larger and faster in large, deep lakes that provide year round temperature and oxygen and, more importantly, contain herring, a major forage species. Merrill Creek Reservoir in Warren County and Round Valley Reservoir in Hunterdon County are designated trophy trout lakes where special regulations limit the number and size of fish that can be kept.
Providing Trout for New Jersey AnglersThe state's investment in the Pequest Trout Hatchery, constructed in 1980, is paying big dividends to New Jersey trout anglers, raising and stocking about 700,000 trout each year. Spring stocking begins about three weeks prior to opening day in April. Stocking continues for another seven weeks after the season opens. About 600,000 catchable-sized brook, brown & rainbow trout are stocked in our streams, ponds and lakes during the spring.
About 100 streams spanning 350 miles are stocked with about 450,000 ten to eleven inch trout with an average weight of ˝ pound. Another 150,000 trout of the same size are distributed in about 90 lakes during the ten-week period. In addition, another 6,000 'sugar' fish are distributed in the spring. These 'sugar' fish are hatchery broodstock that are no longer needed and are the brutes everyone hopes for. These fish range in size from 16-24 inches with an average weight of 2-3 pounds, with some lunkers weighing 5 or more pounds. In the "good 'ole days" of yesteryear, a 2-3 pound trout was a rarity. Now, these once in a lifetime fish are caught on a routine basis by Jersey anglers.
During the first several weeks of the trout season, some streams and waterbodies experience heavy fishing pressure and may approach the carnival scene described by Warden Small in 1930. But after that, the pressure subsides, the crowds thin and you can experience the dream-state vision of having trout stocked stretches of water all to yourself. The growing popularity of the shad run pulls a lot of anglers away from the trout streams in later April and early May.
By late May and early June the majority of half-serious trout anglers have hung up their boots until next spring. This may be the best time to take advantage of uncrowded waters still boiling (well, almost boiling) with stocked trout and those 'sugar' fish waiting in the deeper holes.
Up until the recently nearly all trout anglers hung up their boots for the season in the dog days of summer. The "good 'ole days"? Well, today, the chill of shorter fall days is a signal to dust off those boots to chase trout thanks to a fall trout-stocking program. In the mid-1980s the division began releasing about 50,000 10-inch trout (and another 48,000 or so surplus 5-7 inchers) in 160 miles of streams during October. Talk about stretches of stream to yourself and plenty of trout to catch! You've got to try fall trout fishing. Maybe you'll be a little more motivated when I tell that another 1,500 'sugar' fish are released in the fall and these are bigger than the ones released in the spring!
"OK, so enough already with the trout!" you say. Well, hold on. In fall 2000 the division initiated the Winter Trout Stocking Program. This stocking of around 13,000 11-inch trout is restricted to lakes. Though meant primarily for ice fishing, this program provides more catchable trout for the following spring.
Reliably catching trout in New Jersey is now something you can do 12 months of the year if you have an ice spud and the angling stealth and acumen to seduce those lazy, educated trout in the dog days of summer. I'm not kidding when I say trout fishing's never been better in New Jersey.
New Kids on the BlockLake Trout
The most recent trout newcomer to New Jersey is the lake trout. They were first introduced into the state in 1977 when the Division stocked them in Round Valley Reservoir. The 26-pound state record caught by Walter Neumann in 2001 (and broken by 6˝ pounds in 2002 by Gregory Young) is living proof the lakers like Round Valley and are in New Jersey to stay. This fish is certainly not the only proof of the lake trout's fondness for Round Valley. They like it so much they began to spawn in the lake soon after being introduced. As early as 1985, young lake trout without clipped fins that identify stocked fish began to appear.
The only other water body that is deep and large enough to support lake trout is Merrill Creek Reservoir in Warren County. Lake trout were also stocked here in the 1980s, soon after the reservoir was built. Merrill Creek has been yielding legal-sized lakers for quite a number of years now, and has proven to be another permanent home for lake trout in New Jersey.
Although not difficult to catch, these fish are denizens of the deep during most of the year and your best bet for catching lakers is from a boat. Small boats are best at Merrill Creek where only electric motors are allowed. Here you do not need sophisticated electronics, downriggers, etc. An egg-sinker rig baited with herring can be drifted on the bottom until you 'find' the lakers at Merrill.
Round Valley is quite large and most boaters opt for the maximum allowable 9.9 horsepower outboards. But even here, you do not need an expensive, sophisticated rig to put yourself in the middle of fast and furious trout fishing. In addition to lakers, rainbow and brown trout in the 5-10 lb. range are taken at either reservoir. Also, anglers without a boat are not excluded from the trout action at these lakes. In early spring and late fall shore fishing for trout can also be quite hot as the trout cruise the shallows in search of prey and spawning habitat.
Sea-Run Brown Trout
Sea-run brown trout occur in Europe where trout streams meet the sea. Young brown trout migrate from the streams to the saline estuaries and open saltwater to take advantage of abundant marine food sources. Here they grow quickly and within several years are 4-6 pounds when they return to the freshwater river of their origin to spawn.
In New Jersey, the Manasquan River is one of the few streams stocked with brown trout where the stocking occurs relatively close to the point where saltwater meets freshwater. Reports of occasional catches of sea-run trout by sport and commercial fishermen were an indication that stocked brown trout were finding their way to, and surviving in, saltwater habitats. Since the Manasquan River's designation is "trout maintenance" rather than "trout production" it is doubtful that these fish reproduce successfully. It appeared brown trout were migrating out into the estuary to take advantage of the abundant forage, growing to a size of 2-4 pounds or larger and then returning to freshwater on their "spawning run".
Seeing the opportunity to develop a new and exciting sport fishery in the Manasquan, 16,000 eight-inch brown trout raised at Pequest were stocked in the tidal portions of the river in 1997. By 2001, over 140,000 brown trout had been stocked in an effort to jump-start this trout fishery.
Although it may take a little while longer to establish, indications are the sea-run brown trout fishery is a promising addition to the trout fishing opportunities in the Garden State. Up to 9-pound sea-run browns have been caught in the Manasquan that were stocked as part of the program. With the rate of growth that's been documented I'm sure some true monsters will undoubtedly be landed.
Anglers are asked to report all catches of brown trout in the tidal Manasquan River or in the vicinity of the Manasquan Inlet to the Division's Bureau of Freshwater Fisheries at 908-236-2118. These fish have normal brown trout coloration (dark spots on a light brown or yellowish background on the body and head). The spots and background become more silvery the longer the fish are in the river. The adipose fin (the small fin on the back just in front of the tail fin) has been removed for identification. You should be able to see where this fin has been clipped.
This program is a cooperative effort between New Jersey anglers, the Jersey Shore and Ernest Schwiebert Chapters of Trout Unlimited, and the Division of Fish and Wildlife. It will only be continued if there is proof that it is working which relies on fish being reported when caught.
What Now?If you have gotten away from trout fishing in New Jersey now is the time to dust off the waders and your favorite rod. Take advantage of the fantastic trout fishing opportunities that have developed right in your backyard while you were dreaming of the good 'ol days. If you never fished for trout, or never fished at all, and this article has you excited about giving it a try, there is plenty of help out there for beginners. In fact, if you are not sure you want to take the plunge, try it out on New Jersey's Free Fishing Days when anyone can fish for trout without a license or a trout stamp.
The Division's Pequest Trout Hatchery and Natural Resource Education Center also offers numerous fishing classes for skill levels from novice to expert. No matter whether you're packing a cane pole and a can of worms or a top-of-the line fly rig with imitations of every bug known to trout, there's a fabulous trout fishing experience waiting to happen for you. Get out there and see for yourself why trout fishing has never been better in New Jersey.
Information & Resources'How-To' and Fishing Education Programs
The Pequest Trout Hatchery and Natural Resource Education Center offers numerous classes on learning to fish, fly-fishing, fly-tying, etc. Program information is on-line, or call 908-637-4125 for information.
Handicap Fishing Access
Accessible New Jersey sites are on-line; for a printed copy of send a #10 envelope with $.44 postage to Places to Fish, NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife, P.O. Box 394, Lebanon, NJ 08833.
The original version of this article appeared in the Spring 2001 issue of New Jersey Outdoors magazine.