Friday, January 26, 2018

Native and Wild Trout of New Jersey

New Jersey’s Little Secret: Wild and Native Trout

Wild Rainbow Pequest River Headwaters

          How I learned about native brook trout in Dunnfield Creek is permanently obscured, but memories of catching them in the late 1970’s remain clear and colorful like the aquamarine spring-fed water. I made pilgrimages during the 1980’s with a brother of mine and also a girlfriend, catching both native brook trout and wild browns. In 1993, I hiked with my wife-to-be, Patricia, on a 90-degree July afternoon. Into the deepest pool I dove, clad in shorts. That’s when I learned just how cold the Creek stays.

          Charts and statistics online indicate approximately 50% of original native brook trout range remains in New Jersey, some of the lines of genetic inheritance going back about 12,000 years to the Wisconsin Glacier recession. From Somerset County northward, the New Jersey State Fish, designated by former Governor James Florio, is a multi-colored, fleshed-out jewel not all that rare. I’ve found them in a Somerset County rill, a shallow run not listed among 175 New Jersey Wild Trout Streams, which the Division of Fish & Wildlife designates. My son and I hiked the one-mile length, finding a single hole five feet deep with half a dozen brookies as large as seven inches finning at bottom. To the south of the state, native brook trout inhabited parts of the Pinelands in spring-fed streams and reportedly still do today in Big Timber Creek, tolerating high acidity.  

          Not every high quality stream in the state has brookies. Passaic River headwaters in Sherman Hoffman Wildlife Sanctuary’s vicinity flourish with wild rainbows and browns, absent of any brook trout. Rockaway Creek is full of wild browns, but no rainbows. Flanders Brook has all three species. Countless other examples have their unique characteristics. On the whole, wild brown trout are most resilient, native brookies not quite as common a survivor of our state’s environmental pressures, and wild rainbows are not rare but least to expect.

          All three species offer you an opportunity to count small fish as valuable, although on occasion, I’ve got news of a true wild brown—not a holdover—more than 20 inches long. I saw a photo of a five-pound brook trout caught somewhere in Warren County and asked if this fish was native. The uncertain answer is telling, because given the whereabouts deep in the forests, this fish, if not native, was surely wildly reproduced. Some brook trout holdover from stocking and especially work their way far upstream to reproduce. Not as natives, but wild brook trout, though I can’t really imagine the secret place ever received stockers or had any connection to them. Besides, the point may almost be moot. The most significant difference for a brook trout of that size would be holdover status, disqualifying the fish as worthy of quite the awe of either a native or wild fish.

           Not every small, spring-fed stream is small its entire length. During seventh grade, a friend and I used to sneak into the woods during lunch recess, hiking to the headwaters of Little Shabakunk Creek in Mercer County where we planned on building a dam as beavers would make. I had the address and contract information of a trout hatchery. We were just kids. Before complications ensued over a brook trout order, my father asked to see the site with wood already piled on. I took him there. He said, “You would need an engineering degree and equipment to build this dam.”

          Beavers do it, though.

          You will find most wild and native trout in free-flowing creeks and river headwaters. Some exceptions include small impoundments of such streams. In the creeks and small rivers, trout don’t always hold in the deepest pools. I’ve caught nine and 10-inch brookies in Dunnfield Creek riffles by casting small shad darts on an ultra-light spinning rod, though in recent years, I stick to my two-weight fly rod. To catch a seven-incher of any of the three species is to gain an opportunity to witness a fine specimen. Nine-inch fish prove less common, and yet among brown trout, 14 to 17-inch fish are not drastically rare in streams small where you might not expect them. They live out their years by very wary behavior.

          Rules posted online by NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife govern designated wild trout streams, limiting anglers to use of artificial lures. Ultra-light spinning is a perfectly thrilling way to go. Trout Magnets and tiny jigs of any variety work best. I never bothered with spinners, because these clear water habitats make the metal seem too flashy for my taste. Besides, treble hooks are a nasty way to treat the trout, so if you do use lures with trebles, it’s a good idea to crimp the barbs to ensure clean release. Use no more than two-pound test low diameter line and you have all the casting range you need.

          Plenty gets written on small stickbaits for wild browns, especially around spawning time in the fall. I own tiny one-inch Rapalas I’ve caught plenty of stocked browns on in the past, and though they would work, longer lengths—yet small—tease out larger fish. Committed now to my six-foot fly rod, I never look back with any regret to the jigs I used, nor to the worms browns chewed in February before artificial lures became the rule on the Dunnfield.

          Bead-head nymphs like pheasant-tails, stonefly imitations, olives, and you-name-it in a variety of smaller hook measures have proven most versatile, although especially smaller streamers like Wooly Buggers and Muddler Minnows have had their moments. So do dry flies. If you’re new to our state’s little secret, consulting local hatch charts is a good idea, although all-around patterns like the Adams, Elk Hair Caddis, and Hendricksons are good to begin with especially for eager brook trout. The plethora of fly patterns available—and of stream entomology—will confuse you plenty, as it still does me. But if you read Art Scheck, former editor of Fly Fisherman magazine and former New Jersey resident, you might find him claim the only pattern he cares to fish for summer brook trout is the floating black ant.

            Light tippets of 6X and 7X may not hold a big trout but prove fitting for the little ones. A diopter can ease the uncertainty of finding the tie loop of a tiny fly. Just wear a vest and you’re good to go, unless the stream demands waders in the cooler and cold months.

          Summer trout fishing is easy compared to this time of year. If water temperatures remain as cold as they do in the Dunnfield Creek, trout will survive their struggle with you. As a rule, I don’t pursue trout in water above 68 degrees. Right now is a special time to seek out new streams and fish them. Cold weather inspires zest in the hardy, but if you feel averse to line freezing in the guides and numb fingers reaching for a hand warmer, a mild afternoon is a pleasant reminder of days to come. And yet if you find the deepest pools and fish them patiently while forgetting summer memories that distract you from the present, you may find persistent winter days are plenty to comfort the need to get out.                   

Wild Brown Peapack Brook
Native Brook Trout Dunnfield Creek

Headwaters North Branch Raritan

Capoolong Creek

Hakihokake Creek

Pohandusing Brook

Little Flatbrook

Rockaway Creek

Lamington River above CR 665

Van Campens Brook
Link to a piece on a stream hosting wild browns in its upper reaches:

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Ice Fishing Round Valley Pond

I drove to Advanced Power Equipment in Martinsville to pick up my auger with blades I assume were worked on. I paid some $23.00. We got to Round Valley Pond and found no difference whatsoever in the equipment's performance, compared to the recent trip to Lake Hopatcong.

I'm not pissed. Not only did we have an excellent time out, I leaned on the auger, burned at least $4.00 worth of Husquevarna 95-octane fuel, and cut three holes, not pressured under negative 20 wind chill as last week. We were offered a hand drill from a guy who caught a 12-inch perch and an 18-inch pickerel, and I admit I felt of twinge of guilt, wondering about the longevity of his blades, but Matt got holes cut as I did not refuse. Maybe I'll buy a grinder. Maybe I'll go protest in Martinsville, but whatever, I will be examining the blades with Mike Maxwell, who understands things practical a lot better than I do. As Matt cut the third hole, I called over to him, "the existential concrete lived experience!" This I get. But it's not the same as making things work.

I felt fully confidant about catching fish here, although I was a little concerned that the pond is getting pounded. I talked to Tom Tosco at The Sporting Life, and he told me to expect a couple of guys. I quipped that as long as they're not on my spots, that's would be OK, and to tell you the truth, as I walked into view...that's where I was looking to, my spots, as if whoever was out there was just an object. As he turned out, in truth--a real nice guy, and I have to credit myself in spite of evil intent at first. Once I stepped out, I looked to the guy at a distance (and not on my spots), anticipated our meeting glances....and raised hands of greeting. The bonds of relationship are so important. Things matter not at all without the concrete lived existential experience.

Before action flurried in a straight line near the straight-edged shoreline from about 12 to 20 feet deep, two young women approached Matt and me. Jena goes to Raritan Valley. I regret to say I didn't get the graduate's name, but she went to school in Pennsylvania. We hung out and talked for an hour or so before I noticed a high flag. Matt caught a 22-inch pickerel. Afterwards, I went to get the Husqevarna, fearing a stripped transmission, which I soon found out, to my great relief, was OK, while Jena caught a 20-inch pickerel. A gift from Matt.

A minute later, I caught my 18-incher. Later, as we began packing it in, Matt fought a pickerel of at least 22 inches, which broke off at the hole. Cut through 15-pound test fluorocarbon, which does happen on other rare occasions.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

10 Top New Jersey Picks for Early Largemouth Bass

Ice-Out Largemouths Bottom to Top

By Bruce Edward Litton

By early March, lakes and reservoirs of our region typically become ice-free, largemouth bass responsive to a variety of lure techniques. Last year was the great exception with ice-out complete near trout Opening Day. Shallow, stained ponds, especially those with a feeder creek open first. Years ago, a friend and I caught bass on the surface of a two-acre pond in Somerset County, four feet deep at most, on an 80-degree March afternoon. I got news later of ice fishermen doing well on Lake Hopatcong as ice melted rapidly. Nevertheless, the late winter/early spring fishing usually begins at bottom, and bass can be caught in a pond not yet entirely iced-out. The hotspot? Any edges of ice over some of the pond’s deepest won’t warm the water any, but may hold bass.

A crappie or twister tail jig cast on the ice and allowed to fall over the edge is more effective on descent than weightless plastics, but once on bottom, should be retrieved inches at a time by twitches. With water temperatures in the 30’s or about 40, bass don’t seem to notice a slow-sinking plastic as they readily do in summer, when bass metabolism is at peak, though slow behavior conserves calories. The senses of a summer bass are manic compared to winter’s slowdown, and they pick up on slow offerings immediately. During ice-out, partial ice creates a shadowline bass and baitfish respond to and hover near. If you’ve ever witnessed a baitfish in really cold water, you might recall a few inches of movement at a time along bottom by hesitant impulses. That’s why twitching a jig a few inches and then pausing works. Once we get those welcome warm fronts, things will get more interesting on waters of all sizes, but starting basic—at bottom—is sort of foundational to bass fishing in general.


Cold water gravel or hard bottoms of 8-20 feet in any bass environment invite an old standby, the Johnson Beetle Spin, and I bet a lot of bass fishermen have never heard of this spinnerbait with a detaching arm. Real spinnerbaits have a frame solidly attached to the lead, but the detachable metal of the Beetle Spin adds special effectiveness. I used to call the method “tick spinning” in my teens, because the second hand of my watch rotated around the dial almost as slow as the crank of my reel completed a turn. The cupped Colorado blade just waggles along, doesn’t spin and emit those regular vibrations. But here’s why this sort of very subtle, erratic motion implies the advantage of the loose blade and tie loop arm. Instead of holding a fixed place, as the jig head crawls over gravel or along hard bottom, the arm subtly moves about also. It’s not an issue of imitating a crawfish or any other sort of creature, but creating a presentation that the very slow metabolism of a bass responds to. The jerking about of that arm and blade worked for me consistently at Baker’s Basin, a Delaware and Raritan Canal basin pond. My son and I checked up on the fishing during fairly recent years and scored.

Tube jigs are proven effective in cold water by a great many more bass anglers. Plastic tentacles vibrate and sway when a shimmy is sent down the line, even if the jig head anchors the lure in place. For this technique, I recommend quality braid because unlike monofilament, its inability to stretch means less play in the line, imparting a trembling shake of the rod directly to the jig. A fast action rod is essential.

In a toss-up between the two, I would put my money on the Beetle Spin, because the cricketing metal seems just the ticket to getting the attention of metabolically deficient bass. Bass see enough tube jigs anyway.


Another old standby. In-line spinners achieve performance perfection early in the season for a number of reasons. The most obvious, perhaps, involves the lack of vegetation to foul those trebles. If you fish timber, a willowleaf spinnerbait will better suit, but residual weeds hold baitfish and bass. A Mepp’s Aglia Long upwards of size 3 or a C.P. Swing size 6 pulsing over diminished weeds is deadly. Another reason. In-line spinners possess a subtler appearance than the large profile of spinnerbaits. At most, the red tube on the treble of a Mepp’s is all you need, and perhaps it rarely serves as a plus. I never use Colorado or Indiana blades because, in my opinion, they emit too much vibration in cold water, so the standard Mepp’s or Blue Fox is declined. The willowleaf long blades hum along, attracting just enough attention with water temperatures in the low to mid 40’s or higher.

With water taking a warming trend, at least some bass venture towards the shallows, and a slow to moderately retrieved spinner finds them and provokes strikes. This is not pounding the banks and docks, shoreline brush or stickups, but plumbing the middle zones between the depths and the shallows. Baker’s Basin’s 12-foot belly features ancillary seven to four-foot depths, and fan casting the mouths of the two deepest corners, for an example, is effective. Lake Assunpink has at least a few submerged ditches or depressions leading off the main creek channel with structural breaks where bass stage. The massive stone faces of Split Rock Reservoir get warmed by morning and early afternoon sun, allowing bass a short expenditure of energy to move relatively shallow from depths beneath, spinners effective at intercepting them.

But don’t rule out crankbaits at slow to moderate retrieves with an occasional pause breaking the pattern, particularly in association with stone structure. A close cousin to crankbaits, suspending jerkbaits offer the advantage of remaining stationary in the water column when paused. They tantalize bass if nervous life is imparted to them. A number of suspending jerkbaits engineered to run as deep as eight feet can advantage critically, although the more standard varieties may be effective four or five feet down. Find sort of bowl-shaped depressions towards the backs of Spruce Run Reservoir coves, or cast while walking along the jetty at the mouth of Spruce Run Creek. Plug action appropriate to the water temperature, displacing its presence to bass’s lateral lines, can provoke a lunker nursing her eggs to clean up with vacuum jaws.

Shallows and Surface

How is bass fishing complete without surface catches? Any sort of shallow water action seems to comprise most of what bass fishing is about, and as a rule, when water temperatures reach and surpass 50, bass invade the shallow flats of Bedminster Pond, or begin to pay the docks of Lake Hopatcong visits. Bedminster Pond is considered poor fishing by everyone I speak to who knows of it, besides two guys who helped get me interested enough to catch bass in numbers and up to three pounds. Other ponds—Burnham Park Ponds, Colonial Park Pond, Ghost Lake—also present a real problem with weeds after April, but none of these is as bad as Bedminster Pond with its scum algae. Some might associate this pond with Trump National Golf Course, since the ugly appearance, once weather warms, may suggest a Jurassic backwater that became part of a modern-day oilfield, but in fact, Bedminster Pond is on public land in the same township as that golf course. And since Trump’s golf course is privately maintained, I would assume any pond on the property would enjoy better conditions. This said, however, I like Bedminster Pond as it is. To destroy the substandard—and the pond is substandard—because it is substandard, would be tantamount to an unforgivable violence that reduces itself beneath the level it seeks to eradicate. Regarding another pond with difficult but better appearing warmwater conditions, I’ve caught Colonial Park Pond bass by reeling weedless plastics over the duckweed in June, but will never bother at Bedminster, although, as things turns out, I know a local teenager, Tom Slota, who did just this at Bedminster Pond—after this article more and less as it now stands got published in The Fisherman magazine last February—and caught bass last summer. On a warm day in March, Bedminster Pond can result in a few good bass, and I’ve heard the unlikely story of a six-pounder. Nevertheless, this pond is abundantly fertile, and while carp-choked and mud bottomed, enough forage may be present for a few bass to reach lunker size.

Fifty degrees isn’t really a magic mark. Whoever got us all in the habit of the reference point, it makes plenty of sense, but bass get caught on the surface in water as cold as 47 at most. In my opinion, there’s a specific way to do it, and I bet no bass has ever hit a hula popper chugged along in water this cold.

First, the conditions. Steady sunlight throughout a mild or warm day, so the water warms to 47 or so just as evening approaches is the ticket. Secondly, the stage. If a pond—like Bedminster Pond—has a northeast corner with enough fertility and proximity to deeper staging points, that sunlight will have warmed the corner the most. Whatever the temperature difference, even if slight—it’s in your favor. Surface must be dead calm.

Now how to fish a Rebel. This plug is of that lone lure company providing fish-catching minnow plugs for decades, a floating jerkbait unlike most others, although perhaps other companies make lures that work about the same. The plastic 2 ½-inch Minnow sits on the surface at an angle, rear submerged, only head and shoulders breaking surface tension. By twitching the plug only enough to raise that rear, and then let it sink back, enough of a message is sent in all directions that something like food is there for the taking. Give the lure no excess in the form of jerking or popping. You can wait as long as a full minute between twitches. This truly is an exercise in slowing down and exploring patience you’ve completely forgotten since those idle hours and minutes of adolescence. During the 1970’s, I caught a lot of bass this way in Baker’s Basin. If a bass comes up and sips the plug as subtly as a trout taking a dry fly, it’s something you may never forget.

10 Top New Jersey Picks for Early Largemouths

1.    Lake Assunpink, Monmouth County, accessible by I-195, is a favorite for tournament clubs this time of year. Fish the rip-rap of the dam dike (holds heat) with crankbaits. Pinpoint structural breaks and fish in-line spinners, suspending jerkbaits.

2.    Manasquan Reservoir, Monmouth County, by I-195, is another club favorite. Small, snagless jigs in the timber don’t only catch crappie. Allow spinnerbaits to flutter on descent beside timber.

3.    Lake Hopatcong, Morris and Sussex counties, by I-80. Opportunity for in-line spinners over residual weeds. Weedless tube jigs.

4.    Split Rock Reservoir, Morris County, by I-287. Johnson Beetle Spin, Jigs crankbaits and spinners in relation to rock faces.

5.    Baker’s Basin, Mercer County, by U.S. 1 and Carnegie Road. Johnson Beetle Spin, in-line spinners, Rebel Minnow—bottom to top.

6.    Bedminster Pond, Somerset County, by U.S. 202/206. In-line spinners, spinnerbaits, Rebel Minnow. Don’t bother unless on a warm day, only March and April. Or so I had published in The Fisherman. Tom Slota proved me quite wrong.

7.    Hainesville Pond, Sussex County by U.S. 206. In-line spinners, Rebel Minnow. Notoriously weeds-in after April.

8.    Ghost Lake, Warren County, Shades of Death Road. Weedless tube jigs, in-line spinners, suspending jerk baits, Rebel Minnow.

9.    Merrill Creek Reservoir, Warren County by I-78. Johnson Beetle Spin, Jigs, In-line spinners, crankbaits. Rocky shorelines tend to absorb heat.

10. Shepherd Lake, Passaic County, by Sloatsburg Road. Weedless tube jigs, in-line spinners, suspending jerkbaits. Fish the slight coves.  


Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sunset Bass Fishing in Bedminster with Mild Weather Lingering

Gave my neighborhood pond a try at sunset for 20 minutes or so catching three largemouths: a pound and a half and couple of others, one about an ounce under two pounds, the other an ounce over two pounds on a 3/8th ounce spinnerbait, large Colorado blade, twister grub. The blade seemed too large forcing a slow retrieve, but the bass struck right at the surface under wake like on an ordinary evening in mid-April.

Today hit only 60 or so, and we have some real cold weather on the way, 51 forecast for the afternoon, but 24 at night! So will my supposition that we've moved into the stable warm weather pattern hold up? It's supposed to be in the 50's and back into the 60's by next week, so this may not be a slip back to water temperatures in the early season 40's.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

My Biggest Largemouth yet this Year Takes Senko Small Ponds Seem to be Stably Fishable

Around sunset I caught a couple of bass in my neighborhood pond.
This largest struck a chartreuse Mini King Spinnerbait right off the top; it weighed somewhere between a pound and a half and two pounds. I lost another bass of perhaps two pounds, then a smaller snapped the line, the knot having weakened as they do sometimes. I tried a black Mini King for more than five minutes without a hit, changed to a five inch Senko-type worm, and hooked a much larger bass that stormed off on a surprisng five yard run before the hook pulled. The bass took the worm dead sticked for more than 10 seconds right at that edge between deeper and shallower water where I caught the four bass on March 6th or so, whatever that date was I posted. I felt the weight before I set the hook, figuring it was a bass about the size of the first I caught today. I forget just what brand it is I pay less for than Senko brand, and can't find the packaging; essentially the same worm as a Senko, heavy bodied and all, rigged wacky. A while later I caught a 12 incher further out towards the middle of the pond on the same worm. The bass felt before I set the hook like the lightweight it was.

Algae has thickened considerably since 10 days ago or so.
Water clarity has clouded somewhat as would be expected.

(Not that bass can't be caught when a pond isn't "fishable." That was for the sake of a title, meaning that we seem to be on the warm side already.)

Trout Prep: Tips for New Jersey Trout Opening Day Fishing

Every early spring a special overlay of subtle excitement conditions my responses at times to the new season. It's not that I get the trout Opening Day jitters in my middle age (as young as I do feel inside) like I did as a boy and in my teens, but I'm reminded of them, and feel something of them from time to time. The birthing season just cannot convince me that the trout are just hatchery fish as if they have no value. The busting through of skunk cabbage and the yellow explosion of forsythia among hundreds of other green variations poking through is as real and wild as the dawn of the planet (even though forsythia is a quasi-domestic plant).

If the order stays the same this year, brookies will be first. They do take salmon eggs, but it's a good idea to bring two rods, one rigged for eggs with two pound test, a small snap, and two leaders with size 14 snelled hooks, the other with four pound test and the tiniest sinking Rapala, about an inch long. Particularly the large trout, if any present, will strike the plug. Try a two or two and a half inch size for the big one also. Another trick--live line a medium shiner using four pound test and a plain shank, size six hook, no weight unless it's a very deep hole.

Salmon eggs are expensive. So if you can find a shop that sells eggs from last year for a buck a jar as Lebanon Bait and Sport did last year and may be doing the same now, harden them up with just a pinch of salt on top. Add too much salt and the entire jar's worth will be ruined; I've done it before.

If water is slightly off color, use bright eggs. Otherwise, the usual dull colors all work.

You still have time as of this date to buy Loon Wader Repair UV light reacting polymer for your wader seams from Cabelas. If you are confident the waders are water tight, bring along a tube of this wet application that cures completely in seconds in bright sunlight, even on wet waders, just in case some subtle incident breaches them. Just make sure you don't expose the open end of the tube to sunlight. I use my hand to shade it as I apply. Most situations require only hip boots, but the breathable chest waders are so easy to wear that I don't waste money on boots besides.

Buy an inexpensive cloth creel perhaps, and attach your fishing license and trout stamp by a standard license pin holder to it instead of poking holes in clothing, unless you have already poked holes through a fishing vest to accomodate the game warden.

Holding my breath, but it looks like this year water conditions will be low and clear, temperatures very mild. I wish the state would stock rainbows to begin the season so that I could have full confidence in salmon eggs as I used to, catching perhaps 30 rainbows by early afternoon. But after many years of stocking rainbows for Opening Day, the state got the logic: brookies are the coldest water trout (actually char), rainbows are second to brookies, and browns tolerate the warmest and begin to get stocked in early May.

Get to your chosen starting spot early, a full hour before 8:00 a.m. That's the ritual, standing in the stream for an hour doing nothing but anticipating the hour ahead and conversing offhand with others doing the same. It's never been a difficult exercise to get through.

I will post a piece specifically dealing with fishing salmon eggs on Litton's Fishing Lines, my other blog, link below the photo.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Dows Boat Rentals Open at Lake Hopatcong Fishing Underway

Dow's Boat Rentals is open for service! Walleye, muskies, pickerel, largemouths and smallmouths, crappie, plenty of perch, and even hybrid stripers are all there begining to cooperate now. I got news of a 27-pound musky caught this past week. Trout will be in the lake in three weeks.

That's Joe Landolfi with a walleye vertical jigged at the end of September this past year in one of Laurie's boats. September the jigging commences, but isn't in full swing, since the lake is not completely turned over, although we did mark fish as deep as 33 feet that day, cool in the 50's. Sounds and looks a lot like the weather now, but water temperature was 66 in September, and we do have a way to go yet to reach this level. However, walleyes strike Rapala Ice Jigs and Gotchas under ice, and they will now. It's catch and release until the season for the table resumes for this species, but pickerel will slam spinners trolled behind an outboard in 47 degree water. Largemouths may not be so feisty, but they will take tube jigs (smallmouths too) and small frame spinnerbaits with a heavy head retrieved slowly along the outside edge of weedlines about 16 feet down, to give a ballpark figure.