New Jersey’s Little Secret: Wild and Native Trout
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
Headwaters North Branch Raritan
Lamington River above CR 665
Van Campens Brook
Link to a piece on a stream hosting wild browns in its upper reaches: http://littonsfishinglines.blogspot.com/2016/04/trout-entomology-sampling-lamington.html