I stepped into trout-cold, painfully temperature decimated water wearing only shorts and sneakers. Earlier air temperatures had reached 72, but last night fell through the 40's, leaving the North Branch Raritan at who-knows-what until it rose into the 50's--felt like lower 50's--by this evening.
You might think I'm jumping the gun, since the river isn't stocked until Wednesday next week, but I doubt I'll even bother with the hatchery supply. I thought about it while fishing, and the prospect then of catching even a glorious 22 inch brown or rainbow--no doubt such a fish is glorious--just didn't interest me, its having come from a truck hours or a day before. To catch one of these fish a week later--or in January--is more sporting. I like to catch trout the day of stocking in the spring; although most of those are small, but in such numbers that it's quite understood this is hatchery fishing. And it does have challenges.
However, the hatchery scene can appear grim. The thought of us not so much reducing trout habitat--we still have about 50% of the orignial brook trout range in New Jersey, and many pure, spring water small streams flow in this state--but making man dependent on his government to supply trout from a truck can be deeply dismaying. Sure, I get out there with the other enthusiasts and have fun, too. Normally I don't think about this dark side at all. I'm one of those good natured guys who actually takes measures in his life to maintain a positive outlook. But it bothers me just now and this afternoon that so many seem to believe that a government social program is about all fishing in New Jersey can amount to. I have to admit that I like my solitude. And to a certain extent this solitude is protected by others being ignorant in this way. Or is it really?
It isn't as simple as that solitude is protected by others not knowing. I don't think ignorance in any form ever protects anything. It's almost as if many aren't--in a deeper sense--out to fish. Ostensibly--certainly they are, and enjoy it (but only some really). They got there by governmental publicity. Through years of it in the newspapers. Stocked trout are such a long tradition now that no one remembers how the flocks of people wore down stream banks in the first place. But it's a tradition of government--at least by the sheer numbers of frustrated fishermen--more than angling. However, at bottom the desire of each man, woman, and kid who purchases a fishing license and trout stamp trumps that governmental scheme. It's a close call, but I'm positive that what fundamentally moves these people is a pure and authentic desire to get out and pursue happiness by an attempt to catch fish. It is as individualistic as this, and readily shared with anyone--a son, friends--who someone bitten by the bug feels will respond and join him.
No, I was after smallmouth bass this evening. And smallmouths were never stocked by a government, but by anglers who smuggled them in on freight steam locomotives from the Midwest. Smallmouth bass have hunted in this state for 150 years. They are absolutely wild. And I don't disagree with wild browns and rainbows, even if originally stocked by state government. Ultimately, it's an act of futility to disagree with the past. If you don't accept deeply the past for what it was, yet assert disagreements with wrongs, you will not understand those wrongs nearly as well you might if you dare to empathsize with those who committed them, which can be a very difficult act, if really successful at all, perhaps years later you realize something you tried to understand. Sometimes the present too needs to be absorbed even when wrong is done if all you can really do is witness. Sure, I get out and fish hatchery trout. And I view this scene in many different ways, not all of them consistent with the mood I'm in now, nor am I one of those who thinks "Government is the problem," that's not what any of this means. I think in essence what my position does mean is that economic solutions are better than governmental solutions...to what are in fact economic problems, not that I am blind to how mixed up things are today.
Anyhow, two weeks ago manic bronze bass rushed at top speed for shiners I retrieved back after missed hits. Once in the water today, I knew this would not happen. I was surprised that my first bass (after a missed hit) swirled my weightless killie off the surface. Both were the average nine inch, bulldogging bass.
I did better in the hour of fishing this evening than I did on two summer afternoon excursions to the South Branch this year, except that I did lose my largest stream bass of the year near Three Bridges, although I doubt it was better than two pounds. I fished my favorite North Branch honey hole once or twice for no big ones this summer, but did well otherwise further downstream. Plenty tell me the South Branch is New Jersey's best smallmouth stream (other than the Delaware), but I just haven't experienced this. I may be wrong, but my bet is that the Paulinskill is better than both North and South Branch. Yes, for smallmouths. I have caught smallmouths from Princeton Township's Stony Brook in November, plenty. I think I have from the Locatong Creek in November as well, although I won't trouble myself to look it up in my log right now, and I have in the Delaware in December. But this is it for me on streams this year, I think, unless I do try for such trout... and wild trout on the Pequest in December.
Anyhow, you see that shadow line along the undercut bank across stream in the photo. That's where I got one of them, and the other just upstream in deeper water along a fallen tree. Wading out there, something that seemed larger than a muskrat, smaller than a beaver came swimming up mid-stream, and when it turned towards me, I remembered being attacked by two muskrats (I tore away) wading Little Shabakunk as a young boy. They terrified me. I was ready to brandish my rod. My right knee is too bad lately for sudden, evasive moves like scrambling up a high bank. The beaver turned back to face forward in mid-stream--then slapped its tail and dove. Small beaver. And later I got a clear look at its tail.
It's wonderful to get out and be released from all the demand out there. Not that demand is a bad thing! Plenty of us have been released from demand--jobless!--and it sucks. Lately I love my job, but it's all a performance, it's like trying to perfect a dance routine and no matter how much that is enjoyed, the freedom of just doing as you please to catch a couple bass on a nice stretch of clear water river away from it all--despite the pain of that cold water, after about an hour it really hurt this evening--such solitude returns you to life as it must be sometimes. Otherwise you can't be fully human. Something essential is cut off.
And that's a tradgedy no government will ever repair, by the way. The best they can ever do is protect this freedom for a man to get up and go out alone.