The hunt for New Jersey’s wild trout.
Two years ago I was the executive chef de cuisine at one of the largest private golf clubs in North America. The country club business was starting to get a bit stale to me so I started to look for something different. The job I found was helping run a commercial bakery in Rockland County in New York. This job offered me two things that I have never had in my life before, which were weekends and nights off. Because of this I was able to do two other things that I had missed out on a lot, family and fishing.
Even when I was working 60 to 80 hours a week I always found time to get in some fishing. It might not have been the fishing I wanted to do, but wetting a line is like therapy. It truly is the one place where you can lose yourself and time stands still. With all this extra time on my hands, and because of my wife’s work schedule, I was able to concentrate on the fish that holds the nearest and dearest portion of my heart, trout.
Over the past two years I have made it a point to go out and search rivers in New Jersey for natural/native trout. I use the word natural because the only true native trout to this area of the country is the brook trout. However, it is documented that under the right conditions natural reproduction does happen in the great state of New Jersey.
I’ve hit almost every major stream in New Jersey said to hold naturally reproducing trout, have met a few other anglers along the way who share this same passion, and made a few interesting discoveries.
The one unique thing about this river system is that it is part of the Newark Watershed. With that being said there is plenty of public access that does not require a watershed permit, but in my opinion the best spots occur within the areas that they have jurisdiction, and it’s well worth the cost of the day pass. The river’s headwaters are the Oak Ridge reservoir but it passes through several others. The unique thing about this section is that it has head waters and water quality that can sustain trophy quality fish.
My favorite section for this is the Pequannock Trout Conservation Area (TCA) located in the Riverdale area. When I first ventured back into this area I brought a small bait net with me to flip up rocks in the current so I could find the main forage. To my surprise most of what I found were very dark stone flies, and believe it or not, leeches.
The Mercer Finn
Armed with this river knowledge I decided to have my buddy Art Hasanja tie me a specific marabou jig that I use on both fly and spin tackle that I like to call the “Mercer Finn.” Essentially it is based off the Micky Finn pattern with a tungsten bead head and marabou feathers. This particular jig, unlike many others, slowly floats into the water column whereas many mass-produced jigs sink like rocks. Because of the nymph hook and marabou feathers these flies almost suspend in the strike zone.
Fish similar style jigs upstream in pools down over cover for best results. I prefer a 5-1/2-foot Kunnnan ultra-light rod and 2-pound Berkley Vanish. This is the same rod I have had since I was 9 years old; soft tip, strong back bone, it is suitable for almost any river conditions using a variety of baits. Large browns can be found throughout this river during the early spring and late fall.
It is not like anybody who trout fishes in New Jersey has not heard of Ken Lockwood Gorge. This is not the area, however productive, that I like to target. For me the best area to target is above this stretch in the town of Califon. Other areas I like include the towns of Asbury and Long Valley. The one unique thing about this river is it truly gives you the chance to catch the Jersey grand slam of river trout (brown, brook, rainbow and tiger) which I was proud to have accomplished on June 16 in this river.
The best tips I can give here are use the thinnest line you can fly or spin. Also, a lot of this river is pocket water, which is perfect for European nymphing. My most productive fly is the bead headed prince nymph. For spin fishing I like to use the lure I have probably caught more trout on than anything thing else, the black and silver 1/8 Rooster Tail usually tied to Berkley Vanish fluoro.
Honestly, I was a bit hesitant to write about this body of water. It is very much my oasis in the shadow of Manhattan. I have a nice little story of the way I like to describe this place. It was late February and I had gotten out of work a little early and decided to go wet a line with what remaining day light I had. When I pulled up to my usual parking space I was surprised to see another car. The man in the car happened to be a professional fly fishing guide who grew up in New Jersey but now works out of state. I got to talking to him, and he described this river to me the exact same way I describe it to anyone else I tell about it. “These fish know you are here when you close your car door.” Honestly it could not have been said better than that.
This river does get stocked but certain sections are designated for natural trout reproduction. What I like the most about this river, even though the fish are not the biggest, is its difficulty. The water is almost gin clear all year long, with the exception of course of rain. Not only do they have to deal with multimillion-dollar homes pumping lawn chemicals into it, but there’s also a multitude of natural predators. Between eagles, turtles, fishers, and raccoons, when the water level gets low here it is a predator’s paradise. To me these are the hardest trout to catch in New Jersey.
On this river I really like to concentrate on fishing with the fly rod. Mostly because after the stocking season it is underfished; also because the fish in the river live on one specific type of fly, the midge. For me a bead-headed zebra midge here is my go to. It is a 12-month a year fly that produces under almost any circumstance. Try the areas around Hohokus and Saddle River. Another very productive fly fishing imitation I use is a single bead head San Juan worm. Here I like to use 5-foot, 3-weight fly rod because of the multiple overhangs and close quarters. It allows me to still fly fish and be able to cast to the water underneath roots and trees and for the small natural trout that reside here. Plus it makes it more sporting.
Over the last two years these are not the only rivers I have fished, and there are a multitude of waters designated to natural trout reproduction. I will say this though in regards to what has helped me the most; the person I go saltwater fishing with most frequently, Capt. Mike Krupa, is an avid and successful hunter. Since I was a young man he told me of how he has kept a hunting journal for almost 40 years. What he told me was that it will amaze you how weather patterns and movement repeat in the same area year after year. After two years of keeping a fishing journal he could not have been more spot on. I keep records of date, time, CFS, and temperature. Based on my prior knowledge I would then be able to select a river that gave me the best chance for success that day.
Truthfully, the best thing to do is go out and hunt them for yourself. Pick a river that is close to you and really take the time to study the contour. Try standing for five minutes in what you think is a productive area and do not fish. Watch leaves float down the water, check for rock ledges, or aquifers. Once you learn how to read a body of water and get to know its most intimate details it will make it a more productive area.
Like I said, it is not catching the trout that excites me anymore, but the hunt for them. To quote Thomas Jefferson “The journey, is the reward.”