Hot Spot: North Branch Raritan River - The Fisherman

Hot Spot: North Branch Raritan River

NORTH-BRANCH

Rocky from the source in Mendham to the South Branch confluence where Hillsborough, Branchburg, and Bridgewater townships meet, the “North” Branch of the Raritan River is true to character. (A lot of mud below Neshanic characterizes the South Branch.)

The headwaters of the North Branch have limited access and hold few native brookies but plenty of wild browns, though I did find many brookies, one of them 9 inches, in a tributary near Sammy’s Cider Mill, Mendham Township. You can catch wild browns from the headwaters to the confluence, but the North Branch is “full of smallmouths,” as Kevin Ortiz of Reel Raritan Angling Adventures says.

The river also has largemouth, rainbow trout, and panfish species. Rainbows get stocked from the Old Fair Grounds, Far Hills, to Old York Road, Hillsborough. Don’t expect bass in the headwater stretches. Below them, Private Ravine Lake in Bernardsville has a dam about 20 feet high creating a warmwater fishery. Water cools as it flows into Somerset County Park’s Natirar, Peapack-Gladstone. “I’ve caught maybe two or three wild browns in there,” Ortiz said, adding “Nothing huge, but there’s definitely fish.” Smallmouth bass, too, although just downstream, Peapack Brook, a spring-fed brown trout nursery, meets the river.

After catching a 15-inch wild brown in November 2022, below U.S. Highway 202-206 in Bedminster, I wondered about the presumption of wild trout in the river coming from Peapack Brook. My catch somehow impressed me as a resident fish, so I felt eager to ask Ortiz about that. “I believe wild browns in the North Branch are pretty much resident fish,” he said, adding “The biggest I got was 18 inches.”

“In March, I was just out testing flies, seeing what worked. It was a spot stocked and heavily fished.  They’re in there; they’re just hard to find.” He added, “I know there’s a couple springs in the North Branch.”

I asked Ortiz about the spreading-out of stocked rainbow trout by typifying remote water below Lamington River confluence as it flows to Route 28, and he said, “Depends on the amount of rain. I’ve caught a lot of browns in that stretch, but the rainbows are hit or miss. And if we have a high-water event, some get washed out of Fiddler’s Elbow Country Club.” He and his clients “have caught trout all through that stretch, in all the holes, but it’s a lot better for smallmouths. The North Branch gets minimal grass in the summertime; the South Branch gets choked out with grass.”

Late in the fall of 2023, and early in the winter of 2024, the North Branch suffered a complete reversal of very low water. I fished the river, less than an hour after talking to Ortiz, finding the flow fearsomely strong but very clear. I retrieved maribou jigs under heavy rain soon amounting to the third major flood in a matter of weeks. I got slammed right out in front of me, but even more flooding ruined additional opportunity.

A series of major floods turns the river into a conveyor belt, carrying fall stockers deep south through the Raritan and towards New Brunswick. We can only thank some of the trout for ducking down, edging out, and staying in place, but whatever hit while I fished a half mile downstream of a stocking point as rain fell could have been a wily wild brown…who knows. “Right now, I think there’s fish spread out all over,” Ortiz said, while adding “They’ve been catching a lot of trout in Manville.” (The main stem of the Raritan does not get stocked in the fall.)

I didn’t fail to ask Ortiz about largemouth. My son once caught a couple of nice ones from a deep slow stretch on a float trip, but the predominantly stone bottom yields very few. Ortiz concurred. “We’ve caught nothing over a pound, and they’re rare.”

Everyone wants to hear stories of tank smallmouths, and while Ortiz and his clients have caught 4-pounders, they’ve seen 5-pounders follow lures. My son and I once saw one that big and have hooked many in the 3-pound range, the biggest we’ve caught nearly 4 pounds.

“I fish the Raritan really hard,” Ortiz said. “It’s my home water. I’ve been fishing it since I was a kid. You never know what you’ll pull out of it.”

Bruce Litton’s book Microlight: Trout, Adventure, Renewal will be available soon.

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