Some of the very best trout action of the year comes during the 11th hour, and the 12th month!
Shake your head if you disagree, but from this corner insofar as numbers and or quality (read: uncrowded) the Pandemic Year 2020 is resulting in some of the best trout fishing in recent years. This is especially true on those waters capable of supporting salmonids, particularly stocked fish, through the summer swelter.
In the Garden State, it’s been a steady diet of Pequest Trout Hatchery rainbows since the spring of 2015, and the species is proving hardy and resilient, so much so that personal polls of anglers, with a few exceptions, really don’t miss the brook and brown trout to any significant extent.
For those, such as yours truly, who occasionally have a craving for the brilliant complexion and spunky to sassy fight from these, there is a plethora of streams, brooks and rivers under special regulation and/or management that offer prime opportunities for native brookies (catch and release only) and wild browns. These are listed on page 22 in the Freshwater Fishing Digest put out by the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife.
Indeed, the 2020 stocking program faced logistical challenges once the safety edicts were issued from Trenton in early March to stem the spread of COVID-19. With the spring pre-season schedule set to get underway followed by the seven week in-season schedule which had been slated to start the Monday after the April 11 statewide season opener, it was a scramble to come up with the best possible options. After all, the trout had to get out! It was ultimately decided to empty the barrels for the entire spring program (well, almost), during the three week pre-season release period.
With a preseason and in season total of 570,090 rainbows ranging from the average 10-1/2 inches, in addition to a mix of 8,515 2- and 3-year old breeders stretching to 23 inches and weighing up to 7 pounds to be stocked in 172 venues from Saw Mill Lake in High Point State Park to Ponderlodge Pond in the Villas, it was three-weeks of non-stop stocking (sometimes 10 trucks were on the roads up, down and across the state) for the crews at the Pequest Trout Hatchery.
However, it was decided to hold back approximately 50,000 rainbows (49,750 to be exact) for stocking during the week leading to the Memorial Day weekend, a popular late spring season time, especially on those 14 swims with closed stocking dates. It took some brainstorming, calculations and a close last minute monitoring of water temperatures in those waters selected for the late May release. Indeed, of the 31 chosen, the roster was cut to 18 as per high water temperatures. Of the 18, only the Rahway River (Union County), the North Branch of the Metedeconk River (Monmouth County), and Alm’s House Pond (Sussex County) are classified as non-trout, i.e. put-and-take fishing.
The remaining 16, including the likes of the Pequest, Musconetcong, Ramapo, Toms, Wanaque, South and North Branches of the Raritan, Paulins Kill and Big Flat Brook, are all capable of sustaining rainbows during the hot weather months. As such, they would provide cracks at holdover ‘bows until the Pequest trucks would again roll in October.
To be sure, it was a helter-skelter scenario from opening day through the first week in May, as legions of Trout Stamp holders partook of the ‘bow bounty in waters stuffed to the gills with hungry trout. Then, as if a switch was hit, fishing pressure dropped significantly, and by the week prior the pre-Memorial Day weekend, it was not uncommon to have long stretches of moving water, or entire pond and lake banks, to oneself. This, even though there were still plenty of ‘bows roaming therein.
Rod numbers increased significantly as the late May release was heavily promoted and anglers took advantage of the “bonus” stocking. It proved wildly successful, but by the Father’s Day weekend, these waters were, with rare exception, devoid of any significant angling pressure. In fact, one June weekend of probing the Pequest, Pohatcong and Musconetcong to the north and the central region’s Manasquan and Toms, we observed maybe a dozen rods total. And there were loads of rainbows to go around, hence, a “quality” experience. No doubt the catch-and-release 2-1/2-mile Ken Lockwood Gorge beat of the South Branch of the Raritan and the same governed 4-mile stretch of the Big Flat Brook had noticeable fishing pressure, but such is to be expected on special regulation waters where fly rods rule.
Fall & Winter Options
Featuring 2-year old trout from 14-1/2 to 16 inches, the two week fall stocking program stretched from October 6 through October 15 and included 40 venues covering 21 New Jersey counties, including four new additions to the lineup, these being Pohatcong Lake (Ocean), Manny’s Pond (Hunterdon), Dahnert’s Lake (Bergen) and Holmdel Park Pond (Monmouth). The mix of rural, suburban and urban swims not only created diverse opportunities, but served as a booster to the 2021 spring stockings as many of the rainbows not ending up on stringers or insulated canvas creels survive to provide increased opportunities by next year’s opener.
A pulse pounder this year was the addition of approximately 7,000 2-year old ‘bows to the 21,000 baseline stocking figure. Again illustrating client-pleasing foresight, the bureau of freshwater fisheries decided to hold back the extra fish to add to the autumn releases. To say it was a good move would be an understatement, as the numbers of fishermen taking advantage of the Indian summer stocking season will attest.
The “winter” stocking program is an intense two-day scheduled for the Monday and Tuesday of Thanksgiving week (November 23 and 24). Approximately 4,500 2-year old rainbows, which have added a bit more girth than their kin set free during October, were at press time, scheduled to be loosed in 20 venues throughout 13 counties (visit www.njfishandwildlife.com for the finalized list).
Nearly as popular is the October program, this Turkey Week short shot is an ideal time for families to enjoy New Jersey’s trout fishing, as many youngsters, and most likely adults enjoy the latter part of the week and through the weekend off from school and work. A win-win from another aspect is this – as with the fall program, many of those fish not caught will be available for spring 2021 and, where legal, can provide some hot ice fishing, especially a novelty in those southern tier county swims where safe ice is a brief-but-rod bending time.
To be sure, New Jersey’s trout fishing not only survived, but thrived during this pandemic nightmare. The excellent fishing continues to be experienced at into the Yule and beyond. Don’t wait until next year’s Opening Day (April 10, 2021) to experience the Garden State’s rainbow rodeo; dig in and hang on right now!