Winter Trout: A Lifetime At The Clinton Falls - The Fisherman

Winter Trout: A Lifetime At The Clinton Falls

author
The author winter fishing his favorite lifetime trout spot the iconic Red Mill at Clinton Falls in the Garden State.

I started trout fishing back in the late 60s when two of my grammar school buddies showed me the ropes. These two pals, Tom Pagliaroli and Steven O’Connor are still avid fishermen and both are well known in their respective fishing circles.

The two things that hooked me about trout fishing were the beauty of the different fish species and the beauty of the surroundings. Being a city boy from Orange, NJ fishing the picturesque rivers and streams of North Jersey such as the Musky, the South Branch, and the Pequest was always a special occasion for me. I would always lie awake the night before in anticipation of the day ahead and it couldn’t get here soon enough.

I never lost this passion for trout fishing and it only deepened with every passing year. Even though I love the salt hitting a trout stream always brings back cherished memories of my roots.

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The first deep run just below the falls and town bridge is always productive. The author with a nice fly caught winter rainbow.

An Iconic Setting

My favorite trout spot to hit is the Clinton Falls in Hunterdon County along the South Branch of the Raritan River, where the historic Red Mill is located. This is one of the most picturesque spots in all of New Jersey, even if you aren’t a trout angler.

The Red Mill was built in 1810 to process wool and in 1847, the Mill was converted to grind flour and grist. Using the waters of the Raritan to power her wheel, the structure still remains today. Now it is part of the Red Mill Museum Village located at 56 Main Street in Clinton. This iconic Red Mill is also the most photographed scene in New Jersey.

One of my favorite times to trout fish in this area is in January and February. At this time of year, I know I will have my favorite section of this river all to myself. Rarely do I run into another angler, and those passing by look at me like I am nuts. But if you watch the weather and pick your day, late morning into midafternoon excursion can have you bathing in abundant sunshine with temperatures around 45 degrees.

Winter trout fishing can be challenging as the trout are usually very lethargic due to the cold water as they hold in the deeper pools. They are not moving around searching for food as they do when the water is warmer but instead, they will wait for it to come to them. And even if it does, there is no guarantee that they will eat it. Also, don’t expect to catch multiple trout as you would in the spring, but rather a successful day for me would be to catch one trout, and two would definitely be a bonus. Regardless, it’s still an enjoyable day even if I don’t catch.

My biggest winter trout that I ever caught came right under the falls one February afternoon when I was letting a fat nightcrawler drift around in the hydraulic eddies that exist just below the falls. I remember being mesmerized watching my bait with two split shots above it moving around in a semicircle as I faced the falls. Round and round it went when suddenly my tip pulled straight down and tight. I lifted and thought I had snagged a small limb or something but this was followed by a few characteristic head shakes and some bulldogging. I knew right then and there that I had hooked into my biggest New Jersey trout in my life.

After about 5 minutes or so, I delicately slid an estimated 8-pound rainbow into my net. When I saw her size and beauty, I was amazed. It was a beautiful salmonid that the locals had dubbed Big Bertha. I carefully and gladly released her back into her lair.

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A fine broodstock winter rainbow caught while jigging a deep pool using the Berkley Gulp pearl minnow.

Gear Up & Move On

In the course of a day of winter trout fishing, I will fish with ultralight spinning tackle using my St. Croix 5-foot, 4-inch Trout Series rod and a 3-4 weight fly rod. I like to get the most out of the experience, so I bring both setups with me. I will fish garden worms, nightcrawlers, salmon eggs, or powerbait hooked on a #12 or #14 baitholder hook. I will also cast small #0 or #1 Mepps or Rooster Tail spinners along with 2-1/2-inch pearl white Berkley Gulp minnows fished on 1/16-ounce jigheads and Trout Magnet grubs. The Gulp minnows and Trout Magnets can be fished with or without a float above them. I have taken trout by using both methods. The minnows especially are amazingly productive when fishing a deep, slow-moving pool. This bait should slowly be jigged while keeping it near the bottom. I will fish all of these artificials on 2- to 4-pound P-Line fluorocarbon line. For flies, I will drift black stonefly nymphs, woolly buggers, midges, or beadhead eggs on 6x to 7x tippet.

When winter trout fishing, I don’t spend too much time fishing any one hole but rather move around from hole to hole to find a trout that is willing to take my offering. As mentioned, I fish these holes slow and deep. After about 50 or so swings, I will move on if I don’t get a bite. I know there are always many holdover trout present in the South Branch as a previous fall stocking of 2,340 trout took place. Hooking into a broodstock trout or one like Big Bertha is always on my mind. You just got to find them.

If waters are muddy due to snowmelt and or runoff, I will favor fishing yellow Powerbait with enough weight to keep it just above the bottom. I will allow the current to move the Powerbait along the bottom slowly. I will impart this motion to the bait if the current is light. A flashy spinner will also have its place here. Cast your spinner slightly upriver and allow it to sink to the bottom as it drifts downstream quickly. Retrieve at a rate that again just keeps it right near the bottom.

Make sure you wear a pair of Korkers when fishing any winter trout streams. Not only will they provide traction when in the water but they will also give you good footing along any snow-covered or slippery banks. I will also wear a pair of thermals under my jeans to better insulate my waders. I am fortunate that my fingers don’t get very cold when temperatures are in the 40s, so I don’t use gloves but will bring along some hot hands and keep them in my pockets. Every so often, I’ll just put my hands in there.

I will also bring along some dry rags so that when my hands get wet, hopefully from releasing a trout, I will wipe them dry as evaporation is what will remove the heat from your wet hands. It is also always best to dress in layers and wear an outer shell of Gortex to provide you with the most warmth and protection.

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