Friday, November 2, 2012

Try the Delaware and Raritan Canal for Pickerel, Largemouth Bass, Muskies, Walleye, Smallmouth Bass, Channel Catfish, and Giant Grass Carp

This piece is fitting for November, on through winter, and into the warm water season. For nearly 40 years, I've most enjoyed the Delaware and Raritan Canal in the months of October, November, and on through January. It's a very special place for me because my father is an extremely acute amateur historian--being an Episcopal church musician necessitates this; epi-scopal means overseeing scope--and his introducing me to the canal at age 10 made history concrete like nothing else had for me. From 1830, when the canal's construction by individual man and shovel was completed, the coal industry was served by manned mule barges, and fish never minded this at all. The canal has plenty of fish species, including gigantic grass carp as large as 55 pounds or more, as well as channel catfish, the more common gamefish, and rare muskies, walleye, and smallmouth bass. I once heard report of an 11-pound northern pike that someone probably caught in the Raritan or the Millstone River and released in the canal.  All of these species and some more are to admire and pursue. Fish have scales you can almost see a human reflection upon. After all, we evolved from fish. They are the central symbol of all that is fishy within us. But what makes this place--all 66 miles of it--particularly special for me is the history, an interest for as long as I can remember. My brother-in-law Iain does hands-on historical preservation work, is presently busy trying to defeat architect Hillyer and etc. in Princeton for George Washington's sake, and if it's inevitable that the Princeton Battlefield looses, his fight is worth the gain in the loss, absolutely. All of this goes on record and good men will judge. I best admire hands-on work like his above financial boards and other organizations that involve committees, which tend to lose touch with reality for abstractions that are groundless. However necessary boards and the like are, in fact, the little that they may be effective tends to be lost to the sorts of complications I have written about in previous posts. Without finances, what can be done? But without the creativity that makes money possible, everything civilized collapses anyhow. I am a grass roots intellectual who does not know much about institutions that move money about; I certainly know enough to work within them, but what I know most of all is that the greatest intellectual ability of any kind has close connections to the source of reality--nature. I honor both George Bernard Shaw and the rock band named after Shaw's Supertramp because an angler always finds a way, at least so long as I'm concerned.
I desired to go out in the hurricane and fish largemouth bass at sundown Monday. Actually, I had the situation in mind for several days or more. As soon as I got the forecast I was ready for it, and my son, Matt, mentioned the same independently as a good possibility, but I felt so involved with writing since getting off my job early at 11:30 a.m. Monday that walking our black Labrador in heavy winds, awesome ghosts of rain traveling horizontally over the local pond we walked besides, a large branch deposited on the bank, and more served as sufficient experience of Sandy, also the name of the dog a former girlfriend rescued from a sheltor and gave to my parents in 1985. How's that for concrete? Abstraction is not at all an enemy--so long as it's grounded. Abstraction is what makes us human rather than a dog like Sadie, the Labrador, or Sandy, the terrier. But that's really the only way abstraction proves effective, by making it concrete, so that life on earth is lived rather than people wasting their lives waiting on heaven. Psychiatrists have two names for ineffective or pathological abstraction: shizoid personality is the mild disorder; schizophrenia is the severe. You have no choice about possessing abstraction or not. If you can read and speak, you are abstract. Perhaps if Albert Einstein got out a lot more than he did--although he used to walk along Stony Brook in Princeton on occasion, parting brambles, deeply inspired--and actually lived in the unified field by frequent enough visitation, he might have solved the theory. Just playing with the idea, but a shopped photo does exist in which Einstein drives an Indy 500 car. That, I think, is the sort of field experience he would have needed--more than natural slow speed.
But here's the situation I met perfectly, although without a rod and reel, and I admit I felt twinges of guilt for not fishing. Up above this pond we fish is another; a six-foot diameter pipe runs underground, under a roadway, and under large parking lots connecting the two. Essentially, a stream from a spring out of Schley Mountain, the very northernmost beginning of Watchung Ridge, which some 300 million years ago, I believe it is, was a series of major volcanos, connects the mountain, the ponds, and North Branch Raritan River. Some of the largemouth bass in the North Branch Raritan and Raritan rivers have their origin in the ponds of our neighborhood. These mountains with 300-foot vertical ascent were once enormous, not as large as the Himalayas--as were the Appalachians--but much more than the worn down remnants, just as the American nation was greater in the 19th century; playful comparison that this is, we've been wearing down ever since, going more and more insane, which is why I prefer to be by myself much of the time. My son finds pumice at the North Branch Raritan River. The mountain looms brightly over Bedminster and the excellent river running through town, clean like champagne and inviting anyone for a summer swim; my son and I explore underwater nooks and crannies by snorkeling. Situations discovered can tell you all sorts of unexpected things. The Wood Duck Pond above the local pond we fish has been off limits to anyone but an occasional maintianence crew and whatever overseers for many years before my family moved to Bedminster, and is absolutely packed with largemouth bass. When we moved here in 1999, I just had to leap the fence once like a kid, take one cast, hook a bass and see the others trying to snatch the topwater plug from tbe hooked fish. That was all, one cast, and I got out of there fast because I was visible from the road and otherwise; all I needed was an arrest to begin with my reputation here. I can say this on the world wide web because you can't really know if I'm telling a tale or not. So springtime bass spawn and some of the tiny hatchlings take a tunnel journey to the pond below. The pond is loaded. And certain rainy conditions also mean a load of water entering at the pipe. Bass move in to take whatever forage comes through--essentially they are attracted to the mud-thickened, fast water--and all I have to do is toss a spinnerbait and unless it's winter, it's bass every time, gingerly released. Bass sort of smell like ginger. If you ever try a bass on the dinner table, add Old Bay seasoning and it will very vaguely taste like ginger, although this can almost mean anything, but not quite. Walking Sadie, I viewed the water coming through that pipe at near perfect volume.
Well, at least I predicted it days ago, and just walked out at sundown with my dog, having forgotten that I might go witness this.

Try the Delaware and Raritan Canal for Pickerel, Largemouth bass, Muskies, Walleyes and Smallmouth Bass

By Bruce Litton

          Having fished the Delaware and Raritan Canal in New Jersey since 1970 I hold a special affinity for this hand-dug waterway. Construction began in 1830, the same year Woolrich came into existence, maker of fine outdoor shirts appropriate for fishing this time of year, the best time to fish the canal. Mule-drawn coal barges on the canal had little to do with shirts or sheep, but the men leading these hauls got plenty of exposure to wind, chill, rain, and snow. Since they made their way from as far north as Bull's Island near Raven Rock to New Brunswick outside, some may have worn Woolrich in the fall.

          Today the barge tow-path still exists, but between it and the water, trees and underbrush grow densely enough to provide excellent fish habitat. Between thickets space opens irregularly every ten yards or so where an angler can stand on the bank at the edge of water and cast. Depths of eight feet move at a very slow pace, most of this water irrelevant to finding largemouth bass and pickerel. Always fish for them near submerged brush, wood falls, aquatic vegetation, and shade, only a very few of these structures are out in the middle, and the best are combinations of wood and vegetation.

          Before the canal was drained and dredged during the 1980s, sand bars existed at Quaker Bridge Road in Mercer County. Every fall, shoals of shiners huddled in the shallows of these sand piles. Pickerel stalked them. On occasion a pickerel would rush up on top of a sand bar and take a shiner. It must have taken many years for such fish habitat to form, and I’ve never seen a sand bar in the canal since. These sand bars constituted the very best October structure for pickerel and largemouth bass.

          But another unusual structure will exist for as long as does the canal. Widely interspersed throughout its 66 mile length, locks regulate flow. Fast water below these locks attracts rare walleyes and smallmouth bass. I’ve never caught either in the canal, but I am witness to both. Since the canal flows out of the Delaware River, walleyes, smallmouth bass, muskies, and channel catfish make their way into it and have been caught all the way down to New Brunswick. The New Jersey Department of Fish & Wildlife took the clue from reports of muskies in the canal, and now stocks it with six to 12-inch muskies, 150 of them this year.

          While this is not a profusion of fish, muskelunge are solitary, uncommon, and large. Among most freshwater anglers they are understood to be the pinnacle prize--beyond Atlantic salmon--because of this mysterious and enormously powerful solitude they possess. Compared to other freshwater fish, each muskelunge is in a class by itself. I have great admiration for Atlantic salmon, and my son saw a live specimen in the Salmon River this past summer, but they lack the ghostly solitude of muskelunge, the paradox of muskelunge with their ability to vanish and be unseen, yet dominate singularly more area of a lake, river, or canal by their visceral presence than any other fish by a very long shot. Perhaps a single muskelunge will dominate an acre of Lake Hopatcong, for example, far and away with more power than any hybrid striper, channel catfish, or bass. And walleye in their lake bottom stone palaces imaginatively reminiscient of Aristotle's architectural glory in the darkness of hell, as accounted for by poet Dante--these couriers of messages too dark to be shadows, walleye have no comparison over muskelunge. Atlantic salmon, compared to muskelunge, are bound to the likes of fellow feeling, although they are more independent than other salmon species, and this, I believe, is their special allure. The New Jersey state record 42-pound, 13-ounce muskelunge came from Monksville Reservoir. As unlikely--I think absolutely impossible--as the canal is to host a musky close to this size, 15 or 20 pounds is certainly not out of the question. 55-pound grass carp have been caught, so it’s clear that the canal produces very big fish. But leave it to a monastery of a reservoir to produce a giant muskelumge. 

          In 1977, I experienced a musky of about seven or eight pounds attack my large Redfin floater/diver plug at the mouth of Locatong Creek where it enters the canal in Hunterdon County. I knew this was a likely spot and used a much larger lure than I usually do for pickerel and bass. It was also the right time of year—October. The fall produces a forage shift from summer morsels of many kinds to fish forage, especially fish with soft rayed fins, that affects all gamefish species, and besides, muskies are most active in cooler temperatures. Most streams flow underneath culverts that support the integrity of the canal’s steady flow. The Locatong Creek near Raven Rock is the most interesting exception.

          From the mid-state Highlands and Piedmont region, the canal is easiest accessed in Somerset County, near Manville and Millstone, far from the Lockatong and Hunterdon County. Solitude is abundant, interrupted on occasion by a biker or tow path walker who usually is friendly in passing. I find it’s much more interesting and enjoyable to find a comfortable pace moving from one clearing along the bank to the next, rather than staying in one place. I've always been peripatetic and will never change. If I'm not walking in my 90's, what's the use? No insult to Stephen Hawking; he remains productive long after his estimated time of death. Even ice fishing--which often involves some sitting--I best enjoy while walking on bare ice. To walk on ice is elevating. I feel the lift. It is water, in fact. I like it best when I'm successful at fishing, running after tripped flags, but walking on ice transcends success or failure. No doubt, more fish will be caught in the canal this way, too, by covering range, walking, although I never have ice fished it, but considered doing so in the winter of 1977/78.. The object is to locate fish with your lure or bait, not sit in place and wait for a fish to come along as if you are dependent on what they do, instead of defiant of everything but what you choose to do.

          The canal is stubborn to yield. But don’t give up—keep placing a small, weedless jig, or live shiner on a size six, plain shank hook near submerged brush and aquatic vegetation, keeping retrieves fairly slow, and you will be surprised. Pickerel often race out of cover and strike magnificently in clear view. Most fish are fairly small, but four pounds is possible.

          Don’t forget that pickerel have razor-sharp teeth. I recommend 15-pound test fluorocarbon leader tied to a small barrel swivel. This little piece of metallic technology is the link between you and a fish on a lighter line you can cast effectively. The main line can be 15-pound test Power Pro braid—the diameter is about as thin as six pound test monofilament--but braid is more visible to fish than flourocarbon and vulnerable to pickerel or musky teeth anyhow. I’ve never had a problem moving a fish from cover using six pound test, but heavier braid is good insurance. You never know if a tiger muskelunge will boldly attack when you least expect it.