Small Streams for Highlands and Ridge Trout
The pool was green toned aqua-marine, deep and inviting. Many years ago, my brother Rick and I fished it thoroughly. Water fell over huge, glacial boulders more than several yards high. We had to walk through half a foot of snow up and around hulking rocks to access the next hole, not really a hole at all, but a fairly shallow stretch with strong current and undercut stone on the opposite side to where we stood. We cast baby nightcrawlers upstream, letting them drift tight against the stone. The results included a wild brown trout for me, and a native brook trout for Rick.
This situation on Warren County’s Dunnfield Creek demonstrated that the likely spot to fish may yield nothing, but noticing subtle possibility can lead to a catch. Small, spring fed streams like the Dunnfield, Van Campens Brook, and Bear Creek in Warren County, and the Passaic River headwaters and Jackson Creek in Morris County, have wild and native trout, offering a special appeal during the winter when at times it isn’t too cold to fish comfortably. Many such streams--including the Dunnfield Creek, which was stocked many years ago--are state designated Wild Trout Streams for artificial lure use only. During the summer it's best to leave them alone unless you're certain water temperature is below 68 degrees on a cool morning. Lactic acid kills trout as a result of the fight in water too warm.
When I was younger, catching fish during winter made a deadened season come to life. We backpacked up Kittatiny Ridge on the Appalachian Trail from the Delaware Watergap and ate fresh trout from the Dunnfield boiled in a pot over warming fire. Those were some of the best trout I’ve ever eaten, boiled whole, just gutted, a little butter added to the steaming water, the white, flaking flesh picked by fingers.
I developed my stream fishing habits fishing Mercer County’s Stony Brook during my boyhood and teens, tramping as far as a mile or so between bridges, desirous of exploring new water. I came to think that the chief principle is timing, but never measured this in a self-conscious, calculated way. My approach to a stream was and is unsystematic, but my thinking connects with essential ideas that guide what I do. I’ve learned over the years to know when it's time to give up on a pool or range of a stretch, and move on. How much of this is subjective, I can only suppose I don't know, but to fish without second guessing makes the outing whole. The worst thing you can do, if you want to fish enjoyably and catch a few, is allow yourself to be at the mercy of the stream: If you feel nothing’s doing, you can always look elsewhere. Fishing is more than luck. And while catching fish is the objective—otherwise it wouldn’t be fishing—more than pulls on the rod is involved.
My best advice, if you plan to fish any one of the streams mentioned or another, is to get lost by hiking the stream a long distance. Ply every nook and cranny of stream structure that looks likely. Whether you fish with a two weight fly rod with hare’s ear or small stonefly nymphs, midges, or Wooly Buggers; or use a super-ultralight spinning rod with baby nightcrawlers and minimal weight or Trout Magnet jigs--you can pursue trout for miles or just between bridges.
Two-pound test monofilament line for spinning and a light tippet for fly rodding are manageable and least visible to the trout. When you decide to make your way back to your vehicle, you can try for any trout that struck and missed. Most of these streams will have a few nice holes six feet deep or better, but most of the trout I have caught were from little nooks like the undercut stone my brother and I fished.
A native brook trout over 10 inches long is a rarity, but wild brown trout, especially, in these streams may rarely reach 17 inches. All of these fish are worth releasing, but the desire to try a wild or native trout at the table or beside a campfire is something I would recommend anyone try at least once. The curiosity involved in dressing and eating a rare, native trout is just as wild as these fish. The colors you will encounter—startling red spots, deep rainbow patterns, yellow bellies—may astonish you more than the pink flesh from a stream so pure you could probably drink from it without getting sick.