Getting into the Game
By Bruce Litton
Thought I would share what was my first column article for Recorder Newspapers over two years ago. It's a short piece for people who would like to fish, particularly in New Jersey, but haven't really begun or haven't had much success yet. A lot of you are still out there, drawn to the lure of a practice that has gone on unabated for many millennia. It's a form of recreation that really works, relieves the stress and strife of everyday affairs and restores you to balance, freedom, and peace.
The State of New Jersey’s fisheries have expanded over the past 20 years, with targeted marketing and advertising spreading the word. Now many North Jersey waters close to our area have thriving populations of walleye, hybrid stripers, muskellunge, and northern pike, in addition to largemouth and smallmouth bass, crappies and panfish, channel catfish, and rainbow, brown and brook trout. I think the primary reason to fish is to get connected with nature and your deep self to heal the stress and strife of the work world, which is what re-creation is all about, but sometimes the best reason is the thrill of the catch, particularly big ones. Together these motives entail a pursuit that won’t let you down, so long as you commit to learning what it takes to catch fish and don’t let difficulty frustrate.
All gamefish are selective feeders not just for what they eat but where and when. Catching them requires knowledge, practice, persistence, and the learning process for an angler is never complete. We invent more ways to catch them than would really be required. Fishing is a creative endeavor that may involve learning new methods just to satisfy the desire to do things differently, but clearly skill and wherewithal is involved in catching fish consistently. However, a beginner can follow a few guidelines, make a first significant catch, and be on the way to learning how to be in the game every time out sooner than the massive flux of information in magazines and on TV might suggest. In my youth, I thought fishing was not about relaxing, not if I was serious about it and no one would have doubted that I was serious. Though I was vigilant and successful, when losing out—as happens to all of us—I got tense and perhaps somewhat blocked my ability to learn from difficulty, though I certainly knuckled under with persistence. It may be best not to take fishing so seriously that you subordinate your own enjoyment to the numbers you’re missing. The truth is: none of catches all that many every time out unless he has a secret private pond loaded with bass that get boring pretty quick.
We do tally up. But although numbers are for the enjoyment of the game, and possibly to add satisfaction at the end of an outing, the most important use of catch numbers is simply to distinguish what is happening over the course of a fishing trip in order to keep doing what’s right or consider possible adjustments. For example, the other day while fishing brown trout, I had missed about a dozen hits on hardhead minnows and landed one trout. Never before had I found browns so picky, some taking and dropping three times and then not picking up again. The numbers told me, “Wow, this is difficult.” But within half an hour I got the knack and filled my limit of six, the last three trout caught in little more than five minute’s time. I had focused subtly on how the trout hit, and had no problem setting the hook to catch the last three trout. But my mind solved the problem on its own: I had only to pay close and relaxed attention, observing how trout took the hardheads and how the current affected my line. I tallied up subtle distinctions by letting my mind respond naturally by what was mostly an effortless process to quickly land those last three.
The others fishing the North Branch that Wednesday had done some fishing before, although I do meet true beginners from time to time. If you want to try, a NJ Resident Fishing License (Freshwater) available online, or at tackle shops, is required for all aged 16-64; cost is $22.50. For seniors the cost is $12.50. For trout fishing, a trout stamp is $10.50. The most versatile rod and reel is a light to medium power spinning outfit— rod length five and a half feet, six pound test monofilament (Zebco Omniflex at 700 yards for $2.50 or so will do fine). An easy to carry tackle tote is all that’s needed to carry equipment in most situations, such as a shoulder bag.
From Bedminster south, the Raritan River North Branch is excellent for beginners. The last stocking of brown trout until the fall is May, but afterwards the opportunity for wild smallmouth bass is excellent. Wear an old pair of sneakers and shorts, and simply walk and wade the river, fishing every deep run, hole, and stretch you come upon. So long as the water is of normal clarity, I could catch smallmouth all day by wading the river at length on four and five inch Senco plastic worms hooked “Wacky” style—in the middle with a plain shank #2 hook. Use no weight, cast and let the worm sink to rest on bottom before you begin a slow, enticing retrieve. Usually bass hit on the initial drop. Let the bass take for as many as four or five seconds, tighten the line until you barely feel resistance, then pull back hard with the rod to set the hook.
Many opportunities exist in our region and you can find hundreds in my blog archive. Another excellent source is The Fisherman magazine, a weekly available at newsstands and for subscription.