Friday, November 15, 2013

Fly Fishing the Claremont South Branch Raritan River

Fly fishing the Claremont, South Branch Raritan River

By Bruce Litton
This is another of my Recorder Newspaper column pieces, published recently in September or early October.

          Perhaps no length of river for fly fishing in New Jersey is as mysterious as the Claremont section of the South Branch Raritan. Last stocked in 1995, wild brown and rainbow trout, and native brook trout, flourish in a 1.1 mile section of river from the fence dividing off a private fishing club upstream, and Electric Brook in Long Valley downstream. An abandoned rail line is converted into a pathway that runs straight parallel to the river, but the river itself is out of sight in dense woodland well off the path. Climbing over downfalls and through brambles to wade it may be difficult, and many fishing situations allow roll casting at best. But the heart of the mystery is the size of some brown trout that may be there. They’ve been caught as large as eight pounds apparently.

          Fly casting the river recently with Oliver Round, I wondered just where such a fish could possibly be. The hole just below the bridge where Patriots Path crosses is very deep, but not really very large. Wading upstream, I found that the river averages about 20 feet wide and two and a half feet deep, not exactly territory for any browns to be expected over 17 inches or so. No doubt, a real large brown is a rarity. Even a 17-incher is a seldom encounter, and nothing has convinced me that the eight-pounder I heard about was a wild fish. Perhaps it made its way down from stockings by the private trout club above. More mystery yet to add to the picture, if the thought of a huge but stocked trout is disappointing, at least we consider realism.

          This was one of the first of this fall’s chilly mornings when Oliver and I fished—about 42 degrees. However, Oliver has actually waded this section in January—downed trees, brambles, briar patches and all—and happened to catch eight browns that cold day on flies which imitate trout eggs. After all, these trout reproduce and feed on one another’s spawn, as odd as the behavior may seem. This September morning, we spotted a lot of trout but caught only one on a size 14 stonefly nymph. The water was clear, the trout skittish, and time in fairly short supply. A few rose in the hole below the bridge where we first arrived, but I was disappointed that none would take my size 18 parachute ant, size 20 blue winged olive, or size 20 Adams. I tried a fly that resembles a small worm, then switched to a white-bodied streamer with a golden flair of hackle rising over its back and walked over the bridge the way we came, to crawl between bush boughs and begin roll casting to the spot where I had seen a trout rise three times. I got a strike and believe it was that fish, but missed it. Meanwhile, Oliver had three hits from the same rainbow trout on a streamer just upstream of the bridge.

          We waded upstream and the day got more interesting as my hands warmed, and we had the sense of a wild place isolated from the byways, homes, and businesses that fill New Jersey. Once it was the other way around. Villages, towns, homes, even cities, scattered about isolated in the general wilderness. I checked my phone for the time, and of course it had service too. Oliver took out his phone and showed me a video he had filmed of a spring in the woods somewhere nearby between the path and the river. It is immense, wherever it is exactly. Oliver spoke of bringing a GPS and trying to find it again. It didn’t bubble; it welled up like a fire hydrant flow from the ground.

          On the high end of Schooley’s Mountain, Budd Lake—a shallow, warm water lake—is the origin of the South Branch Raritan River not many miles from where we fished. During summer, the water flowing out of the sluggish, weed-choked lagoon at the end of the lake is very warm. But all the way down the mountain the river is spring fed. I had no idea springs like the one Oliver showed me on video exist in New Jersey. But I have read that the river is so rich in springs keeping the water cool that native brook trout exist within a quarter mile of Budd Lake. In any case, there are wild and native trout in the South Branch Raritan’s upper reaches, and exploration may reveal surprises unexpected.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Prepare for Winter: Enjoy the Ice

Black Ice is Best and We May Have Some Soon
Every year in November, I look forward to ice fishing, so I thought it appropriate to post. In the meantime, I may be fishing Round Valley next week.
I made a prediction about the winter ahead being a mild one, and I was pretty much right, although we had at least a week of more and less safe ice. I have no hunch about this winter, so just maybe it will be colder than the last two.


Another mild week after skim ice formed on ponds two consecutive cold mornings recently. Even that didn’t move my conviction that this is a mild winter. Typically we get about two months of ice thickening to at least a foot, sometimes twice this or more in northern, high elevations of the New Jersey. In 2008 we had no more than two weeks of marginally safe ice; to get no safe ice over winter’s course is very rare.

For any first timers at ice fishing, paying heed to safety is a life requirement. I never recommend any newcomer go out on ice fewer than five inches thick—clear, hard ice, not refrozen. No one really wants to go out on a deep lake for the first time, poking ahead of himself nervously with a splitting bar, with no adequate knowledge about whether or not the ice he stands on will give way to water that would kill him in 10 minutes. Get a guide to show you how for as long as it takes until you feel comfortable and are knowledgable out there. It’s probably a foregone conclusion of your own that if you want to try this, you should find someone reliable to introduce you to it. Joining the Knee Deep Club of Lake Hopatcong may suffice.

The larger lakes freeze unevenly. Well inside a cove—where pickerel and perch especially are caught—the ice may be quite safe. But walk towards the mouth of that cove, where winds have kept water open until it froze an inch the night before, and you’ll go through. Always, no matter how safe the ice, wear a pair of ice spikes available at many sporting goods shops. If you do go through, as unlikely as this is, the points can be jammed into ice so you can pull yourself out, then belly squirm away from the thin area.

In my experience, there’s really no other outdoor pursuit like ice fishing. I've done it for years, have never fallen through, have never seen anyone fall through. I have also, many times, broken the thin ice of Barnegat Bay as I ploughed in bodily, wearing layered wetsuits for commercial clamming. Once I worked in the bay for five hours beginning at dawn with 10 degrees Fahrenheit and snow, ending at 17 degrees, 45 mph winds, and the wind chill 26 below. Clamming paid well during the 1980’s, and was more of an adventure than ice fishing, but ice fishing is serene, easier, yet plenty adventuresome. It allows you to get in touch with nature in quiet, leisurely ways, so long as not too many snowmobiles, quads, and power augers are nearby. Plenty of fish species are available in our Highlands, New Jersey, region—pickerel, largemouth and smallmouth bass, muskies, northern pike, walleyes, trout species, channel catfish, hybrid stripers, and all manner of panfish including roving yellow perch in some waters.

First ice is best ice—so long as it’s safe. The “black ice” we sometimes have before snow blocks sunlight reaching through clear water depths, often safely covering only two to 10 acre ponds that freeze first (and evenly) before that snow falls, is easy to cut with a splitting bar since it’s not thick as a vault door. But sunlight’s the secret to this fishing. Try to get out on a cloudless day, the kind of day that “isn’t good for fishing.” Fish water 10 feet deep or shallower, clear water among residual weeds preferably. Bait tip-ups with live shiners, and try some chrome finished spoons using short jigging rods.

Shiner scales serve shiners' schooling interests, if you can say this line without twisting your tongue. The flashes of reflected light confuse perceptions of predators. But when isolated on a hook beneath a tip-up device (these also available at many sporting goods stores), these light-reflecting shields do just the opposite, attracting gamefish like a beacon to zero in upon directly and hit. Silvery, chrome spoons like small Kastmasters do the same.

I go for largemouth and pickerel when I have first ice opportunity, this ice which hasn’t been corrupted yet by melting and refreezing. These two species prowl relatively shallow water penetrated by needed light. So long as adequate fish holding depths are nearby (if any), and fairly thick residual vegetation is present if the pond or lake has any, the irony is that fish will be skittish, off the feed, and even residing in the thickest of cover, but they will strike by aggressive reaction. I’ve experienced tip-up flags flying high, bass stripping off five or ten yards of line and dropping shiners, refusing to swallow. This happens no other time.