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.