Saturday, June 6, 2015

Shepherd Lake Hosts Largemouths, Pickerel, and Trout

Shepherd lake's water very clear that summer, last summer we found it off-color. I hope clarity has returned.

          Almost a year ago in July, my son and I arrived 15 minutes early at the closed gate to Ringwood State Park’s Shepherd Lake, waiting until 8:00 a.m. for park staff. At the boathouse, before I could state intentions to rent a rowboat, Matt and I viewed the nine-pound mounted pickerel on the wall above the counter, caught on a topwater plug in this 72-acre Passaic County lake, hooked over extensive weedy flats that ranged as deep as 17 feet or more with great water clarity. Maximum depth is 35 feet, but plenty of acreage 25 and 30 feet deep keeps some state-stocked trout alive through summer. Although I don’t recommend this destination for drifting live herring as I would the Round Valley or Merrill Creek reservoirs, you can’t rent a boat at either but can here —rowboat or electric, the latter requiring the NJ State Police Boating Safety Certificate.

          Largemouth bass are as prevalent as pickerel and also grow large on a diet that includes Omega 3-rich alewife herring abundant in the depths. Fishing the outer edge of weedlines is the best bet to hook a good fish. We caught small, 17-inch pickerel on Chompers plastic worms with weedless inset hooks in 17 feet of water, so you can be sure the big ones tend to be as deep where the weedbeds end.

          No sooner had we rowed from the dock that first outing and reached the nearest weedbed, I cast the weightless Chompers to the outer edge and hooked a pickerel of about five pounds. The hook pulled.

          Especially with the sun at high angle, the fish tend to be deep or otherwise in the thick cover of aquatic vegetation making lure presentations difficult. We did manage to catch a couple of bass simply by allowing wind to drift us over weeds while we cast fast-sinking Senko-style worms at random. Rigged Wacky (hook in middle) with wire-clip weedless hooks, we let the worms tumble down amidst the growth to bottom.

          Early in the afternoon, we were astonished to watch two anglers in another boat proceed to catch two very good sized bass on topwater plugs back in thick weeds. It made perfect sense. Cloud cover slowly set in. Eventually, light showers spritzed our T-shirts and shorts. I had read Will Ryan’s “Scientific Angler” column in Field and Stream not long before to learn that bass have an evolutionary advantage over forage prey by improved eyesight. (Mr. Ryan is a researcher who keeps tabs on university studies pertaining to fishing.) Whenever light fluctuates, bass can see forage fish better than forage fish can see them. This accounts partially for why early and late in the day is best for bass fishing. Topwater plugs are choice at times of changing light because bass have the habit of hovering beneath forage fish and looking upward to profile them in changing light, seeking to ambush. A plug making a surface ruckus is most effective. If sunlight goes through a process of gradual afternoon change, try one.

          Since my son likes to use live bait, I buy a bucketful of shiners and buy a dozen or two nightcrawlers. When we anchored to carefully plumb the bottom edges of weeds with plastic worms, simply dangling a shiner overboard worked. The worm fishing is Zen-like concentration at its best, the focus accentuating the take of a pickerel or bass as something you never forget.

          To get startled by the lunges of pickerel packed is a lot of fun. Just bring a couple of extra rods, tie a 15-pound test fluorocarbon leader to a barrel swivel, and run the main line through a quarter or half-ounce egg sinker before tying to the swivel. Make sure to hook a shiner behind the dorsal fin. We found that by dangling the shiner only five or six feet under the boat over an additional 12 feet of water below, pickerel savaged the bait. We didn’t bother to keep bail open. The rod would bend and dip below the lake surface as we grabbed hold. Matt lost one we think was about four pounds.



Friday, June 5, 2015

Long Beach Island Fluke Fishing Recalls a Life in the Bay, at the Books and Writing

Matt's expression appears precisely as terns flying over him.
Published in The Sandpaper some years ago, this is an essay about a Long Beach Island day mostly spent fluke fishing. It's possible to experience a little deeper than the surface of life, and you will find an interesting account of personal history.
A Conquest to Care in Return

By Bruce Edward Litton

          Little Egg Harbor corrugated by breeze under partly sunny skies was just right: no rolling boats between whitecaps and runaway bait drifting. Polly’s Dock in Beach Haven rented us a garvey with an eight-horsepower motor and loaded a five-gallon bucket with a quart of killiefish. I shoved off with my son, Matt, eager to hook up, and my wife, Patricia, ready to relax and read Mission to Paris by Alan Furst.

          Like other outings from Polly’s, we found fluke eager to hit anywhere from seven to 25 feet deep. My first fish was a large skate that weighed about five pounds. I was surprised it took a live killie, but knew it was no fluke on the line. The head shake like dance during a dogged fight belongs to fluke; a skate comes in like a wet T-shirt.

          Patricia must have lain on the center board seat for an hour, sunbathing with the book down, when I finally caught a keeper over 18 inches, the only fish to go on the ice in the cooler. We baited three-eighth-ounce jigs for the shallows, and used two-ounce sinkers to drift the channel depths. The tide moved us at a persistent pace and fluke felt like added weight before we set hooks.

          When the sun approached the horizon through stratified clouds and the bay calmed, I knew that if we were to catch a big one, now would be the time. The tide crested. A willet’s call alerted me to see little of its long legs on a sand bar exposed earlier. I relished the fight of my last fluke since I knew it would be the last caught boating that year, but it was only about 17 inches, released.

          The 18-foot garvey didn’t travel fast, but we were in no hurry to dock. Eighty degrees felt silky serene and the flow of brine around the boat eased like sand through an hourglass. I began to feel unwilling to drive the 90 miles home. I wanted to fill time with something else besides fishing.

          Polly’s staff felt happy to see we had a keeper. Like anyone else, they’re most interested in hearing about a big catch, but first concern is to see at least something going home. They roped the boat in a moment and we unloaded, paying homage to the snowy egret taken residence on the dock by feeding it leftover killies. The bird was almost tame, a wild creature grown fearless of close company with people.

          “Let’s go to Barnegat Light,” I said. “We can get there just after sunset and see the Wharf.”

          “What’s the Wharf?” Patricia said.

          “I’ve never shown you. Commercial fishing boats are docked and art galleries fill battered wooden rooms. They may not be open this late, but we can enjoy the scene on the water.”

           When we arrived, more stratified clouds appeared on the horizon to the north and west, reflecting an extravagantly red sunset. My son photographed his mother and father against a back drop of net boats and expansive color with feathered edges. The mood had risen to a success far beyond celebrating our catches. Feeling addressed a wonderful day on the water and island, our faces burned as red as the clouds, as if glowing with shared affirmation.

          We had one more place to visit: the end of Broadway near the lighthouse.

          Fish broke water like firecrackers exploded on the surface. With patient speed, I tied wire leaders and Kastmaster spoons onto our light rods, anticipating cocktail bluefish. Matt must have missed half a dozen hits before he got a blueback herring over the rail.

          “Well, let’s catch bluebacks,” I said.

          We caught about a dozen, missing many more hits. Herring are not fierce predators like blues, have delicate mouths, and they had a subtle way of not quite taking the metal lure. But they fought hard and measured about 16 inches. I’ve never seen them in droves before or since.

          A light meal finished from somewhere on the island I don’t remember, we entered the causeway and it occurred to me why the sunset, the boats, the photography, finally the herring, had inspired such a lift in mood. I had lived on Long Beach Island more and less for 13 years from age 19, clamming the bays to make a living. It wasn’t the hard, crusty life that may be imagined. Working only about four hours a day self-employed—doing aerobic exercise by treading bottom in the water—allowed me time to study and write.

           The hard part wasn’t the years in the bay and on the island but returning to the mainstream from Island Time without so much as a college degree, just some credits, and taking jobs by the clock. Clamming involved tough days, but mostly I lived a dream in which visions held great promise. I had turned my back on “the world,” walked out, and pursued happiness without formal economic complications. And I knew at 19 that a life apart for a while would be best. Return would be hard, but I didn’t know how difficult.

          Here we were on June 29th, 2010, as I drove to the crest of the causeway, sky dark and lights bright as we headed for the mainland, feeling as if Little Egg Harbor, Long Beach Island, Barnegat Inlet—all places deeply familiar—had answered my complaints to let me know that at least some of the essence of those youthful visions survives and will survive.

          I had achieved some mastery over fishing articles seeing publication for five years, and had begun getting essays published. I knew I hadn’t studied classics of the Western Tradition and much else besides only to write fishing articles and essays; my ambition is to write novels. But I began as a writer at 16 by getting published in outdoor magazines, and quit this for the literary vision quest. I know better now. Sometimes you have to start at the beginning again. 

           As we began the long approach to our residence in Bedminster, I knew that a sort of meeting between the deep levels of writing I had achieved on Long Beach Island in youth, and getting published in magazines, newspapers, and literary journals had bonded my family with a promise for the future that, while it includes us, reaches out to all.

           It’s not easy getting anything published. And what fills handwritten notebooks may be of great personal value and more. But the market informs a writer even as it denies publication. As I had found a voice in the bays during my 20’s, my middle age demands that it be spoken more from the mainstream.

          The lights of Long Beach Island glimmered behind us, suggesting unity of wildly electric nature and cultural means of its capture. The island bays are a wilderness of brine, flora, fauna and expanse which I had explored and submitted to physically and spiritually without losing connection to them later. And the lights along Route 72 looked like torches held high for a conquest not to destroy the wilds which nourish us, but care for them in return.       

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Why Streams are Stocked with Trout and What of It

Keep in mind information the first couple of paragraphs or so is dated. What will be stocked this fall, I don't know, except that they will be rainbow trout. The article is worth the reading for more than just stocking figures.

25,000 yearling trout, 500 broodstock, to be stocked in October

By Bruce Litton

          Furunculosis at the Pequest Hatchery this past spring will result in smaller brown and rainbow trout stocked this fall throughout the state. Seven to nine-inch fish will enter Highlands streams during October’s first and second weeks. I heard a lot of complaints about the spring fishery, and I can hear the groans now, but you can expect a full stocking schedule for spring and fall next year with standard-size trout. In addition to the little trout this fall, a total of 500 rainbows between 18 and 24 inches will be stocked throughout the state. Remember that not very long ago tiny five and six-inch trout were stocked in the fall. I remember when stocking was only a springtime affair. Nature deals its blows and we are vulnerable in response to them. The Pequest Hatchery has proved to be no exception, but the program has improved over the years and is the best it can be for now.

          I won’t give a dated listing of stocking in our region. You can go online for this. In our region, only rivers and streams are getting trout in October. Some ponds and lakes to the south will be stocked. Since none of us can anticipate the 14 to 16-inch fall trout of previous years, the North Branch Raritan, Paulinskill, Musconetcong, Pequest, Walkill, Black, Rockaway, Wanaque, Ramapo, and South Branch Raritan rivers, along with Pohatcong Creek, and Big Flat Brook will attract less interest.

          Fall always means fewer turn out than spring, and not only because fewer trout are stocked. When enjoyment of pleasant weather and scenery begins to grow in April next year, the likelihood is that some of the fall stockers will have remained in the rivers and streams all winter, well acclimated to the wild. This won’t make a broad difference in the number of fish caught on Opening Day, nor will additional catches likely be noticed throughout the season, but the thought can add a little spice of interest. Catch a trout slightly more than seven inches and speculate.

          So that’s the hatchery news. It may be wise to remember that most of the streams I’ve mentioned have holdover trout. Wild trout also, and even native brook trout in parts of the South Branch and Big Flat Brook, enter these larger flows from spring-fed tributary summer residences. Most of these more appealing wild fish are no larger than what the state will stock in October. Nevertheless, to cite an example, Joe Cermele recently had an article published in Field & Stream magazine which details an electroshock survey on the South Branch. One 150-meter section of river yielded 200 wild trout as large as 20 inches, so don’t make the mistake of thinking they’re all small.

          Fly rodding is particularly fitting for fall trout fishing, whether or not you even bother to fish one of the stocked streams. Plenty of ignored streams have robust populations of wild and native trout. Fly fishing emphasizes a subtler approach to wild and stream acclimated trout, fish that fit natural surroundings better than stockers plucked from large pods fused together right where they’ve been dumped.

          I like to think the goal of every stocking is to allow a very few trout to holdover and breed where this is possible. This doesn’t always happen, but when it does, a modern cycle of human intervention in wild spaces is completed. I think it’s important to remember that people have always intervened to bend the wild to their desires. The history of mankind subduing wilderness goes back to Paleolithic peoples. Our effort at introducing hatchery raised trout into wild or semi-wild rivers is not so much a symptom of modern demise as may seem, given the elimination of about 50% of native trout, not if you keep in mind that people always adjust natural environments to themselves.

          Nonetheless, most of us like wading rivers without encountering a worm carton left on the bank by someone else, or stumbling across a discarded Mepp’s spinner package lodged between stones. And most of us like to know trout survive in our rivers, many of us releasing most or all of our catch. Although we suit places to our needs and pleasure, environmental appreciation certainly includes a desire to experience clean, healthy ecosystems of which we all are, in some ways or others, part.

          Our individual health ultimately depends on the world’s environments. Getting out fly fishing this fall at Dunnfield Creek, for example—high in the mountains—is a way to rejuvenate more than mood. Positive experience helps improve the physical chemistry of the body, just as a holdover trout becomes sleeker, quicker, and much more perceptive due to improvements of its physique in a wild environment.


Sunday, May 31, 2015

In Search of Upper Blue Mountain Lake

Third consecutive year at Lower Blue Mountain Lake, this time it was all about fishing Upper Blue Mountain. We walked straight past the crowds--swimmers, picnickers, fishers--and on up to where, obviously, no one else much cares to hike. We found a trail leading down to the narrow neck of the Lower lake's lead from a small stream just about dried up. No second lake in sight, we got back on the trail and continued walking.

I began to imagine the distance between the two lakes is about a mile. Funny how you can view a map, but unless you take explicit note of the approximate distance between two small lakes--you can end up imagining things way off from reality.

We crossed a dried-up stream with isolated pools of standing water. This, I imagined, wasn't the feeder, just a side ditch amounting to almost nothing.

We made two or three trail turns at convergences and had hiked about a mile or more from the top of the Upper Lake when we turned back and the three of us started discussing what I had seen on the map. Meanwhile, all this hiking involved all of us with a lot of enjoyment. None of us were stressing at hard pace, yet we weren't poking along, either. Felt just right.

Matt took out his mobile device. "Dad's right, but the lakes are close together, and we're way out here beyond both."

We hiked back and took a side trail to--the remains of Upper Blue Mountain Lake. "Where we stand should about be at the dam," Matt said.

Open field. I don't understand, though, why no remnants of the dam remain. Matt tried to hike on up to the vanishing point in the photo, below, but got stuck in mud up to this knees, taking awhile to work free, and was hindered by his mother to try any further. I also think that if the Upper Lake does exist beyond that point, a trail would lead in. If anyone knows better than we've figured out, a comment is very welcome.

So we fished Lower Blue Mountain, Matt catching a bass, me a pickerel about 16 inches long, quickly released, both on Senko-style worms. Just as Matt and his mother were out ahead of me, leaving as I lingered over one last cast, I got a terrific take on my slow-sinking Chompers worm (weightless), the line racing off and tightening quick, me missing the hit. I wanted to stay and try some more, but let go of this selfish impulse, rational plenty, I suppose, though it felt better to let my wife and son be at ease as I caught up and we walked the remaining quarter mile or so to the car.

I didn't fail to look forward to another time out bass fishing. That take reminded me of those nice 3 1/2 pounders I kept catching at my secret North Jersey pond last year. Want to get up there yet.
This is where we think Upper Blue Mountain Lake used to be.
Eastern Box Turtle:  Better than a tank, has an organic brain. We can't build them this well.
Blue Mountain Lake, Delaware Watergap National Recreation Area, and that island is real close to the dam/dike. The lake extends about three fourths of a mile or so to the feeder. Maybe it's only a half or less, but pretty far.