Saturday, September 10, 2016

Complete Guide to Round Valley Rainbow, Brown, and Lake Trout from Shore

Mike Petrole and Lake Trout

Round Valley Reservoir Trout from the Gravel

November offers some of the best shore-bound action for rainbows and browns at Round Valley until April or early May, but although at its best the fishing can be fast, it usually involves persistence over the course of a number of outings. Rainbows come in close to shore first, sometimes feeding in a foot or two of wave-churned water as soon as surface water temperature falls to 70 degrees, usually during the third week of September. By sometime in October, brown trout traditionally begin to get caught, although this species has suffered sharp decline without recent stockings. Round Valley Trout Association stocked 200 11-inch browns early this year, likely legal size as they come in this fall, but please return these fish—identifiable by tags--to the reservoir, as the intent is to see them reach trophy size.

I want to interject some information. It's January 13, 2019, and way back in June or July one of those tagged browns got caught and measured at 25.5 inches, estimated at six pounds and some ounces. It was stocked March 2016 at about 11 inches. The tag photographed on its jaw proves this. Amazing growth rate, but the rainbows grow fast, too. The 16-inch average size, for example. These fish caught in the fall were stocked in the spring at the same size of stream-stocked trout. More or less 10 1/2 inches long. All this speaks very well for a reservoir notoriously low on fertility with alewife herring now all but absent. Lake trout were stocked years ago and ever since, they have reproduced freely, no longer stocked. Round Valley Reservoir is the southernmost reproducing lake trout fishery.

They never seem to meet the gravel at angler’s boots until mid-December. Fishing is tough after November, and yet a few of us fish through the entire winter, sitting on fold-out chairs or flat slates in temperatures as low as 15 degrees if especially trying for these lakers. Fifteen degrees is the lowest temperature at which I've fished from shore as yet, and if the reservoir freezes thick enough, some of us of the same group who fish from shore—plus others who don’t shore fish--pursue trout through the ice.

Motivated to spawn, all three species behave as if they will reproduce, but without any streams entering the reservoir, rainbows and browns don’t reproduce. Lake trout spawn with great success in deeper water; the catch and release season is from September 15th through November 3Oth. Fishermen unfamiliar with the Round Valley cold water shore scene tend to think everyone bottom fishes, but a number of approaches prove effective in the main boat launch area and Ranger Cove sections of Lot 2. You can hike into the back of the reservoir if you’re adventurous.

Marshmallows and Mealworms

Most popular, a single small marshmallow to float a mealworm on a light wire hook, weighted by a 3/4-ounce steel egg sinker, separated by a small barrel swivel and four-foot leader of six-pound test: M & M rigs catch rainbows and browns and may possibly work for lakers. Occasionally, lakers get caught on Power Bait employed on the same rig, although better ways exist to fish the frigid band of a month or two when lakers may dominate catches.

Three rods and reels serve any of the bottom methods, medium power and six-pound test line sufficient. Rod holders you can stick through the sand and gravel at shore edge keep order. Some of the guys close the bails after casting to 10-30 feet of water and place bells on rod tips to alert them to a hit. Subtle trout aren’t supposed to wrangle with bait resisting a free take, tight line forcing trout to chomp on the bait in place, but plenty get caught this way. Nevertheless, I witness dropped bait, so I simply position my rods with opened bails and keep an eye on them. The line runs freely through the egg sinker, and then it’s a matter of setting the hook quickly, so you can release a trout back into the reservoir safely.

Rainbows average 16 inches. Fish less than 15-inch legal size infrequently get caught. In the past, the average brown trout was the same size as an average rainbow. Lakers average a little better than three pounds. People think the trout migrate to the boat launch area and Ranger Cove, but this is just a self-serving notion reflecting the fishing there where it's convenient. The reservoir holds a lot of trout, and they range 12 miles of shoreline by rules other than our ease at catching them. However, the more familiar you may become with this fall and hardcore winter fishery near the road entrances, the better nuances and details, and secrets, present themselves to guide your choice about where to cast an M & M. I will say more when I discuss lures and shiners.

Lure Options

I met a guy casting a spinner on a 30-degree afternoon in February, shaking ice out of the guides of his ultra-light, having caught an 18-inch brown on two-pound test. The fight seared him like heat, but his description of a solid strike impressed me most. A hard-hitting trout in water colder than 40 degrees is exceptional compared to other species, but this trout is not the only one the man has caught on spinners in the middle of winter.

If you want exercise, fish eighth and quarter-ounce spinners; bladebaits like the Binsky; jerkbaits sinking, suspending, or floating as lengthy as four or five inches; lip-less crankbaits, especially in chrome; spoons like the Kastmaster. Some guys never touch bait. And in the fall, Round Valley features a contingent of fly casters. Streamers will catch these trout that frequent very shallow water into November. It’s not impossible to catch a January laker on a streamer, though unlikely because fishing in any event is usually slow. Fly casting for them would require dedicated stamina and I haven’t seen it happen.

Steep drop-offs of Ranger Cove afford the possibility. Someone I met fishing from shore years ago, Mike, opened the belly of a laker full of sunfish an inch long, indicating that the trout fed in the shallows. Most of the winter lake trout hug the bottoms of channels and trenches deep as ever during winter, and I’ve never heard of any more than eight pounds caught from shore. And despite the forage fish crisis at the reservoir, rare lakers as large as 18 pounds get caught by boaters who know the whereabouts and deep water methods. The greatest of the lakers apparently forage largely on other trout, cannibals that put a small dent in results of prolific lake trout reproduction, but smaller lakers feed voraciously on freshwater shrimp and whatever small forage fish, obviously not limited to soft-rayed, lingering alewife herring or the shiners stocked by the state and Round Valley Trout Association to boost the food supply. Some of the lakers ranging from two to six pounds pick off little baitfish as shallow as 10 or 15 feet deep, like the sunfish, making a streamer a possible target.

Whichever lures you may decide to cast, hugging bottom isn’t always necessary. Trout get caught on floating jerkbaits fished four feet down over bottom another 12 feet down. The reservoir’s pellucid clarity allows trout to sight a lure from a distance, and despite the metabolism of browns and rainbows slowed in the coldest water, when these fish motivate to feed, they will give chase and strike.

Naturally, the best fishing conditions will be windy, wet, or snowy. I’ve fished under 45-mph gusts driving rain against the side of my face to get skunked, and another year fished in nearly identical conditions and enjoyed steady action. No hard and fast rule guarantees success, and we’ve caught trout under the severest of cold fronts without a cloud in the sky, but nasty days have proved the best.

Lures give you the chance to scout the reservoir’s shores under any conditions. The back of Ranger Cove, for example, is accessible by trail and productive. I spoke to someone who reported a brown trout suspended near the surface as long as his arm; it wouldn’t hit anything. Wherever you try, do so with an open mind that may subtly guide casts in directions that count. Life attracts life, and deep in the back of the human mind, intuitive connectivity exists that helps sense where action might happen. We’re animals like any other, and although all species use all of their senses to hunt, more is involved than the outward five, though it is nothing simple like the use of GPS coordinates.

If you regularly scout the reservoir’s shores, casting as you go, over time you will come to know spots better, developing a total affinity for the main launch and Cove regions accessible by foot, like a map in the mind with a live report cluing you into the present situation. This hardly makes the fishing any easier—especially in the dead of winter—but the gains in interest far surpass the dull blindness of random luck. Even one-time outing can be plenty interesting for anyone who pays attention.

Live Shiners Catch Lakers

Shiners will catch rainbows and browns also, so after the flourish of November M & M action, I switch to shiners and hold my breath. Some winters very few lakers get caught. Mysteriously, other winters produce many. Last winter, during three weeks before the reservoir froze over, I heard word only of lakers, no rainbows or browns while a laker or two hit nearly each time out. Possibly, rainbows passed on our shiners. Browns take shiners better than rainbows, but few remain. Waiting on bottom sets other times, rainbows have taken this bait, so last winter remains a curiosity.

Some fishermen experiment with floats and catch trout, setting at four feet and casting the rig over 10-20 feet of water. Others go to the opposite extreme with limber 12-foot rods capable of casting a one-ounce weight great distance. I marvel at how the shiner isn’t ripped from the hook, but these slow action rods soften the blow of forward momentum. By keeping bail open for the weighted bait to sink straight down, these anglers achieve sets as deep as at least 35 feet.

I catch lakers using the same rig as I do for M & M's, only I slide a Styrofoam walleye nightcrawler float—painted black to reduce visibility—through the leader line just like an egg sinker. Others simply take white Styrofoam and cut into a small piece with the leader line so it stays in place. Styrofoam seems to make a difference in keeping a shiner out of rock crevices or from hugging bottom.

In pursuit, I’ve micromanaged a 150-yard stretch of Ranger Cove over the years, deepening my familiarity. Last winter, I reduced the possibilities until I seemed to know exactly where to expect hits. And those hits came—most of the fish lost, unfortunately. Fish don’t really behave by random senselessness, so the better we guess whereabouts, the better come results.

As a rule, when bottom fishing three sets, space them as widely as comfort and accessibility allow. If you learn enough in the process of experimentation to guess a good spot, set one there, and move the other two wherever the best guesses lead, but don’t crowd a spot unnecessarily.

I call this a complete guide, but like most articles that go under such a title, someone else can probably think of more to add. In any case, I've organized some pointers to action at the reservoir that probably won't be fast, although even days when you end up without a trout can feel satisfying. Fall involves the best action you’ll likely see until next year. The winter scene can show you the slowest fishing you’ll ever know, but patiently catch a laker and the entire natural wonder of Round Valley may seem yours.

6.9-pound shore-caught rainbow. Notice the two yellow beads. The fish had broken someone else's line. I caught it on a marshmallow and mealworm, fished on six-pound test.

Nineteen-and-some-inch brown trout photographed underwater with a GoPro. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

Headwaters North Branch Raritan River Outing

Places exist, accessible, where owner's rights don't make it impossible to enjoy the wild in good conscience, even though most of the headwaters flow off limits to anyone who doesn't live on the land that edges the water. Sometimes you have to get a permit to cook hotdogs, but to my mind, that's an equitable deal. The township makes the cookout possible, so why not uphold their accountability in the matter?

Water's really low. All this year, I've seen the river down here in Bedminster flood only once, and that time it really didn't come close to breaching the bank.

I got down below a falls to mount my D7100 on tripod for a shoot, knowing in advance this effort just wouldn't cut the margin. I'm going to have to come back for more pictures when the falls behave that way.

And then I took out my two-weight fly rod, wading in sneakers, cast a dry Muddler Minnow that floated, cast it well back in the shade, and a wild brown trout struck with a splash. A tried to set the hook, but the trout was gone before the point grabbed.

The main thing to remember is that all of this land and water, owned privately or not, is wild and free, most of it unknown to anyone, because it takes effort and time to really experience what's in front of you. And you have to get to what's in front of you, too. It's so easy to measure acres and miles, and then pretend you have what the quantifications represent. But to see infinity in a speck of sand breaks all the rules.