New Jersey's Rahway River Trout Renewal

This unlikely trout stream is part of a bigger program to increase access and interest in the Garden State's more urban fishing areas. Will it work? Read on! (March 2009)

The Rahway River has long been an ignored fishing treasure. Meandering slowly from its start at the South Mountain Reservoir to its brackish endpoint at Arthur Kill, this degraded waterway is making its way back after decades of neglect.

Yet along this urbanized wetlands, there are majestic red-tailed hawks, tall snowy egrets, statuesque great blue herons and ancient snapping turtles big enough to send grown men scampering up the riverbank!

The Rahway flows nicely in some stretches. It even has fairly decent clarity when runoff from heavy rains isn't a problem. Last year, the state had enough confidence in the river's ability to hold trout and draw anglers that it increased its stocking efforts -- with good results!

For the first time in decades, the state stocked portions of the western Rahway in Essex County in North Jersey. In that county, no running water had been stocked in years.

New Jersey's trout fishery is mostly a put-and-take effort. Brown, brook and rainbow trout 9 to 11 inches long are stocked from late March to mid-May.

Along with these good-sized trout, much bigger breeders are also stocked to excite those anglers skilled or lucky enough to catch one. I've seen these 5-pound trophies being caught by fishermen each spring.

A rule of thumb is that most of these stocked fish don't live through the heat of summer. But that isn't a hard and fast truth. During a heat wave this past summer, I watched an estimated 5-pound brown trout mulling about near a storm drain in a lake that feeds a tributary of the Rahway

During my early-morning hikes through the hills surrounding this particular lake, I'd always stop at a storm drain, and there was this trout in two feet of water, hanging out with the largemouths. Since I keep a rod in the family van and my fishing license in my glove compartment, I decided to try and entice this fine specimen with everything at my disposal.

I favor artificials and particularly, a gold Acme Phoebe. But each time I got near the big brown, it darted off into the depths. So clearly, some of these trout do survive the summer!

Last time I checked, well into September, the fish was still there, lolling about with a school of juvenile largemouths. And while casting during my early-morning walks along the river in midsummer, I've taken my share of smaller browns.

Perhaps my best day came last spring, during an unplanned trip to an area of the river flowing past a waterfall and under the Garden State Parkway near Exit 136.

If you've headed south on the Parkway toward the Shore, you must have seen this spot and the anglers it attracts. But you might not know it's chock-full of hungry stocked trout.

There's an unfinished hiking trail here. While investigating this small piece of trout heaven, I wasn't really expecting much, but was surprised to find myself battling a feisty rainbow near a thicket of wild blackberries.

More trout came, one after another, pouncing on the little lure with gusto, until I realized I really had no place to keep them. I simply hadn't anticipated that much luck. As a result, I released each fish back into the river, where they got to fight another day.

My first trip to the Rahway in search of trout was several years ago. I grew up near Raritan Bay and the cornucopia of saltwater fishing opportunities in that busy waterway, and had little inclination to try freshwater fishing. But one day, I approached the area I mentioned above -- known variously as Mohawk Park, Mohawk Pond or Jackson's Pond, according to Marty Haines, a Rahway native and former skipper of the Sea Pigeon party boat.


A rule of thumb is that in stocked areas, most of these fish don't last through the heat of summer. But that isn't a hard and fast truth.
 

The pond itself is not stocked with trout. Rather, it feeds into the river, and some of the stocked trout find their way into it. The pond is more noted for its giant carp. But I baited my hook with an earthworm and tossed the line out into a slow-moving section of the river.

My expectations were low, and for good reason. Large numbers of sunnies and catfish are present in the river, and earthworms simply don't last long enough for hatchery-raised trout to get to them.

Before long, an older gentleman sauntered up to me. We engaged in idle conversation while he cast a small metal spinner and slowly retrieved it. By his third cast, he was into a rainbow.

In five more casts -- while I watched, dumbstruck -- he landed five more for a limit of six, wished me good luck and bade me farewell!

Could it be that easy? After all, I'd been there for an hour or so and hadn't even seen one trout.

That's when I remembered what had made me a successful saltwater fisherman: You have to observe experienced anglers and listen to them.

My next stop was a visit to Woodbridge Auto Parts, whose phone number is (732) 634-6264, on Main Street in Woodbridge.

What's that? you ask. An auto-parts store? What might such a place have to do with trout fishing?

Quite a bit, as it turns out!

The store represents an eclectic blend of auto parts, working gear and hunting and fishing supplies, including fresh- and saltwater bait.

As one local said, "If they don't have it, you don't need it!"

What's more, Woodbridge isn't some rural town where you might expect to see a country store with night crawlers for sale next to the ice machine. But here you can buy mealworms and earthworms, as well as a set of plugs for that '72 Camaro you've been restoring.

After a quick conversation with the staff, I found out I was doing it all wrong. Stocked trout in the Rahway are not the least bit complicated. By talking to some of the locals, I picked up a combination that works when artificials don't.

Take a small mini-marshmallow. Put it on the hook (a size 6, 8, or 10 bait holder,

though I have seen people go even smaller) all the way up the shank to where it touches the knot.

Then put a mealworm on the end of the hook. Run a small split shot about 12 inches above that, to hold the rig on the bottom.

The marshmallow not only keeps the mealworm afloat and away from pesky sunnies, but it also seems to serve as an attractant. The results are often fabulous! The usual array of salmon eggs and Berkley PowerBaits also work fairly well and during the season are incredibly popular.

Aside from my trusted Phoebe metal lures, which come in a variety of metallic finishes, tiny Kastmasters and shiny spinners with gold or silver spoons also work quite well.


Finding the best spots along the Rahway isn't at all difficult. The stocked areas all have public access and are clearly marked and posted.
 

When I first started using artificials, I made the mistake of cranking too fast. Here, a slower retrieve is called for -- not super-slow, but a slow and steady crank.

When you get a hit, you'll know that you've hit the right speed.

The trout fishing action I found in the Rahway, close to my home, piqued my interest enough that I wanted to learn more about it.

I contacted Mike Rediger of Cranford, a founding member of the newly formed Rahway River Chapter of Trout Unlimited, which developed out of the Cranford Trout Fishing Club.

Mike admits that he does a lot of fishing in the Musconetcong and other more traditional trout streams, but he has an emotional attachment to the Rahway, going back decades.

A landscaper by trade, he still has fond boyhood memories of balancing a fishing rod while riding his bike to the river to fish for trout.

While this article focuses on the Union County portion of the Rahway, Mike notes that for the first time in decades, the state had stocked portions of the Rahway in Essex County -- in the area known as the West Branch of the river. This area is heavily damned, and the flow is very slow, but last spring's results were good. Expect this area to be stocked again this spring, which will provide more urban anglers with easy access to some good trout fishing.

The best time to fish the river is from April to early May, at which time stocking ceases and the water grows too warm to support the hatchery-raised salmonids, which rely on cooler temperatures to survive.

Mike Rediger prefers fly-fishing, but notes that while much of the river flows too slowly to employ that method effectively, areas farther north -- in the more wooded section of Mohawk Park -- are somewhat more amenable to fly-fishing.

He recommends bait and artificial spinners as the way to go. Furthermore, while much of the trout fishing in this area ceases with the advent of warmer water, there are some cool springs and holes that might hold trout longer. According to him, municipal workers have sighted trout in November. That's a very good sign, since the Rahway isn't currently in the state's fall stocking program.

Rediger is very excited about the comeback of this once neglected river and its potential for all types of fishing, not just trout. Since the river also supplies the water for the city of Rahway, efforts are underway to rehabilitate it and make it still more accessible.

To this end, groups like the conservation-minded Rahway River Association (at www.rahwayriver.org) and Rahway Trout Unlimited are making their presence felt.

It would have been hard to find a spokesman more enthusiastic than Mike Rediger for the state of freshwater fishing in New Jersey. But Jim Sciascia, of the state's Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), comes pretty close. A 28-year veteran of the DFW, Sciascia currently heads up the information and education section.

Bullish on trout and also the warm- water freshwater fisheries, he freely shared his knowledge about the state's efforts at making trout fishing more accessible for urban anglers.

There are many reasons why the Essex County portion of the Rahway has gotten recent attention. But Sciascia notes that with gas prices at the pump bouncing up and down, people want more opportunities to fish locally, if they can. So the state is looking at the possibility of directing more efforts in the urban arenas.

Each year, trout stocking begins in March and continues through April and May. Slightly over 500,000 trout are stocked statewide, and around 9,000 of them in the Rahway alone.

I have seen breeders in one of the lakes that feed into the South Branch of the Rahway, as noted above, and they are fine specimens.

Though I haven't seen them in the Rahway where I have fished, Sciascia notes that some larger breeders are stocked along with the normal-sized trout. Breeders typically run from 3 to 6 pounds.

Finding the best spots along the Rahway isn't at all difficult. The stocked areas all have public access, and are clearly marked and posted.

Not only that, but the DFW even publishes an annual digest, available for free at almost all tackle shops, giving you exact locations.

That information is also available online. In other words, the state wants you to catch trout!

Now, I'm sure that having just read this far, you're wondering where you might go to get in on the Rahway trout run. As with most everything in New Jersey, the answer is an exit on the Parkway. Your most rewarding efforts will be found at Rahway River Park, Rahway River Parkway Park and Mohawk Park -- all of which can be accessed from Exit 136 on the Garden State Parkway.

The best fishing spots are all located just above and below the dams along the river, such as the one at Valley Road, at the Parkway overpass, at the Rahway water plant and the dam at state Route 27. These areas are all clearly posted, conspicuous by the presence of trout anglers and easily accessible. However, the waterworks dam does require you to walk through a little brush if you approach from the nearest parking lot.

To get to Mohawk Park, from the Parkway north exit at 136, turn right on Centennial Avenue, then make another quick right on Raritan Road.

Go over the Parkway overpass and pull into the gravel parking lot on your right.

To get to Rahway River Parkway Park, exit at Centennial and stay on it as it turns to Stiles Street. On your right, you will see the town of Winfield Park, one of New Jersey's first tract housing developments.

Just past the township's "Welcome" sign, you'll see a green and yellow sign denoting the entrance to the county park. Make a right, and the road splits. If you bear right, it takes you along the Rahway River Parkway Park with lots of stocked areas, which, while heavily wooded, are all easily accessed.

If you bear left at the split and follow it down to Valley Road, you'll see the parking lot and the dam. If you continue across Valley Road, you enter Rahway River Park.

Continue on until you reach the large parking lot on the right where the maintenance yard is. From there, you can see the river and the sections that get stocked.

From the Parkway southbound, exit at 136. Follow the jug handle to the light and make a left onto Centennial. From there, follow the directions as given above.

The Rahway River represents nature's attempt, with man's help, to reclaim itself after years of environmental degradation. Many caring people are working hard to see that this river improves itself not only aesthetically, but also offers the kind of outdoor recreational experience that's sorely needed in New Jersey's most densely populated county.

For me, the Rahway offers not only great trout fishing and even some decent hiking, but also holds a special place for another reason.

Last May, you see, I was trout fishing in Mohawk Park during an overcast late-morning haze. The sun trying to peek through the clouds reminded me that summer wasn't far off. Yet here I was, catching one brook trout after another, as they pounced on my gold Phoebe lure.

I was away from it all, but still in the middle of everything. When it comes to trout fishing in New Jersey, it doesn't get any better than that!

Try out the Rahway River this spring and see for yourself. You're likely to be pleasantly surprised!

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