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Trout Fishing New Jersey's Winter Wonderland

Trout Fishing New Jersey's Winter Wonderland

A healthy fall stocking program means find trout fishing right now through the spring opener, especially on the three streams highlighted here.

By Bob Brunisholz

There was a time, perhaps 20 years ago, when during winter, Garden State anglers relegated rods, reels, waders and associated paraphernalia to the closet. Avid trout anglers who fished exclusively with the long wand would spend their winters tying flies and telling lies with their cronies about the big one that got away, all in the name of killing time until spring.

Fortunately, this is no longer the scenario. Since New Jersey's Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) began fall stockings all those years ago, trout fishing has become an integral part of the winter outdoors scene. Today, the frozen toes crowd is as much in evidence during winter as are bird and deer hunters.

The genesis of winter trout fishing was in 1982, when the Pequest Trout Hatchery, located off state Route 46 in Oxford, Warren County, was completed.

"Completed" is the operative word in the foregoing sentence.

The hatchery was built, but officials and fisheries biologists with the DFW still hadn't reared a single fish there. But at the old Hackettstown Hatchery, there were leftover trout. These trout would have to be transferred to the gleaming, new Pequest. Right? Wrong!

Biologists were concerned about a transfer of fish from Hackettstown to the Pequest, worried that doing so could possibly start the brand-spanking new facility off on the wrong foot - or fin, if you will - should one single trout from Hackettstown have as much as the equivalent of a sore throat or runny nose. Biologists didn't need the nightmare of having to deal with a potential disease or possibly an unwelcome parasite, each of which would negate the sterile raceways at the gleaming new state-of-the-art facility.


Photo by Ron Sinfelt

So the Pequest didn't produce its first trout until 1984. After all, it takes some time to rear a fish from egg to stocking size, and that's just what biologists at the Pequest did: They started from square one, using eggs that had been certified "disease-free." But that left a minor glitch so to speak: what to do with the trout at the old Hackettstown Hatchery?

The first option was simple: Kill them. That is, allow them to die out of water and either bury them or use them for fertilizer, or sell them to some fertilizer-producing company or some similar scenario.

Wait a minute - there must be something better to do with these trout.

Though division officials were reluctant to place trout from the Hackettstown facility into the antiseptic environs of the Pequest, there was really nothing wrong with the trout from Hackettstown. They were the same trout used for prior stockings and essentially disease-free. It's just that division officials didn't want to risk introducing any kind of disease, bacteria or parasite into the new Pequest Hatchery. So, why not stock these so-called leftover trout?

As it turned out, that "stocking" took place in the fall of 1983. Therefore, one of New Jersey's most popular fishing seasons was born. Anglers thought they had died and gone to piscatorial heaven. In fact, that single fall stocking proved so popular, anglers requested - no, make that nearly demanded - that fall stockings continue. And with the exception of a few years ago when the division was cash-strapped, the DFW hadn't missed a beat. The fall stockings continue today, much to the delight of all anglers.

If there is one criticism of the fall stocking, it concerns the size of most of the stocked trout. Anglers should understand that fall stocking is as much a convenience for division biologists as it is a windfall for anglers. Division biologists must, in any event, make room for the trout that are being reared for next spring. Consequently, there are always excess or surplus fish that simply must go. Thus, the fall stocking program is a boon to both anglers and biologists.

But those fish, the ones that "must go," are usually small, sometimes not even keeper size. Some are barely legal enough to stuff into a creel. Conversely, division biologists and their hatchery workers at the Pequest do stock some of the holdover brood trout, as well as a sprinkling of trout that range between 12 and 14 inches. All of the fall stockings, however, are composed of rainbow trout.

Nevertheless, the majority of small trout usually get to grow larger, and some even hold over until spring. The important element is not so much the size of the trout as it is the fact that trout are available from fall, right on through the winter months until the spring opener.

So, where are the so-called, best-bet rivers for anglers willing to venture forth in the dead of winter?

Ask that same question of any group of anglers, and you'll probably get as many different and varied answers as there are anglers in the group. But here are three top selections based entirely on an extremely unscientific survey conducted by yours truly when seated on a clubhouse lawn chair at various trap shoots, coffee huts and assorted greasy-spoon mercantiles and one or two tonsil wash emporiums.

Let's start with one of the state's most underrated streams. Underrated, in this instance, applies only to its winter trout fishery. Otherwise, the Manasquan River is one of the Garden State's premier trout streams.

In addition, the Manasquan offers a potential bonus: Since the 1997-98 fishing seasons, division officials have been conducting what they call an "experimental" program by releasing brown trout in the Manasquan in an effort to develop a sea-run species of brown. Theoretically, these fish will migrate from the river into Manasquan Inlet and thus into the ocean, hopefully to return as giant browns.

Though the New Jersey program is still labeled as "experimental," it has shown some promising returns, with the first reported return of a sea-run brown occurring December 1998. Since then, several big browns have returned from the ocean, only to end up in an angler's net or boat. Nevertheless, in addition to the browns that are part of the program, the Manasquan is worth a try during winter, even if you never tie into a sea-run trout.

Slated to receive approximately 1,550 trout during stockings that began last October of what hatchery works refer to as surplus trout, the Manasquan offers plenty of water that has been described by some of my cronies as slow, deep water with plenty of overhanging brush - a trout angler's dream. Admittedly, 1,500 trout is not a large number compared to t

he other two streams we will cover here, but the number is sufficient enough to make a trip to the Manasquan worth the effort.

The Manasquan River runs from Freehold Township in western Monmouth County to the Atlantic Ocean at Manasquan Inlet.

The stocked section of the Manasquan begins near the Howell Golf Course. The river wanders nearly due east toward the ocean, meandering through Allaire State Park, then through Spring Meadow Golf Course to Allenwood Road in Wall Township.

The river's bottom is mostly mud and there is, as stated previously, plenty of overhanging brush along its banks, which creates great trout lies. But the river also has lots of snags in the form of blowdowns and a host of tangled bushes and briars that would make the novice trout angler turn to more traditional waters. But if an angler has the intestinal fortitude to ply the Manasquan, he - or she - will, indeed, be rewarded.

Anglers unfamiliar with the river or the surrounding roads and countryside may park near the Spring Meadow Golf Course where, just prior to entering the course, there is a parking area set aside for anglers.

In addition, anglers can also head west on Allaire Road (Route 524), a bit farther downstream from the golf course, using the Allaire Road access to get to the river.

Also, anglers heading to the river from the north by way of the Garden State Parkway can opt to park at Brice Park in Wall Township, where there is a large parking area that borders the river. Any of those choices will put an angler in touch with some fine, albeit sometimes tough, trout fishing.

Though it is certainly possible to take trout on a fly while fishing the Manasquan, during my foray with Wilson, I'd bet that 90 percent of the trout in the river are taken by spin-fishermen using meal worms, salmon eggs, Power Baits or the tried-and-true garden worms and night crawlers.

Next on the list of "must-visit" trout streams for the winter season is the mighty Musconetcong in Warren County.

The Muskie, as most anglers affectionately refer to the Musconetcong River, originates at Lake Musconetcong and meanders generally south by southwest until it reaches its confluence with the Delaware River. Here anglers will find a wide array of waters from slow, sweeping pools to dancing riffles and glides and tailraces.

The upper section of the Muskie is primarily small and brushy and consists of a mud bottom. The headwaters near the lake are tough fishing and not heavily stocked. That's the bad news. The good news lies in the downstream beats near Saxton Falls and continuing through the town of Hackettstown where it parallels Main Street and then on to parallel secondary Route 517.

And it is the wider sections or beats where the Muskie becomes broad-shouldered and offers a variety of conditions, all of them custom made for trout anglers. These primary beats start at the pool immediately below Saxton Falls in Stephens State Park, Hackettstown, and continue through the park and flow though a cemetery paralleled by Main Street in Hackettstown.

Though there is ample parking along most of the stretches from Saxton Falls downstream along Route 517, be careful. Many of the businesses along this stretch frown on anglers taking up parking slots that are for customers, and using them could result in a ticket or worse: being towed.

In addition, division hatchery workers last fall released slightly less than 6,500 rainbows into the Muskie. Admittedly, some of those trout were what hatchery workers refer to as "rejects," that is, less than the legal 7-inch limit. Nonetheless, the majority of the trout stocked taped 7 inches or more, and there is always the chance of tangling with one of the approximately 1,000 breeder trout released last October statewide.

Finally, one of my all-time favorite winter stream haunts: the Big Flat Brook in Sussex County. Undeniably, the Big Flat Brook is probably known best for its year-round fly-fishing-only stretch called the Blewett Tract. This tract runs from Three Bridges Road, which is easily accessible from U.S. Route 206, upstream to the junction of the Big Flat and Little Flat brooks.

The fly-only beat is well marked as such; and remember, the regulation is in effect throughout the year, including winter. Undoubtedly, the Blewett Tract is the most popular beat for fly- rodders, encompassing nearly four miles of waterway from the Route 206 bridge downstream to the Roy bridge on Mountain Road, and is reserved only for flyfishermen.

Which is fine if you're a fly-rodder, but most of the winter anglers with whom I rub elbows don't spend their time in the cold while casting tiny, feathered offerings to trout at this time of year. They are bait-fishermen, eager to put some trout in a creel.

With the exception of the fly-only stretch, however, the remainder of the Big Flat is open for spin-fishermen, and this stream is well worth the travel time for anglers who may not reside in Sussex County.

The Big Flat, as the river is commonly called by its many anglers, starts in the mountainous region of High Point State Park in northern Sussex County and from there, twists, turns and winds though some of New Jersey's most picturesque farmland and open spaces until it finally reaches the Delaware River in Flatbrookville, near the Delaware River Water Gap.

This wandering ribbon of water offers trout fishermen more than 12 miles of the best trout waters to be found in the Garden State and with the exception of the Blewett Tract, can be fished with spinners, spoons, bait, salmon eggs or whatever will get the attention of a winter-starved trout.

Arguably, bait-fishermen as opposed to fly-rodders frequent the lower reaches of the Big Flat. The lower section is easily accessed from Route 206 to county Route 615, and sometimes the road swings a fair distance from the river, resulting in a bit of a hike for anglers. The walk, however, is worth the effort. Here anglers will find a wide array of stream conditions from silt bottom with easy, slow water to gravel bottom with swifter waters.

The Big Flat last fall received 3,990 trout, according to Jeff Matthews, a division fisheries biologist and supervisor at the Pequest Trout Hatchery.

Admittedly, the breeder trout are a bonus. Conversely, however, a fairly good number of the released trout are what Matthews referred to as "rejects," or trout that had to be moved out to make room for the trout that will be stocked this spring. Those rejects either barely make the minimum 7 inches or in some instances, don't even make that. Still, those are the trout anglers will be releasing and with a little luck will hold over until spring.

Fall stocking began last year during the first week of October and continued for a total of four weeks. The stockings started at the traditional s

treams to the north during the first week, with the second week reserved for stocking waters in the south-central portions of the state. The third and fourth weeks reverted back to the north and included the breeder trout.

If, like me, you've been hooked by this thing we've come to call winter trout fishing - a "thing," by the way, that originated as only a way to get rid of surplus trout when the Pequest Trout Hatchery went online - give one or two (or all three) of these streams a try this winter. I'm quite sure you'll enjoy your time out on these uncrowded rivers.

About the only way an angler will be disappointed is if this winter is similar to last winter, when these (and other) streams were frozen solid. In that case, it's back to the fly-tying bench and telling lies about last season. Let's hope it doesn't come to that!

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