Frozen Reels & Rainbows on the Pequest River

I woke up Saturday morning to the sound of snow blowers running outside. A couple of inches of fresh snow had fallen overnight in southeastern Pennsylvania and it was cold outside. The temperatures on Saturday were forecasted to be in the high 20s with a “real feel” that was much lower. This was the only time this year that I paused for a second while rolling out of bed to consider whether or not I wanted to venture out to water somewhere to wet a fly line. But it didn’t take long for me to convince myself to get out there and soon I had my truck packed and warming up. Earlier in the week I’d been continuing my research on trout waters in New Jersey. One name that kept coming up was the Pequest River.

The Pequest is only about thirty minutes northwest from where I was fishing a week earlier in Califon. The river is a tributary to the Delaware River and has miles of fishable trout water, holding rainbow, brown, and brook trout. There is a good amount of information online about the Pequest and I was surprised I hadn’t heard about it before. Located on the section of the river that flows through Warren County is the Pequest River Trout Hatchery. According to the hatchery’s website, it produces as many as 700,000 trout annually for stocking in New Jersey bodies of water. The Pequest is important enough that it gets a stream report page on the Orvis website. The Orvis site mentions that the place to focus your time is on the water located below the hatchery outflow. This area is defined by the state as a Seasonal Trout Conservation Area. The regulations are too detailed to explain here, but they change frequently depending on the time of year.

 One of the Seasonal Trout Conservation Area signs that are posted along the Pequest River.

One of the Seasonal Trout Conservation Area signs that are posted along the Pequest River.

I plugged the address to the Pequest River Trout Hatchery into my GPS and I was off to Jersey by 10:00am. The driving turned out to be less treacherous than I anticipated, and by lunchtime I was pulling into the parking lot that sits at the entrance of the hatchery. When I arrived there were three cars in the parking lot and one gentleman was getting packed up to leave.

 The sign at the entrance to the hatchery parking lot.

The sign at the entrance to the hatchery parking lot.

I got geared up and prepared to stand in very cold water for the afternoon. I decided to fish with my 5wt Winston again with my TR2 Abel fly reel. I considered going to 6X tippet but because I knew the river held some good-sized fish, I stayed with 5X. Once ready I followed the footsteps left by other fishermen in the snow, walking across the bridge and down to the footpath that runs along the east side of the river. The footpath led me a hundred yards upstream to the outflow from the hatchery that I’d read about. In looking at the water upstream, I could tell that the hatchery water was warmer. The stream bottom upstream was visibly covered with ice. Below the outflow, the water was clearer and the bottom was free of any ice cover on the rocks. I figured there was a good chance the trout were hanging below the outflow.

 Looking upstream on the Pequest Trout Hatchery outflow.

Looking upstream on the Pequest Trout Hatchery outflow.

 Looking upriver on the Pequest just below the hatchery outflow.

Looking upriver on the Pequest just below the hatchery outflow.

I waded out to the opposite bank and rigged my line with a #16 Hare’s Ear Nymph and a #20 Black Zebra Midge. After a couple of casts, I realized there were several rainbow trout visibly feeding in the tailout of the run across from me. I repositioned myself and on my first drift, I watched one of the rainbows nip at my nymph. I set the hook and my first Pequest River trout was on. I love the way a good fighting rainbow trout feels on a Winston fly rod. I spent the next thirty minutes catching a half dozen rainbow trout in the run in front of me. Every one of them took the Black Zebra Midge. At one point I observed a couple of these trout rising to take a real midge on the surface. It’s amazing to see this in the dead of winter.

 My first Pequest River rainbow trout.

My first Pequest River rainbow trout.

 Another Pequest rainbow trout with beautiful markings.

Another Pequest rainbow trout with beautiful markings.

All the commotion and splashing of fish must’ve gotten the attention of the fisherman downstream from me. A nice gentleman named Eugene stopped up to say hello. We chatted for a bit and he explained to me that there had been five pound trout caught out of the section I was fishing. I explained my blog, explained what I was using and gave him a Black Zebra Midge I’d tied that morning. Ten minutes later I heard Eugene thanking me for the fly as he landed a fat rainbow twenty-five yards downriver.

I spent the rest of the afternoon fishing the water between the hatchery outflow and the hatchery entrance bridge. The number of trout in the section that I laid eyes on was incredible. The cold temps were making the fishing difficult after a couple of hours. My fly rod and rod guides were icing up, my leader was icing up, and worse, my Abel reel was icing, locking the reel up.

 After a good session of fishing, ice coated my Abel reel and locked it up.

After a good session of fishing, ice coated my Abel reel and locked it up.

At one point I had a rainbow trout grab my nymph and run upstream. The drag had frozen so I was yanking line off the reel to try and manually apply drag to the running fish. With all the ice on the bank, the numb fingers and toes, and hungry rainbow trout, for a moment I could’ve sworn I was steelhead fishing.

By 4:00pm I was the only person left on the river. I had caught double-digit trout and simply stopped counting. It was peaceful as the daylight faded and it was just my visible breath and I standing in cold water. I started thinking about the possibility of roads refreezing and I decided to walk out to the parking lot while I could still see. While I peeled my waders off and sat on the back of my tailgate, I thought about how much I’d like to come back and fish the many runs and riffles I hadn’t explored yet. The folks in Jersey have a beautiful fishery in the Pequest River. If you get a chance, go check it out. Stay warm out there.