Last Wednesday I was surfing YouTube while eating lunch and I came across a video posted by Tightline Productions. In the video, several individuals are conducting a Christmas 2016 stocking of the South Branch Raritan River in New Jersey. There are numerous large rainbow and brown trout shown being placed in the river. They even stock a trout nicknamed “Bubba” who has a tag in his lip, which if turned in will net you a brand new G. Loomis Pro 4X fly rod at Shannon's Fly Shop. The video was fun and perked my interest in wanting to learn more about the Raritan River. I did some research and found that there are many miles of stocked trout waters on the Raritan River. One of the popular spots for fly fishing is just below the small town of Califon in a 2.5-mile stretch of Catch & Release water that runs through the Ken Lockwood Gorge. I decided I’d head there over the holiday weekend.
Early Saturday I was up and heading east to New Jersey. It was under a two-hour drive to Califon, which is just east of Allentown, Pennsylvania. I decided that I’d stop in at Shannon’s Fly Shop before hitting the water to see if I could get any helpful information. I arrived in Califon around 8:30am. What a cool little town. I walked into the fly shop and checked out their great selection of what appeared to be locally tied fly patterns. I met George at the counter and attempted to get my 2-day New Jersey fishing license, but due to some issues they were having with a new system they’d just set up in the shop, I had to go in the back and use the shop’s desktop computer to get it online. Thanks to George for letting me get squared away. After I got my license and a couple of flies, I headed down River Road to the parking lot at the top of the gorge entrance.
When I arrived, there were two vehicles and a few teens fishing the hole in front of the parking lot. While I was getting rigged up, a couple more cars filled the lot. I had read that the gorge stretch of water can get packed with people but I was surprised at the number of folks there in early winter. I met a nice fellow fly fisherman in the lot who I chatted with. He fishes the gorge frequently and shared some details on approaches to nymphing that had been successful for him.
By the time I was rigged, the folks closest to the lot had moved downstream, so I was able to start right at the top. I was using my 5wt Winston and was fishing a #16 Hare’s Ear nymph with a #22 Blood Midge hanging off the back. As I started fishing the top section I noticed the uniqueness of the river. This section of the Raritan is a mixture of runs, rifles, pocket water, and pools broken up by rocks, some large, some small. The further you move into the gorge, the more rocks you encounter breaking up the water flow. When I started fishing, both the air and water temperatures were around 36 degrees. After two hours of fishing I hadn’t moved a fish. About three quarters of a mile into the gorge I walked up on a beautiful riffle.
I thought to myself, there has to be a fish in here. After two drifts, I watched a very nice brown trout lift off the bottom with my midge in his lip. Just as I was getting excited, he started barrel rolling and then my line went limp. Disappointed, I continued working my way downstream. At this point I was trying various types of nymphs to see if I could find the right pattern. This section of water is tough because in some areas the fish could literally be hiding behind thirty different rocks. This was the type of situation where I knew only time on the water would help narrow one's focus to the right spots.
I spent the rest of the day working my way to the bottom of the gorge. In the afternoon, a good number of fly fisherman came up from the bottom to fish. There were also a large number of people walking the creek trail for recreation. At one point I found a small stretch with deep water surrounding large boulders. I worked this water with an indicator and the small midges. Twice I hooked up with a large rainbow, probably pushing 20” and both times I couldn’t get that small #22 nymph hook to stay in his lip. I need to make a habit of ensuring that all of my smaller flies have the hook turned slightly out to help ensure the hook up event.
After reaching the bottom of the gorge, I turned around and headed back up. On the way back I stopped at the riffle where I’d turned the nice brown. I hooked up with a second brown trout and again was unable to keep him on the hook. Frustrating, but it's winter fishing, at least that’s what I keep telling myself. On the way back to my truck I stopped at a small monument that was placed in the gorge as a memorial to Ken Lockwood in 1973.
There is a poem on the monument that talks about fly fishing so I’m assuming Ken was a fly fisherman. Needing to walk two miles back to my truck in the late afternoon I only stopped at a couple other spots to wet my line again. I ended the day without a fish brought to hand. While tough getting "skunked," it was a day filled with learning new water and enjoying amazing scenery less than an hour from New York City.
Because I hate to end a weekend with missed fishing opportunities, on Sunday morning I headed over to the Tulpehocken Creek in Berks County, Pennsylvania. I only had a couple of hours to fish and I focused my time drifting nymphs on the section of creek they call the Road to Nowhere. I covered a lot of water using Caddis and Midge nymphs with no success. It wasn't until I put on a #14 Pheasant Tail nymph that I finally hooked up with a solid Tulphehocken Creek rainbow trout. I was happy to lay hands on my first 2017 trout. A day's worth of fly fishing frustration was released when I landed that fish. With Sunday's temps in the mid 40s one might have expected the fishing to be better, but the water temps remained in the mid 30s, slowing the fishing. I wrapped things up by lunch time and on the way out, I saw a couple other guys fishing at the Paper Mill.
So with my first post of the 2017 season, I’ll leave you with the poem I read on the monument to Mr. Lockwood in the gorge.
When mists and shadow rob pool and run of shape and substance,
When the voice of the wood thrush stills and the dog trout shakes his lethargy,
We will remember stalwart, gentle master of the angler’s art,
Half submerged in the smother,
Unerringly shooting that long line, watchfully mending the drift,
Nevermore will your skilled hand tempt the patriarch of the flood….
Farewell old timer
- Henry Schaefer