Brook trout in the Delaware Water Gap
Almost since the day I met Greg Boglioli at Vermont Field Sports more than a decade ago, he has been telling me I need to go fishing in New Jersey. Not just any sort of fishing, but brook trout fishing.
Since Greg is a friend — and has quite a bit of fishing knowledge — I try not to roll my eyes too dramatically at the mention of brook trout in N.J. But really? Brook trout? Sure, Greg has talked about other fishing in his former home state. He’s mentioned the annual run of shad up the Delaware River, and the quality of striper fishing on the Shore. I can buy that. But he has been particularly insistent about the good trout waters.
Now my attitudes are typical for a northern New Englander. Although I begrudgingly acknowledge great fishing and beautiful scenery out West somewhere, when it comes to the East Coast we have a monopoly up North on good trout fishing, clean rivers, mountains, and scenic beauty. My view of N.J. has been dominated by the Route 95 corridor, that long strip of shopping malls, pavement, smoke stacks and landfills from Newark down through Trenton.
In fact, that little strip is really just a very small proportion of N.J. Much of the state is lovely, dominated by forests, rolling hills, gentle farmlands and parks. Its moniker, “The Garden State,” is well deserved.
Consider that Vermont has an estimated deer population of about 135,000 which divided over 9,615 square miles comes out to roughly 14 deer per square mile. New Jersey actually exceeds that with an estimated 15 deer per square mile. And that counts urban areas. According to 2010 estimates, the Hopewell township of NJ has over 50 deer per square mile, and the Princeton township has an 114 whitetails per square mile.
Of greatest interest to me, however, is the fact that the state fish of N.J. is, indeed, the brook trout. And two weekends ago I finally had the opportunity to take Greg’s recommendations and test whether that is an appropriately chosen state fish.
My oldest son Thomas has a summer job in Princeton and needed transportation there. I suggested driving down early and camping in N.J. for a couple days, and he bought in. So after picking Greg’s brain, we decided to try camping in the northwest corner of the state in the area known as the Delaware Water Gap. There, the Delaware River flows out of New York and down along the Pennsylvania-N.J. border.
The Delaware Water Gap is a steep, rugged valley between two low mountain ranges full of gorges. And, yes, trout streams tumble down off both sides of the Water Gap and into Delaware River. Though I had skirted the area once or twice in the past, this was my first real excursion there.
As I discovered, it is real Appalachian terrain with its own sort of beauty and wildness that equals the beauty of any place in New England. At the southern and downriver edge of the Gap, on the eastern side — the N.J. side — is Worthington State Forest, where the Appalachian Trail crosses the river from Pennsylvania for its brief jaunt through N.J.
Following the Appalachian Trail through the forest is the Dunnfield Creek. The Dunnfield is barely more than three miles long from where it rises out of marshy springs in the middle of the forest. Along that three-mile course it tumbles and cascades down more than 800 feet in elevation through dense woodland.
With a size and character similar to Baldwin Creek as it follows Route 17 down from Starksboro into Bristol, the Dunnfield is ideal habitat for wild brook trout. And though there are several hatchery-supported put-and-take trout fisheries nearby, the state of N.J. wisely uses strict creel and slot limits to manage and preserve the Dunnfield as a wild brook trout fishery.
I arose at 5:30 a.m. Leaving Thomas asleep in our tent at the Worthington Forest Campground, I drove three miles to the A.T. trailhead at the end of Dunnfield Creek and was fishing by 6 a.m. The water temperature was a healthy 57 degrees. There were no other anglers present.
Over the next two hours, I fished my way up about 200 yards of tumbling brook and small waterfalls, and managed to land and release one small wild brookie, about seven inches long, and a slightly bigger brown trout, while missing strikes from two or three other fish. All took nymphs below the surface. Not a stunning morning of fishing in terms of size or numbers, but I had caught my first ever N.J. trout.
Later in the day, Thomas and I returned to the trail and took a day hike that brought us all the way to the source of the creek. At noon, when Thomas pulled out his backpacking hammock and strung it between two trees for a midday nap, I pulled out my fly rod and had another 45 minutes to fish.
Though the water was still cold, the air temperature had rise to just over 80 degrees and the surface of the stream was alive with insect life. I decided to fish dry flies, and tied on a small caddis fly imitation. In less than an hour I had landed and released eight brook trout, mostly seven to eight inches, although one was a nine-inch lunker. It was some of the most enjoyable and fast-paced small stream wild brook trout fishing I had done in some time.
It had been a quiet and scenic day, and we had seen few people on the hike and nobody else fishing. To be honest, it was hard to believe I was in N.J. It felt like a day on a branch of the upper Middlebury or New Haven River. Until we returned to the car, that is, and hiking back over the ridge we heard the steady roar of busy interstate traffic rumbling over the nearby bridge from Pennsylvania. And I was reminded: I really did catch those brook trout in New Jersey.