Saturday, January 31, 2009

Ice Fishing New Jersey in 2009

I've been ice fishing three times over the past few weeks. These three trips have consequently brought me to some of the Garden State's most revered freshwater fisheries: Round Valley Reservoir, Spruce Run Reservoir, and Jefferson Lake. As a fly fisherman whose primary interest is catching wild trout on rod-and-fly, I rarely, if ever, fish waters like the aforementioned lakes. Indeed, all three are well-regarded: in addition to claiming a significant amount of state fishing records, Round Valley is the southern-most body of water in the United States to contain a naturally reproductive lake trout population; Spruce Run is known for its hybrid bass and its ferocious northern pike; and Jefferson Lake is considered a solid producer of black crappie. It was therefore a fantastic experience to fish these three reservoirs (Jefferson Lake is a minor one, the other two are major water-supply centers).

Ice fishing is cold, strenuous, frustrating, back-breaking, and dangerously slippery. It is also rewarding, full of exercise, and fun. Most importantly, ice fishing is an activity that allows ardent anglers the opportunity to catch fish in the most difficult season of the year. For those who have never done it, I will briefly describe the process.

Firstly, you choose a body of water safely frozen over (the cold winter of 2009 has basically made every lake - and some sluggish rivers - in northern New Jersey good targets). You then pack up all the essential equipment you'll need: a device to cut through the ice (augers are the most common; my family, however, uses a spud bar), tip-ups (wooden instruments that alert you when a fish bites), an ice strainer (dualistically used to scoop ice from a newly formed hole and break-up ice that adheres to tip-ups throughout the day), bait (typically minnows), various tackle (hooks, sinkers, extra line, etc.), a portable chair, and food/drink (beer has sustained and warmed ice fishers for millennia). Next, you drive to the lake and place your equipment onto a sled (we use a cheap Wal-Mart plastic one) and begin cutting a hole in the ice. Once all your tip-ups are located in the water, you sit back and wait.

Last weekend's trip to Round Valley marked my fiancée Jackie's first ice fishing experience. After some initial trepidation, she stepped out on the ice and enjoyed herself. My best friend Will also came, as did my father Marvin, his neighbor Joe, his co-worker Brett, and my little brother Sean. After a few hours we had only caught one fish - a chain pickerel that my dad noticed had not set off the tip-up properly. Jackie, however, ice skated on a frozen lake for the first time. Everyone had a great time, even if the spot was overcrowded and over-fished.

On January 30th, I went to Spruce Run by myself. I arrived shortly after 11 AM and stayed until 5:30 PM. During the entirety of my stay I had one flag go up; it, however, turned out to be nothing more than an overzealous minnow. It wasn't a complete failure: I was able to spend a few hours to myself, get some exercise (10 inches of ice is a lot of work!), read a book, and enjoy a beautiful sunset. My decision to go there was based almost entirely on a desire to catch a northern pike. My father believes that pike are the holy grail of freshwater fish. He claims to have caught one twenty years ago, and ever since he's talked about how rare and singular a fish it is. It is not. And the only way I could ever prove its ubiquity to him would be to catch a few myself. Alas, I spent six cold hours on a windy, frozen lake because of an incessant need to prove a point. A point, it should be noted, that I have YET to make.

Today, though, my father and I drove to Jefferson Lake (located in Sussex County) and had much better luck. After parking in a very full lot, we made a bee-line to a cove once suggested to him by his wife's late father. It was an excellent spot. Thirty minutes after we got there I caught a 24+ inch pickerel; it was so big it almost didn't fit through the hole I chopped. We ended up with seven fish total (not a bad day, especially following my six hours of nothing on Spruce Run): 3 largemouth bass (one was about 16 inches and 2 lbs., the other two smaller), 2 pickerel (my monster and a smaller one), and 2 black crappies (my family's first crappies through the ice). It was an exciting day.

Ice fishing is also a great opportunity to see wildlife. During my three days on the ice I saw: a red fox, white-tailed deer, squirrel, vulture, red-tailed hawk, slate-eyed junco, tern, starling, flicker, pileated woodpecker, and a kingfisher (must be tough for kingfishers when all the water's frozen!).

If you've never been ice fishing, I suggest you bundle up and give it a try!

Image #1: Will and Jackie making a hole at Round Valley.
Image #2: Sunset at Spruce Run.
Image #3: Jefferson Lake.
Image #4: The big pickerel.
Image #5: A tip-up.
Image #6: The big(ger) bass.
Image #7: My dad's feast.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Covered Bridges of Central Pennsylvania

Because January, February, and parts of March are difficult months to fly fish, I've decided to write a short post about a few Pennsylvania covered bridges I photographed over the past weekend. I've always been fascinated by these beautiful and increasingly rare structures. For me, they are indicative of the process by which people transform objects of utility into works of art. Indeed, the roof of a covered bridge was a technological achievement designed to prolong the integrity of a bridge's wooden frame by shielding it from snow, rain, and ice. However, covered bridges' wooden sides and roofs became a canvas for artistic display - builders and local communities were able to select colors (the traditional red being the most common), signs (hex signs are frequently found on covered bridges in the heart of Pennsylvania German country), and other forms of adornment (flood level lines, local lovers' graffiti, etc.).

I have been searching and photographing covered bridges for a few years. As a fly fisherman, it provides me with an excuse to seek out new rivers in the middle of wintertime. I hope you enjoy the three bridges Jackie and I photographed a few days ago in Pennsylvania's Snyder and Juniata counties.

The Aline Covered Bridge is located in Snyder County. The bridge was constructed in 1884 over the Mahntango Creek.

The North Oriental Covered Bridge is located on the border between Snyder and Juniata counties. It was ameliorated in the 80's and again in 2003.

The Mesier's Mill Covered Bridge is located in Juniata County. It was built in 1907 and spans the Hahantango Creek.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Fly Fishing "Beginnings" Part II

Because January, February, and parts of March are traditionally difficult months to fly fish, I have turned my attention to writing longer pieces about the sport. Periodically I will update the blog with segments from these essays. Here is Part II of a piece entitled "Beginnings." (Please forgive the unedited, rough quality of these drafts!)

"Beginnings" Part II

Fly fishing in the Catskills, as Matt Supinski notes, “was religion to the native…population” in the nineteenth century (34). While the United States encountered rapid industrialization in the late 1800s, Theodore Gordon, the inventor of the important Quill Gordon fly pattern, refined his casting technique and tested his experimental patterns in the Beaverkill’s striking Covered Bridge Pool. As the nineteenth century passed into the twentieth, Edward Hewitt, widely credited with inventing felt-bottomed wading boots and numerous patterns, fished the Neversink. These two men, along with all the countless others history has bypassed, opened America’s eyes to the wondrous spectacle of landing trout with rod and fly. Accordingly, all contemporary Catskill fly fisherman stand in the chilly birth-waters of their sport’s origin; for any serious angler, it is both a humbling and empowering experience to fish these singular rivers.

Once I arrived in Hancock, NY – a small town located directly adjacent to the confluence of the Delaware’s West and East Branches – I stopped at a gas station and bought some bottled water to help combat the heat.
Because the Pennsylvania side offers easier access to the river, I next drove over the Delaware and into the far northeastern section of the Keystone State. Parked alongside the wide, flat river, I saw a number of cars and trucks sporting diverse license plates. Indeed, nothing demonstrates a river’s renowned reputation like the license plates of the vehicles that adorn its banks. At the Upper Delaware, a traveler may encounter any of the following: your predictable, I’m-so-lucky-to-live-within-an-easy-day’s-
drive-of-this-beautiful-river plates, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey; your intrepid, I’ve-traveled-hundreds-of-miles-to
-fish-the-best-trout-river-east-of-the-Mississippi-plates, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Massachusetts, Connecticut; your ridiculous, I’m-tired-of-always-fishing-great-rivers-out-West
-so-I-think-I’ll-try-this-one-only-to-realize-that-the-West-is-by-far-superior plates, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming; and your foreign, I-think-I’ll-drive-down-from-Canada-to-see-what-all-the-fuss-is-aboot plates, Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick.
The Delaware is that kind of river – a gem, a beauty, and, of course, a destination.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Fly Fishing "Beginnings"

Because January, February, and parts of March are traditionally difficult months to fly fish, I have turned my attention to writing longer pieces about the sport. Periodically I will update the blog with segments from these essays. Here is Part I of a piece entitled "Beginnings." (Please forgive the unedited, rough quality of these drafts!)

"Beginnings" Part I

I drove my rusted 1992 Chevy Blazer, a vehicle I not-so-lovingly refer to as “the beast,” nearly three hours to the Upper Delaware River system on a ninety degree day in June of 2008. My body ignored the heat – the beast, of course, does not possess a stellar air conditioning unit – as my mind filled up with images of stunning waters, soaring bald eagles and rising West Branch wild browns. However, reality would not equal my daydreams: the water was overrun with nasty green algae that coated all my underwater flies, the eagles were flying elsewhere, and the typically fickle Delaware browns refused every dry fly I threw their way. My emotions that day included anger, exhaustion, anger, disappointment, and anger. Yet, as I drove home sunburnt and mud-encrusted, I realized that fishing failures, at least for me, often illuminate profound experiences usually masked by the glamor and excitement of a successful day on the water.

Despite the journey’s route through some of northern New Jersey’s post-industrial badlands, the ride from the center of the Garden State to the small New York town of Hancock is not entirely unpleasant. As the ride progresses, the bucolic farms of central Jersey – lined at that time of year with adolescent shin-high sweet corn – disappear into the depressing, yet eerily beautiful, industrial decay of cities like Newark and Elizabeth. Eventually, the broken windows of former textile factories and the stench of oil refineries gives way to the trees and cleaner air of New York’s Catskill region. The final leg of the trip winds through various mountains and passes through the Catskill locales of Middletown, Monticello, and Roscoe – three potential stops where a forgetful angler may purchase any necessary last minute equipment.

Once I exited onto New York Route 17, I rolled down my windows to let in the cool moving air. The scent of rural life filled the beast and easily supplanted the smell of musty waders and muddy boots. My mood and optimism rose as I crossed the well-known Neversink River, the underrated Willowemac Creek, the historically productive Beaverkill River, and the green waters of the Delaware’s East Branch. As any avid eastern fly fisherman could - and probably would – tell you, these Catskill streams are where American fly fishing was transformed from a localized pastime into the multi-million dollar industry we recognize today.

Fly Fishing Marshalls Creek in the New Year

On January 1st, 2009, I traveled to the Poconos to visit family. After making a quick stop to have my skis adjusted for the season, I drove over to a favorite fishing spot. Although I didn't have my camera, Jackie snapped a photo or two with my phone.

I failed to catch anything - it was in the low twenties and the water was exceedingly high. In the end, I had one wet foot and one lost trout. Nevertheless, it was excellent to cast a few lines on the opening day of a new year, especially by this waterfall. Because it's located about three miles from where I grew up, I've been fishing that spot for wild brook trout for years. And like a true salmon, I still return to the place of my trout fishing nascence whenever I can.

With or without catching anything, it was a good place to start a new year.