Giving Wild Trout a Helping Hand
New Jersey Freshwater Fishing
By Pat Hamilton, Principal Fisheries Biologist
Wild Trout in New Jersey
Some anglers may be surprised to learn that the most densely populated, urbanized state in the nation has three species of wild trout inhabiting our streams. Wild brook, brown and rainbow trout usually lurk in small tributaries or headwater areas cradled primarily in the forested hills and mountains of north Jersey, that flow into popular trout-stocked rivers. Of the three species, only the brook trout is truly native to New Jersey. Browns and rainbows, stocked over the last century to provide additional sport fishing opportunities, have managed to establish wild populations. These wild populations—comprised mainly of small, wary individuals that complete their entire life cycle naturally within a stream—offer unique opportunities to those anglers who enjoy a challenge while immersed among some of the Garden State’s finest, most scenic landscapes.
The nearly 200 streams where wild trout call home are scattered across eight counties—Sussex, Warren, Passaic, Morris, Hunterdon, Somerset, Bergen and Camden. While the abundance of wild trout streams is impressive for a small, urbanized state, brook trout populations have declined as impacts from urbanization, sedimentation, dams and other forms of land and water disturbances alter stream conditions. As such, this most-vulnerable of our trout species serves as a valuable indicator of excellent habitat with high water quality.
Only remnant populations of brook trout exist, with populations slowly retreating towards less-disturbed headwater areas (See map). Competition from more tolerant, non-native trout species poses additional stressors to these struggling wild brook trout populations.
Over the past thirty years, New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife has been adjusting freshwater fisheries management practices and implementing regulatory actions not only to highlight our unique, wild trout populations but to protect them as well. 2018 brings some of the most significant regulation changes governing our wild trout resources since the Wild Trout Stream regulation was first implemented.
The Wild Trout Stream regulation, established in 1990, gave added protection to wild trout in 29 streams. Over the years, seven additional streams were added to the program. A statewide 7-inch minimum size for trout (both wild and stocked) was established in 1997 to protect wild trout less than 7 inches from being harvested. This minimum size was increased to 9 inches in 2008, further protecting wild trout from harvest while not impacting the harvest of hatchery trout, typically 10–11 inches or larger when stocked. From 2005 to 2010, trout stocking was discontinued in eight streams containing wild trout, eliminating competition between wild and stocked varieties, thereby allowing these wild populations to flourish and to provide recreation.
In 2014, Fish and Wildlife initiated a two-year Wild Trout Stream Assessment to evaluate the status of wild trout populations occupying our designated Wild Trout Streams. Ninety-five surveys were conducted in 2014 and 2015 on 59 streams inhabited by wild trout. The data, of surveys where trout were found, revealed that in many cases, wild trout were not overly abundant nor very large. The number of trout per 150-meter survey averaged 69, with 25 percent of the surveys revealing 23 trout or less. Only 4 percent of the almost 6,200 trout captured measured over 9 inches!
Additional information from wild trout anglers was gathered through a 2015 online survey to better understand their motivations and preferences. The data was coupled with a review of scientific studies that compared hooking mortality associated with various types of terminal tackle. (See The Truth about Hooks and Lures in the 2017 New Jersey Freshwater Fishing Digest.)
A comprehensive data review by Fish and Wildlife biologists led to public meetings designed to give anglers an early opportunity to weigh-in on potential regulation changes. The Fish and Game Council then adopted regulation changes for 2018. These changes include several key measures geared to protect this distinctive resource.
Brook Trout Conservation Zone
Due to growing concern over the plight of New Jersey’s State Fish, all brook trout caught within the newly designated “Brook Trout Conservation Zone” must be immediately released unharmed. This zone consists of all waters in the northwest region of the state where most of our remaining wild brook trout populations are found. The zone is bounded by easily discernable boundaries: two major roadways (Interstate 287 and Route 202), the Delaware River, and the New Jersey-New York state line. This regulation protects all brook trout within the zone, including those that may move from small tributary streams to the mainstem of larger rivers and grow larger than 9 inches, allowing them to survive, reproduce and perpetuate the species.
A component of the catch and release regulation for brook trout is that hatchery brook trout will no longer be stocked within this zone, both because hatchery fish can no longer be harvested legally but also to prevent interbreeding with wild brook trout. A genetics study completed in 2007 indicated that there are wild brook trout populations in New Jersey streams that are likely descendants of fish that colonized our area after the last glacier retreated. Preventing interbreeding helps safeguard our wild brook trout gene pools, preserving their genetic variability and potential to evolve in response to environmental change.
Fish and Wildlife’s current trout stocking program is unaffected by this restriction as only rainbow trout are reared and stocked statewide. If brook trout are restored to the Division’s stocking program, these fish will only be stocked outside of the Brook Trout Conservation Zone. In addition, no private fishing clubs or others who apply for fish stocking permits will be permitted to stock brook trout within this zone. In 2017, only 11 stocking applications requested brook trout within the conservation zone. These permittees have been contacted and most are supportive of this conservation-driven approach.
Ultimately, as a result of this fisheries management regulation change, every brook trout caught within the zone will be a wild brook trout!
A Facelift for the Wild Trout Stream Regulation
Wild Trout Stream regulations now have three designations that highlight the variety of wild trout fishing opportunities while aligning with specific management strategies. These three regulation categories are:
Native Brook Trout Streams—This new category highlights 11 streams that are almost exclusively inhabited by native brook trout—or will be as part of Fish and Wildlife’s active management efforts. One of these streams (Rinehart Brook) had primarily wild brown and just a few brook trout, and our agency is currently restoring brook trout by actively removing and relocating the brown trout. This effort and these regulations are aimed at preventing or reducing competition between brook trout and non-native trout species. For this reason, there is no minimum size limit on brown and rainbow trout and anglers are encouraged to harvest these two species. All brook trout, however, must immediately be released unharmed.
Wild Trout Streams—This regulation is still in effect and not altered in terms of limitations on harvest or minimum size (9 inches, two per day). The change occurs in the streams now managed under this regulation. The trout species in these streams are mixed, with brown trout and/or rainbow trout being very abundant. All streams in this category either have—or are connected to—streams with brook trout. However, for Wild Trout Streams located within the Brook Trout Conservation Zone, all brook trout must immediately be released unharmed.
Brown Trout Enhancement Streams—Previously, three Wild Trout Streams carried an increased size limit (12 inches, 2 per day) for brown trout. These streams—the Pequannock, Van Campens and the Wanaque—are now joined by ten additional streams offering anglers similar opportunities to fish for wild browns. An absence of wild brook trout in these streams—or nearby—eliminates the concern of species competition. Brown trout in these streams can reach impressive sizes.
Other aspects of the wild trout regulations remain unchanged: these waters are not stocked and are open to fishing year-round, there is no harvest allowed from September 15 to opening day the following April, and only artificial lures and flies may be used. Hooks, however, are now limited to no more than a total of three hook points, all of which must be barbless. When allowed, harvest is limited to two brown trout and/or rainbow trout per day.
Five streams are no longer regulated as Wild Trout Streams due to the extremely low abundance of trout. These include Black Brook (Clinton WMA), Hance’s Brook (Penwell), Mill Brook (Montague), Merrill Creek (above Merrill Creek Reservoir) and Parker Brook (Montague). Two additional waters, Bear Creek (Southtown) and Dark Moon Brook (Johnsonburg) are no longer included in the regulation as these streams flow almost entirely through private property and afford little, to no, angling access.
Changes to Wild Trout Stream regulations typically have little impact on Fish and Wildlife’s trout stocking program. An exception is the section of the Raritan River South Branch from its source below Budd Lake down to Lake Solitude. This popular section of river supports opportunities for both stocked and wild trout. The most upstream section (above the old YMCA dam in Mt. Olive Twp.) is now managed under the new Native Brook Trout Stream category.
The stretch from the YMCA dam down to the small dam above Schooley’s Mountain Rd., one of the most productive wild trout areas in the state, is now managed under the Wild Trout Stream category. This includes the former Claremont Trout Conservation Area, now incorporated into the Wild Trout Stream regulation. As a result, five stocking points—from Flanders-Drakestown Rd. downstream to the Bartley Wildlife Management Area—will no longer be stocked with trout. This section of the South Branch is considerably smaller than other downstream sections. Stocking here has been suspended several times in the past due to low water flow conditions. This stream section is better-suited to be managed for wild trout.
The section of the Raritan River South Branch, from Schooley’s Mountain Rd. downstream to Lake Solitude will continue to be stocked, however, due to the impressive size of wild brown trout inhabiting this section a 12-inch minimum size limit for brown trout applies—excluding the Catch & Release Only area in the Ken Lockwood Gorge (See map of the Raritan River S. Branch). From the Lake Solitude dam, downstream to its confluence with the North Branch, the Raritan River South Branch will be stocked as usual with trout and the fishing regulations remain the same.
Helping Wild Trout Thrive
The new Wild Trout Stream regulation designations not only fine-tune our fisheries management approaches, they also serve as a compass, guiding anglers toward wild trout fishing opportunities in the Garden State. For those who prefer the opportunity to catch multiple trout species, wet your line in any one of the Wild Trout Streams. If you love fishing for impressive wild browns— choose one of 13 Brown Trout Enhancement Streams. Do you enjoy targeting brook trout—our colorful native beauties? Then one of the Native Brook Trout Streams is the place to start.
The conservation effort continues on behalf of New Jersey’s wild trout. Anglers, take pride in knowing that you have a vital role in conserving wild trout resources, especially our native brook trout.