Fishing with the Naturalists

by Wayne Heinze

As one of the original thirteen States, New Jersey has a rich and colorful place in the history of our nation. Dutch and Swedish settlements preceded the British Colonial Period in this area, and it was inhabited by Native Americans for ten thousand years or so prior to that. New Jersey is significant not only in terms of political, military, economic and cultural history, but of natural history as well. And I have enjoyed fishing in the footsteps of some of those who drew both inspiration and scientific conclusions here in the Garden State.

I do a lot of my fishing based on evaluations of relevant factors. What type of fishing or species I feel like pursuing, weather conditions, season, current state of a water’s ecosystem, and my personal journal. I have kept a fishing journal of each trip for the past fifty years, and can combine that data with the relevant factors above to choose a destination where I might be most successful on a given day, on a particular water, and certain species. That is the nuts and bolts, but often fishing decisions are based on other factors.

Sometimes I want to fish in waters because of the flora and fauna nearby, or the relative absence of human fauna. Sometimes I need to hear the crash of the Atlantic surf, sometimes. I want to listen to a babbling brook. And by the way, has there ever been a more perfect description of anything than that of the singular music of a tiny watercourse? And some days I want to fish in a particular place precisely because someone else had fished there, or spent considerable time there. Some days it is George Washington, some days it is Joyce Kilmer, or Zane Grey. And some days it is one of the many naturalists I admire and that have enriched my life. And I am fortunate in this regard, for a few of them have explored areas that are home waters for me. So this allows me to frequently go fishing with the naturalists, as it were.

Two such local waters are Haddon Lake and Newton Creek, a tributary of the Delaware River. Haddon Lake is actually an impoundment of a brach of Newton Creek, and is surrounded by pretty county parkland. It lies mostly within the town of Audubon, NJ. As described on the town’s website, the connection to a certain ornithologist, artist, and naturalist is as follows:

“Audubon was named after the famed naturalist John James Audubon, who had explored the surrounding area from 1829 until 1832 while he resided on Cooper Street near Third in Camden. He collected and drew many of the birds in the area of the present day Haddon Lake, then just a clear stream running through the woods, or Newton Creek. The great diversity in birds that inhabited or migrated through the town are well documented in Audubon’s Birds of America.”

My Uncle Oscar had given me copies of both Audubon’s Birds and Audubon’s Animals when I was a child. I find great delight in thinking about the hours I spent pouring over those pictures and descriptions back then, while I fish along the old creek bed in the lake in the present, or in the tidal creek itself. I find it fascinating to think that some of the birds I observe here are likely decedents of ones that Audubon observed or obtained along the creek. And other than the introduced trout species, the native sunfish, white and yellow perch, bass and catfish are descendants of fish that Audubon encountered here as well, as he was no stranger to angling.

Audubon was also a prolific writer, and one off the many topics he touched on was fish, from cod to eels. He wrote a very comprehensive essay entitled “White Perch and the Baits Used to Catch Them”, and he knew his stuff. My only caveat would be that even today, regional names of species can be confusing, so on older writings the names may mean something other than they do today. What Audubon referred to generically as white perch probably included members of the croaker family as well,in his usage, particularly the freshwater drum. And the nearer to the sea it was caught, it would introduce the probability of the Atlantic croaker bearing that moniker in some waters. But Audubon’s true white perch still swims in the Newton Creek drainage, and I catch them there every year. There is no structure commemorating Audubon in New Jersey, but across the Delaware River some thirty three miles distant, in Audubon, Pennsylvania,there is. There stands Mill Grove, and the John James Audubon Center. I have spent many hours fishing in the Perkiomen Creek that runs by Mill Grove, “fishing with Audubon” there as well, for smallmouth and rock bass descended from the fish that Audubon painted Blue Heron feeding on.

Not far from where the Newton Creek joins the Delaware Rivet in Camden, the river is spanned by the Walt Whitman Bridge. Sixty years after Audubon lived there, the famed poet for whom the bridge is named, also resided in Camden near the end of his days. He spent eight summers (1876-1884) however, in nearby Laurel Springs on the Stafford farmstead, where he was inspired to write the beautiful nature prose that appeared in his volume Specimen Days, as well as portions of his seminal work Leaves of Grass. Although the latter can not be called nature writing in its entirety, elements of the natural world abound, even in the title. But Specimen Days contains much beautiful nature writing. In an introduction to the 2007 Barnes and Noble edition of the book Ian Maloney notes that “Whitman wrote himself into the land itself.” Can there be a simpler definition of nature writing?

Laurel Lake where Whitman spent his days in the woods, and the spring from which the town took it’s name still exist. The lake, which Whitman described as the “prettiest lake in either America or Europe” is dotted with private homes, but has public access points. I will usually make at least one trip a year to fish there, not merely as a pilgrimage, but because it is still a pretty good fishing spot. The panfish, such as crappie and bluegill run to the large side, and there is a nice population of largemouth bass and pickerel as well. I would have caught the same species if I had fished there one hundred and forty years ago, while Whitman sat on a stump and jotted field notes.

The spring Whitman visited is still there as well, nestled in a small bit of park land. And the Stafford farm house where Whitman stayed is a designated historic site (as is his home in Camden). I will often stop by here for awhile after fishing to contemplate what Whitman wrote of the surrounding area which he loved so well. Whitman said of the area “Never before did I get so close to nature; never before did she come so close to me.”. One of the things I love about fishing is that it can be so many different things, depending on what you want, or maybe more so, what you need. And fishing at Laurel Springs with Whitman instills in me a contemplative aspect to my angling, and enhances my naturalist persona in the process.

In 1747, Peter Kalm was dispatched to the American Colonies by the Swedish Academy of Science to do what could roughly be described as agricultural studies for a three year period. He had been recommended by his teacher and colleague, Carl Linnaeus. The same Carl Linnaeus who founded the modern system of botanical and zoological classification systems we use today: family, genus, species, and the two part designation of each organism, commonly referred to as it’s scientific name. Kalm fulfilled his mission and returned to Sweden with samples of various flora, and also recorded a remarkable amount of ancillary natural history, which was subsequently published as Travels In North America.

Kalm journeyed through New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and some in Canada, making journal entries on a wide variety of subjects. He prevailed upon other great scientific minds of the time as well, discussing botany with John Barton, and herring fishing among other things, with Benjamin Franklin. He appeared often in the area of the former Swedish Colony of New Sweden. and spent considerable time in what is now Gloucester and Salem counties in New Jersey. New Sweden had ceased to exist nearly one hundred years before Kalm’s arrival, but he found comfort in the Swedish culture and the descendants of the original settlers that still remained. He was especially fond of the settlement called Raccoon (current day Swedesboro) located along the Raccoon Creek, another tributary of the Delaware River. He would sometimes function as pastor for the local congregation here when the regular clergy were unavailable, and even took a wife here before returning to Europe.

Kalm wrote of cod fishing at the mouth of the Delaware River, and eeling in the Hudson River, and gave detailed accounts of seining methods and various fish traps. In the Swedesboro vicinity he describes “creeks of crystalline water, the bottom of which were covered with white pebbles.” Those creeks flowed amongst farmlands in the mid-18th century, the area long from being a wilderness. But in some ways it has not changed that much from then to now, still being farmland, and still containing much of the same flora and fauna that Kalm encountered. And the pebbles of milky quartz still crunch beneath my wader boots. I fish fairly often in Swedesboro (Kalm’s Raccoon), in both Raccoon Creek and Swedesboro Lake (also known as Lake Narraticon).

Swedesboro Lake is an impoundment of one of the crystalline creeks Kalm spoke of, although the water has more of a cedar stain / tea color in modern times. Kalm would recognize many of the species I catch here, particularly the pickerel, bass and sunfish which would have been abundant in his times as well. But “abundant” can be a relative term. and although I consider the fishing here to be quite good, Kalm sounded a cautionary message from his discussions with the locals. They thought overfishing and damming of the creeks had made the fish much less abundant than they had been previously. But it should be remembered that many fish stocks that I evaluate now as recreational, were being evaluated then as commercial or at least as significant dietary supplements. Even though I have some really good days on Swedesboro Lake, I would not want the responsibility of trying to feed a community even the size of old Raccoon on a steady basis from my catch there.

Raccoon Creek is still a very pretty flow of water, and I fish several miles of it from east of Glassboro to it’s tidal sections near Swedesboro. And The tidal stretch would be quite recognizable by Kalm, being relatively unchanged from his times. Marsh grasses, spatterdock and bullrushes; snapping turtles, muskrats, raccoons and “polecats” as Kalm called them, skunks as we do. When you are at water level, the skyline of Philadelphia and the power lines and refineries along the Jersey side of the Delaware are obscured. If you can ignore the air traffic heading in and out of Philadelphia International, your environment of Raccoon Creek, or nearby Oldmans, Mantua or Woodbury Creeks, would be similar to what Kalm experienced. And the fishing is still excellent here as well, especially for species like largemouth bass, white perch and various types of catfish. In fact the professional Bass Masters Elite Tournament was held on the Delaware last year, with the creeks providing much of the catch. Cod may no longer be caught at the mouth of the Delaware as they were in colonial days, but a day fishing in New Sweden with Peter Kalm is still usually a pretty good day.


Photo by the author of Walt Whitman’s pond, Laurel Lake