Glacial Fish

by Wayne Heinze


“River scenery has, unquestionably, within itself, all the main elements of beauty, and, time out of mind, has been the favourite theme of the poet.” Edgar Allen Poe “The Elk” aka “Morning On The Wissahickon”

Those words come from one of Poe’s least known short stories, “The Elk,” also known as “Morning on the Wissahickon.” He wrote it during the years he lived in Philadelphia, just off Spring Garden Street. Walking distance to Independence Hall, and a short carriage ride to the Wissahickon Creek near the western city limits. His fondness of the place is evident in those words and others, and I love it there as well. But this story is not about Poe or even the Wissahickon solely, but about a pair of its resident fish that I love as well.

Beginning about 800,000 years ago, and culminating about 21,000 years ago, the three generally acknowledged glaciation events that took place in New Jersey are going to once again impact my fishing this spring. Specifically, it wasn’t what the glaciers did that matters, it is what they didn’t do, and that was to keep moving southward. They stopped instead. So thousands of years later, this South Jersey angler is blessed by miles of coastal beach, ocean and estuary fishing, miles of slow moving meandering cedar stained rivers and creeks, a plethora of manmade impoundments, but nary a natural lake. They exist only in the northern half of my state. But below the Sourland Mountains in the Princeton / Hopewell area, the contour of the and changes dramatically from largely Piedmont to a coastal plain.

Without the rocky substrates gouged out by the glaciers, the topography is generally flat. The various slopes of the land greatly define the hydrology of the state’s southern half. The resultant riverine environments lack the flow and discharge to support certain population of fish. A lot of my fishing is warm water, small stream fishing, and two of my favorite targets are rock bass and redbreast sunfish. Of these two fish, rock bass rarely exist in South Jersey, although curiously, an invasive sunfish relative, the warmouth, can now be found in a few waters. So if I want to catch some rock bass from my home base in South Jersey, I will drive north to where the species next occurs, the Stony Brook watershed. A lovely productive stream, although a little far off for a quick trip.

Fortunately, a shorter hop across the Delaware River into Philadelphia or Delaware County in Pennsylvania, provides good rock bass fishing as well, as the stone substrate of Wissahickon schist provides streamflow conditions and gradients favorable to the red eye (local appellation) on that side of the river. If you are not familiar with the rock bass in the wild, it is similar looking to the oscar (Astronotus ocellatus) a popular home aquarium fish that shares similar body type. That is not the only similarity, for at the above mentioned Stony Brook, I have caught several “feral” oscars, from amongst the pods of rock bass I located. These appeared to be fish that had grown too large or too agressive for their aquariums, and were released into the stream at some point. As of this writing, still coexisting with their red eye cousins, although an ichthyologist might bristle at sunfish and cichlids being called cousins.

The rock bass (Ambloplites rupestris) I target there are usually found in the company of smallmouth bass, trout (seasonally), and the second half of my dynamic duo, the redbreast sunfish. The redbreast are more widely dispersed in riverine environments than are rock bass. And although redbreast will often congregate in a deep pool, or in a rocky chute below some rapids, they are more free swimming than rock bass. They will frequently chase down a lure or fly that passes their feeding station, or cruise around a pool or run in search of food, often feeding on or near the surface. The rock bass however, not as strong a swimmer than the more fusiform redbreast, is an ambush feeder. And in the swifter waters they prefer, rocks are often provide the ambush point, easy to remember, rocks equal rock bass. Not exclusively of course, but if are in a stream with little rock cover of some sort, boulders, ledges, outcroppings etc, there will probably be fewer places for the rock bass to live, hence fewer rock bass. Large logs or deadheads, heavy brushpiles, and man made structure such as low head dams, weirs, bridge supports, can also function as ambush points for rock bass as well. Glacial Fish

Places the rock bass congregate may also be one of the places where the other stream residents can be caught, but usually the only place rock bass will be caught. Especially in terms of numbers of rock bass. And rock bass are often of a demersal nature, preferring to feed lower in the water column than most of their finny neighbors, save the catfish. So not being free- ranging, preferring heavy cover and depth, the rock bass profile suggests not only where, but how you should seek them. Small jigs and spinners and various traditional baits would work well, but I prefer to stalk these fish in southeast Pennsylvania or central New Jersey with a fly rod. The waters are generally shallow enough to be waded with hip boots, and small enough to allow you to cast over any spots you can’t wade. A good rule of thumb is that if it is too deep to navigate with hip boots, you shouldn’t be wading that stretch, you should be fishing it.

My go-to fly is a cone head Muddler Minnow, a Western fly originally, but very everywhere. Wading close enough to your target area, makes it easy to roll cast the fly to the rock bass, let the weighted fly sink. and slowly retrieve it through the rock bass’ lair. On a limber six foot rod, the red eye will give a good enough account of itself, but that is not the real attraction. The quarry will rarely exceed ten inches, but it’s unique habitat requirements, the lovely brooks and creeks it inhabits, are what you come for. That and the coppery gold hue and singular features: the red eyes, large mouth, sweeping dorsal and caudal fins. A creature uniquely suited to it’s particular niche in the ecosystem, as you are now as well, as you remove the barbless hook from the corner of the fishes jaw. And smile as it silently glides to the bottom and straight for the cover it had recently occupied.

So at this point, let’s insert Lepomis auritus into the narrative, the redbreast sunfish, a species related to the smallmouth bass and rock bass. And although the redbreast shares its range with these fish, it can tolerate and thrive in environments the other two cannot. Happily for me this includes most of the rivers and creeks in my section of the state, so I can do a lot of fishing for the species, and very close to home. From the Rancocas drainage to Big Timber Creek, to Almonesson Creek and the Maurice River, to Oldmans Creek and the Salem River, the redbreast sunfish is one of our most abundant species. it would supersede the bluegill and pumpkinseed sunfish as the most common catch overall, except for the fact that those fish are the most abundant in the ponds and lakes of the region and more accessible to more people. As primarily a stream borne fish, you have to work a little harder to catch redbreasts, but that is part of the attraction of the game. Redbreast

Eco-tourism is a growing industry in South Jersey, nicely complementing the traditional beachfront summer economy that was one of the first in our nation. Originally centered in the legendary Pine Barrens region, the eco-tourism initiative has overspread the entire southern half of the state. One aspecct of this has been what is termed locally as water coursing, not anything more or less than hiking not along a creek, but in it. This affords a very cool and comfortable outing from late spring until early fall, offering a unique perspective on the flora and fauna of the various ecological zones that exist in the region. Naturalist led group water coursing hikes are available for those who prefer the expertise and educational benefits that experience offers. But to many, myself included, I just like to get in the water, “up the creek without a paddle” (or canoe) and revel in the nature I know. And seek my quarry along the way, the ubiquitous redbreast sunfish.

Depending on conditions and seasons, I usually utilize hip boots or waders when fishing these waters. But the much simpler gear I use during the summer is my favorite. These warmer summer months offer prime fishing for redbreasts, especially large specimens (hand sized for this species). I will wear baggy swim trunks, dark colored in deference to the wariness of the redbreast, and a pair of surf mocs, which afford superb footing along the mostly sand and pea gravel creek bottoms. My shorty wading vest carries the minimal fishing gear I need for the species, and a small daypack with food and drink (more drink in the hot weather, (I’ve become part of the hydration nation) cell phone and camera.

In terms of the pursuit, as there is more than one way to catch redbreasts. Here is how I do it. In some waters, the redbreast is an ideal fly rod fish, but in many of the creeks I wade, the overhanging vegetation and narrow twisting confines of the watercourse render that method a second choice. I prefer to use one of my 4 1/2’ ultra light spinning outfits, loaded with 2# test line, to which I attach a small 1/64 ounce jig head. I fasten a small plastic grub to the head, and I’m ready to go. The plastic grub should be 1-1/12 inches long, and for this region a selection of a few grape/purple, brown, or motor oil colors is all you will need. Don’t get too hung up on the exact color or shape, as every lure manufacturer has their own version of these tiny fish catchers, and you can match the color closely enough. I have found that the redbreasts in these small creeks seem to prefer a thinner profile lure than a fatter one, so you might want to keep that in mind while making your selection. This is not technical fishing by any means, and the creeks are small enough so that you can cover the water bank to bank as you move along. The redbreast will tell you soon enough where they prefer you to toss your lure. They will chase down your life in these clear, cedar tinged water. Just follow their lead, and the next thing you know, you are not just water coursing, you are fishing, and catching fish. The one real hotspot is the occasional run of fast water along an undercut bank. These spots not only hold numbers of the redbreasts, but often the larger specimens as well.

There is usually something interesting to see while fishing small streams, sometimes something spectacular. Whether in the swifter freestone streams of Southeast Pennsylvania, or Jersey’s meandering cedar waters, your quiet waterborne approach through often trailless woods reveals much. Whitetail deer may be drinking at the creek bank, and red tail hawks are frequently spotted. Muskrats and even otters and beavers offer glimpses, and maybe a fox or woodchuck. Various turtles, frogs and watersnakes are pleasantly common enough. And sundry ducks, geese, herons, egrets, upland birds in the trees, and the occasional grouse or turkey in the underbrush need only be noticed.

So as pertains to the redbreast, which I pursue in an epoch of global warming, my catch of the day comes courtesy of the Last Ice Age, and the day the glacier stopped. Isn’t that ironic, don’t you think?

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