Oldmans Creek

by Wayne Heinze

In South Jersey, Oldmans Creek provides part of the border between Salem and Gloucester Counties, as it meanders it’s way through farms and forest and brackish marsh on its way to the Delaware River. This is old colonial country, Swedish, Dutch and English colonists buried beneath crumbling headstones in church cemeteries. Often beneath the boughs of old growth forest, pre-dating our Independence. My wife and I had been hiking along the creek banks here and doing a little fishing one September evening some thirty years ago. Upon arriving home, we learned my father had suffered a stroke, one that would take his life before Christmas, and before the birth of his grandson. That could have been the end of the story of Kag-Kikwizachens-sippus as the First People, the Lenape, called Oldmans Creek. But it was not.

fisherman in boatMy father and I are anglers (death does not alter that) and know the things that those of our clan know. The cup is not only always half full while out fishing, but the stuff in it tastes pretty darn good as well. Life itself tastes better, both the earthly realm in which we pursue our sport, and the spiritual one in which among other things we consider our sport. Dad knew this and so do I. And it is not all exotic locations that are the key, it is the ability of an angler/naturalist to easily perceive the beauty wherever fish exist. More often than not, it is not exotic and far. I can show you things like drainage ditches, outflow pipes and swamps that have beauty, fecundity and joy far beyond their initial comprehension. One can ask for no more than to have gained the sight to see this. These places of beauty are where our passion for fishing and the outdoors created an enduring bond between my father and I. They includes a place called Oldmans Creek, where one evening a part of our lives changed, but not our shared angling passion.

The stretch of Oldmans Creek I am writing about is a part of the Harrisonville Lake Wildlife Management Area. It is a small piece of public land, at 213 acres, comprised largely of its namesake Harrisonville Lake. But the potential for some good fishing and an enriching nature experience is great. Although I do catch bass and pickerel in the lake, my affection for this area lies along the banks of Oldmans Creek. The section that I usually fish and hike lies below the dam spillway on the lake, through the main pool and into the hardwood forest downstream. The dam has been rebuilt in recent years, and the pool below the spillway has a different look these days, but it still offers fine fishing. When we fish here, it is most often for the abundant panfish population. Bluegills and crappies dominate the main pool, along with catfish, perch and carp, as well as bass and some early season trout. And beyond the tail of the pool, the redbreast sunfish thrives, along with smaller populations the other species.

Redbreast fill a niche for me in this region, where rock bass and smallmouth bass are absent, and this combined with my general fondness for the species make it the main target in Oldmans Creek. The downstream pursuit of the redbreast here usually involves hip boot wading over the gravel bottomed creek, alternating with bankside hikes along stretches where the bottom is mostly composed of detritus or mud. Eventually, the WMA ends, and private property signals the reversal of the fishing, as you work your way back to the main pool.The lush canopy of trees overhead make it an especially nice place to fish in bright, hot weather, but it is a productive stream year round.

This is an intimate and personal place for me, which has provided much beyond the fishing over the years. For example, on my most recent trip there, I spent time observing a “fellow angler” ply his craft. Along the edges of the riprap in the main pool, a large Fishing Spider (Dolomedes tenebrosus) chased some water striders and a then a pod of miniature bullheads in pursuit of a meal it eventually obtained. The spider scurried out of the water onto a large flat rock and commenced feasting. It was a unique experience to witness the hunt, kill and meal of this creekside companion.

The creek has been a classroom in the food chain on other occasions as well. There is a large bluff on the south side of the creek as you exit the tail end of the pool. One warm October afternoon as I brought a hefty redbreast to hand, I heard a loud rustling sound. A sound not unlike the sounds kids would make demolishing the leaf piles I had raked earlier on my lawn. Glancing upwards and to my left towards the source of the sound, I beheld the largest Great Horned Owl I have ever seen. And it saw me as well, it’s stare locked into mine. The wings were extended, and it beat them once and again, producing the sound that had first attracted my attention. I lowered myself down onto a log, and fixed my gaze, determined to see how this encounter would play out. The owl’s head swiveled to the left, but it seemed to keep looking at me, looking out of the corner of it’s eye perhaps. With a final more measured flap, the owl bent down and picked up a muskrat in it’s beak, and resumed it’s perusal of my position. Apparently sensing I posed no danger from my position on the log some forty feet below, the owl commenced to consume the muskrat. it paused a moment to fix gazes with me again before noisily sweeping off the bluff and soaring downstream out of site, but not out of mind.

Two pools downstream from the main pool, the water is deepest and blow down filled, an almost pond like portion of the stream. It is your best bet to hook up with the creek’s alpha fish, the largemouth bass. While casting from the bank crouched behind an old hemlock, the water mid pool suddenly exploded and a nice size stream bass of perhaps fifteen inches arched into the air. What made this a rather singular occurrence, was that protruding from the bass’s maw was about a foot of Northern watersnake. Now this is not a large pool, and I was immediately creekside, and have seen more snakes and eels than most. I am fully confident in my identification of the snake. What happened next was unique in my experience, as the bass breached twice more, each time with more of the snake inside the bass’ mouth. Finally the commotion ceased, and the rings on the surface of the pool subsided. No bass from the honey hole this evening, but a sweet memory of the encounter I witnessed.

I guess it was at that point when the thought first occurred that Oldmans Creek was the type of place that Dad would have enjoyed spending time on. The intervening years since his death have convinced me of this fact, and it remains one of my most frequently fished waters, season to season. When I talk out loud to my father while reveling in both the fishing and natural rhythms along the creek, he replies in words only I can hear, and the sound is a good one. In those moments, we are both speaking from the best possible place we can be in.

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