May 10th, 2004

The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
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Trout Openers
Photos and Text By Gerald E. Wolfe (RW)

A little treatise on that once-a-year phenomenon known as opening day;
or why it's no fun poking fun at someone else,
unless you poke a little at yourself...
and catch a few trout while you're at it.

As much as I love fly-fishing for trout I have never viewed the opening day of New Jersey trout season as anything more than an enigma, which Webster defines as a "perplexing or baffling matter." While the rest of the season falls nicely into place, only on opening day will you find so many people who don't normally fish for trout on the streams.

This is the culprit that got me hooked

It reminds me of Easter Sunday in church, when folks you haven't seen in ages come to show off their new hats and finery. They sit in your favorite pew while you settle for folding chairs in the aisle. Then you don't see them again for another year.

Non-fishermen usually associate trout fishing with sparkling streams, wooded glens and peaceful solitude. Places like that still exist, I'm travel guides, vacation brochures and Montana.

Opening day in my neck-of-the-woods was, and still is, quite the opposite.

I grew up in the Garden State, but don't let that sweet-sounding, catch-phrase fool you. Like other heavily populated spots around the country, Jersey trout openers are tinged with a near-carnival atmosphere. I stopped giving where-to-go advice to fellow anglers early in my fishing career because finding a place to practice the sport in a classic setting is like launching a quest for the Holy Grail. People seem to come out of the woodwork.

That's me (RW) rounding up some of the usual suspects

I once watched a young fellow who had brought his girlfriend along with him on opening day...a bad move. She had a bee-hive hairdo, wore tight designer jeans, a mink stole and high heels. She sat on a big rock above where he was fishing, smoking a cigarette, filing her nails and periodically screaming out to him if he'd had enough yet. Anglers upstream and down knew he had.

Some men take their wives with them on opening day, which is good if the wife likes trout fishing. Some wives don't, some bring young kids along and spend the day hollering at them. The kids don't listen. They're too busy throwing stones in the pools you are trying to fish.

Then there's the guy that just has to bring his dog along. That's okay too if the dog is kept in the truck or on a leash. Did you ever see a guy who really loves his dog (and thinks everyone else does too) keep his pooch locked in a truck all day? Nope, me either. And while his owner casts with contentment, oblivious to everything going on around him, his dog is merrily out and about, visiting total strangers, tail wagging, wet nose in their crotch and getting muddy paw prints all over them and their equipment.

One of the usual suspects

Once I witnessed the worst blasphemy of all against the sport when an angler barged onto the stream with saltwater tackle. He was toting a surf rod with a big spinning reel mounted on top, which he reeled backwards to retrieve his errant casts. His presence was tolerated by the anglers in residence because of the 240 pounds he carried on his six-foot, four-inch frame.

In other years I've been witness to a fist fight, a drowning, two near-drownings, mobile hotdog stands, a ton of litter and enough arguments to keep a married couple supplied with material for life. My favorite starts with, "Hey! You're in my spot. I only stepped out of the stream for a minute!" That usually leads to some jolly good fun. I've even managed to get two parking tickets on opening day.

John Voelker called his famous little book Trout Madness, but of course he seldom came down from his beloved U.P. Therefore, I claim he never knew what trout madness really was, because he never fished a Jersey trout opener.

I'm still hanging in there though, even after a combined 83 opening days in New Jersey and her two sister states. Unlike the purist types who sit and brood until this once-a-year phenomenon is over, I have come to anticipate the whole thing with a sort of quiet resignation. It's not classic trout fishing by any stretch of the imagination. It's just the only game in town.

Despite the crowded stream conditions, opening day still has its own special tradition and ritualistic quality. Actually, it's like a yearly initiation. I feel I have to go through it to get to the rest of the season.

In looking back over my records I discovered that openers really don't produce that many fish, but they did produce a lot of good friendships and many good memories; wrought, I might add, with an equal amount of discomfort. Only the passing of time lends some of those memories humor.

For instance, on my first opener, more years ago than I want to admit, my good friend, George Fischer, took me to the Manasquan River. The Manasquan is a classic coastal stream that is one of the most heavily stocked waters in the state. George forgot to mention that it was also one of the most heavily fished. He was trying to make a convert out of me. I was already a confirmed bass fisherman and it was his opinion that somewhere I had taken a wrong turn in the road along my angling career.

He also felt it was his sworn duty to get me back on the path of righteousness...namely trout. George was so determined and sure of success I could hardly argue the point.

We got to the river early to get a good spot and ran into a convention. It looked like all the trout fishermen in New Jersey and half of Pennsylvania had camped there overnight. I spent the morning hanging from tree limbs and sliding down slippery banks trying to wet a line; just trying to squeeze in somewhere. I only caught one fish, a pretty little rainbow. It was enough. I was hooked too.

The following year we went back to the Manasquan for another try. We spent the better part of that opener prying George's '53 Plymouth out of a swamp "he could have sworn was a good parking spot."

By now we were gluttons for punishment and headed back the following year with four in our party. This time we got there early enough and George found a descent place to park. So far, so good. Fifteen minutes before the eight o'clock legal fishing time, while moving into position on a favorite stretch of water, one of the guys in our group slid down the slippery banks of the river, went into a deep pool over his head and spent the rest of the morning shivering in the car. We fished for a couple more hours but our hearts weren't in it. The Manasquan had us jinxed.

My partner A. Podell (tyeflies) spots something suspicious

We switched to the Assunpink Creek the following year, a classic little inland stream that flows alternately between meadows and woodland. It was heavily stocked with mature brook trout and despite the crowds we caught eight of the speckled beauties. Our opening day jinx was broken. The following year the state stopped stocking the Assunpink.

On to Stony Brook in Princeton. George and I discovered one thing about Stony Brook that is the same as all the other streams on opening day. If you get out of line you lose your place.

Well, by now you know that I've been witness to quite a few of these opening day bashes going back over 40 years. You can also guess that any resemblance to the classic trout fishing scene is purely coincidental. Through all that time I've come to discover it's really just a fan day for all, a gathering together of the angling clan after a long, cold winter. The serious trout fishers know that too, and realize their turn will come later in the season.

Each year, though, on that one day, anglers of all ages, wearing all sorts of attire and carrying all manner of gear will descend on Jersey's streams. You'll see everything from a youngster with a can of worms and a K-mart spinning rod to an aging fly-fisher that carries more equipment than a telephone lineman, and guess which one will catch the most fish?

America's Most Wanted, Sal F. Brooks, is taken into custody by RW

I suppose traditions never die. I imagine that a hundred years from now, if there is still a trout, a stream and a fisherman, you'll find them getting together on opening day. If I could be there you'd find me on a stream too...somewhere. I'd be the guy standing in line, hanging from a tree limb, sliding down a slippery bank or looking for a parking place. Like I said earlier, I'd feel I had to go through it to deserve the rest of the season. ~ Gerald

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