By Tom Pagliaroli
TOMS RIVER, N.J. — If you’re interested in a southern taste of Garden State trout fishing, the 1-mile trout conservation area of the Toms River in Ocean County will surely satisfy you.
Under year-round TCA regulations, this lower section of the Toms is open during the three-week preseason trout stocking schedule (March 22-April 9).
It is catch-and-release, artificial-lures-only during this period, which means you can’t use bait of any kind, preserved or otherwise (read: salmon eggs, cheese or dough bait) or even have them in possession.
It’s strictly a flies-and-hardware deal, but in the slowly warming waters, both are effective.
Toni Stefano with a 16½-inch Toms River brookie.
The beat of the Toms (indeed, the entire river) runs counter to “classic” trout streams.
It is tidally influenced, with a bottom that ranges from muck to sand to gravel.
There are few riffles, it’s mostly pools and undercuts, with a preponderance of snags tight to the bank, both submerged and overhead.
The dominant cedar surroundings are responsible for the tannin-stained complexion, and the pH is slightly acidic, ranging between 6-6.5.
It is rife with forage, including aquatic insects, minnows, snails and elvers, making for a diet rich in protein that adds girth quickly.
The river remains surprisingly cool through the summer swelter, with temperatures ranging into the low to mid-70s, allowing trout to survive during the critical months of July and August.
In fact, this section of the Toms, and perhaps another mile or so above, is classified as “trout maintenance,” wherein salmonids can survive year-round.
In fact, the extremely rare sea-run rainbow is caught from this section of the Toms every spring, with the occasional sea-run brown being caught, especially during November and December.
The TCA stretch is stocked once preseason and thrice in-season. The first three loads are brookies, the last browns.
The Riverwood Park beat directly above is hit once preseason and seven times in-season (May 24 is the last spring stocking), with brook trout predominating but a smattering of rainbows included.
Browns make up about half of the final liberation. Riverwood is then dosed with rainbows again in early October.
It’s a given that a fair amount of these fish make it down into the TCA, thus bolstering the beat’s stocked and holdover numbers.
By March, the trout are getting active, and the opportunities are ample, to say the least.
At a glance
Fishing and Hunting News
What: Toms River trout.
Where: In New Jersey’s Ocean County.
Why: The 1-mile beat of the Toms TCA is open during the New Jersey’s March 22-to-April 8 preseason stocking window, and relatively underutilized by local trout anglers.
The river’s fish will be active by mid-March, as temperatures warm.
Species: Stocked brookies, browns and a few rainbows.
Tackle: No. 6-8 Mickey Finns or leeches; red-, silver- or brass-bladed spinners.
Rules/regs: The TCA is catch-and-release, with artificials only. Crimp the barbs on your hardware.
Contact/info: Mark Boriek, Bureau of Freshwater Fisheries (908-236-2118).
Room to roam
Perhaps the best part about trouting the Toms now is that you’ll encounter few if any anglers.
To be sure, the overwhelming majority of trout enthusiasts who take advantage of the three-week grace period hit the 2½-mile Ken Lockwood Gorge on the South Branch of the Raritan (Hunterdon County), or a few miles above on the same river, the 1.1-mile Claremont Stretch (Morris County).
Not overlooked is the 2-plus-mile run of the East Branch of the Paulinskill in Sussex County.
All three venues offer good-to-excellent fishing on classic water.
As such, save for several hardcore local trout fishermen, the potential of the homely Toms goes begging.
Tackling the Toms
Nymphs, wet flies and streamers will all take Toms trout, but toss streamers when hunting larger fish.
Productive nymph patterns include beadheaded Princes, Pheasant Tails, March Browns, scuds and gold-ribbed Hare’s Ears in sizes 10-14.
Wet wonders include the Black Gnat, March Brown and Woolly Worm (black) in the meaty No. 8 and 10 sizes.
Glo Bugs (yellow, orange, scarlet) in No. 12-16 also work.
You’ll have to pinch a tiny shot a foot or so above these imitations to deliver them into the deeper holes and pools.
Tie your own or buy leeches, Mickey Finns, Black Ghosts, white marabous and Wild Weasels.
Sizes 6 and 8 grab the attention of the biggest browns and brooks in residence. Use a small shot above the fly for ballast.
Toms trout are wont to whack at a spinner even this early in the year. Use a slow retrieve, just enough to keep the blade spinning, and run the lure deep.
Silver-, red/platinum- and black/yellow-bladed No. 1 Mepps XD in single hook, either plain or dressed, all are effective.
The tried-and-true CP Swing (No. 1) in either silver or brass blade will also garner salmonid attentions. With the CP, clip off a hook from the treble.
By all means, flatten the barbs your flies or hardware. This will not only make freeing the lures from the many submerged branch and log snags somewhat easier, but also minimizes the effort needed to remove the hook from a trout’s jaw.
The Toms is by no means easy to work because of the thick, thorny bankside vegetation and branches reaching out into the flow.
Caution is advised when wading, as it’s difficult to see bottom in the stained water, and you can go from knee to waist deep, or deeper, in a matter of a couple of steps.
Also, the submerged snags have a nasty habit of reaching out and grabbing the top of your boot foot when lifting to take a step forward.
Get to the Toms River TCA via Riverwood Park (Exit 88 southbound on the Garden State Parkway onto Route 70 West) or below where it ends at the overpass on Ocean County Route 571.
The former offers plenty of parking, but it’s a good ¾-mile hike downriver to the TCA.
At the Route 571 spot, you are right there, but parking is at an extreme premium.
By Tom Pagliaroli