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 told...in 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
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
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
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.