Thursday, August 18, 2011

Something fishy on Route 46

Route 46 is one of my new favorite New Jersey highways. No, I'm not talking about that six lane mess by Little Falls and all that. I'm talking about the meandering two lane road that winds through Hackettstown and points west, landing you somewhere near the Pennsylvania border in Warren County. Without a lot of effort, you can imagine the road as it was 60 or 70 years ago, when it was probably the easiest way to get from New York City to bucolic camping, fishing and hunting grounds for a weekend or longer. It also brings you to the scenic setting of Hot Dog Johnny's in Buttzville, where you can eat a tube steak and drink ice cold buttermilk beside the Pequest River, but that's a story for another day.

Having a free day ahead of us, Ivan and I got in the car and headed west along 46, open to whatever we came upon. One of our longer stops was the Pequest Fish Hatchery and Natural Resource Education Center, located in Oxford, Warren County and birthplace of many of the trout fished from New Jersey waters. More than just a fish farm, the facility has a host of educational displays and occasional programs to inform the public about the outdoors and fishing as a hobby.

First, though, the trout farm. If you've passed one of the state's lakes, ponds or rivers on a certain Saturday morning in April, you'll be treated to the sight of a host of people standing on the banks, rod and reel in hand, who spring into action at the stroke of eight. That's when fishing restrictions end in bodies of water that have been stocked with Pequest-born trout by the State Department of Environmental Protection. There's an entire production line of sorts that starts about a year before the trout are introduced to the outside world.

Follow the path of fishes painted on the sidewalk from the parking lot and you'll reach the business end of the hatchery and a step-by-step explanation of what happens there from season to season. When we were there, the indoor broodstock area was quiet, but explanatory signs and photos showed how fish eggs and sperm are collected from breeder stock; how the small fish, or fingerlings, are handled; and the length of their stay in the building. From there, we were directed to a series of raceways where the fish grow to adult size over the course of a year.

With fish, not surprisingly, come fish hawks. We saw several osprey flying above the outdoor fish pools and roosting on nearby lampposts. One even had its still-squirming trout lunch firmly grasped in his talons. It appears that the hatchery prevents the birds from grabbing the smaller fish by stringing wires across the tops of the pools, but we couldn't easily see any barriers on the raceways holding the larger trout. Management may see them as acceptable losses since osprey are on the state's threatened species list. Whatever the case,  it was a treat to see four or five osprey hunting in upland New Jersey, even if they were fishing in the proverbial barrel.

Weekday visitors can also check out the indoor education center, which holds plenty of informative exhibits on the state's natural environment and the status of endangered and threatened species. Live fish and taxidermy show the various animals found nearby, including several birds of prey. While the center is appropriate for visitors of all ages, it's neither too simplistic nor too technical in presenting environmental concerns and the need to protect and preserve our natural resources.

Regardless of how you feel about fishing, the Pequest facility points out the complex balance of our environment. If the rivers, lakes and streams aren't basically healthy, no amount of stocking will make them amenable to sustaining life. Plus, sport fishers (and hunters) are more apt to want to protect the environment if they understand that their 'catch' won't be there if the ecosystem is suffering. Like many of the places we've visited, the hatchery is committed to educating the public and hopefully creating some environmentalists, and that's a good thing.

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