Story by Tom Pagliaroli

Ahhh…a much needed break on the crazed Yule Month hunting and fishing scene isn’t really much of a pause in terms of physical effort, but it sure does clear the mind and soul.
Besides getting a great cardio workout, there are more than a few breathtaking photo opportunities to be had. All by taking a hike!

In the Garden State’s southern tier counties, hiking is synonymous with the famed Batona Trail, the 50-mile ribbon that winds through Ong’s Hat, Brendan Byrne State Forest, Batsto Village, Wharton State Forest and Bass River State Forest, introducing one to relatively unknown hamlets such as Butler Place, Martha and Four Mile. Designated in 1961 and championed by the Batona (BAck TO NAture) Hiking Club, the trail was lengthened in 1987 to its current half-hundred end-to-end distance.

Take heart: you don’t have to do the 50-mile trek, as the trail cuts across major roadways, so customizing a hike is as easy as reading a map and/or hitting some numbers on the GPS. Of course, if you want to do the 50 (the trail is ideal for backpackers), there are overnight camping facilities at the Batona, Mullica River, Lower Forge, Brendan Byrne and Lake Absegami sites. The trail is easy to follow via the pink blazed trail markers, and there are sign in/comment stations at several of the pull in sites.

By all means pack a quality camera with decent telephoto capabilities. We often pack a telephoto lens and suffer the added weight. The vast expanses of pine/oak woods are laced with dark, cedar stained pulsing brooks and streams, and the vastness of the Pine Barrens is especially evident with any deciduous hangers-on long fallen. Wildlife abounds, and it’s a sure bet that one will encounter various raptors in flight, including a bald eagle or two, a plethora of songbirds, along with deer, wild turkeys and even the wily coyote. Even if only a moderate jaunt, pack a bottle or two of water. Cold weather hiking is an insidious H20 thief, and dehydration can cause cramping, especially in the calves.

Schoolie striper caught in Surf City
Schoolie striper caught in Surf City

Striped Bass Still Around
Forget “keeper” length! Stripers to 30-plus pounds are still being caught anywhere from one to three miles from Ship Bottom all the down through Atlantic City to Sea Isle City, and these are hammering chartreuse mojos, and white and also chartreuse Nos. 3 and 4 size bunker spoons. When the schools are chasing bait close to the surface, poppers are eliciting thunderous top-water implosions.

Photo by Captain Dave Showell/Absecon Bay Sportsman
Photo by Captain Dave Showell/Absecon Bay Sportsman

Along the beaches, it’s been a here and there game as swarms of schoolies measuring from 14-22 inches continue whacking plastic shads, downsized plugs and poppers, bucktails with teasers, and smaller metals like the AVA-17.

How long the run will last is anyone’s guess. Bass were being caught through the third week in January of this year, and unless there is a prolonged (read: at least three days) cold snap, figure that the action should continue into the New Year.

Bye Bye Birdie
In an early Christmas Eve/New Year’s Eve gift, the Division of Fish and Wildlife’s bureau of wildlife management will be stocking an extra 4500 pheasants for December 23, 28 and 30! This equates to 15-18 extra ringnecks per release per tract. Revising the numbers printed last week in The Hawk listening area, the new counts look something like this: Stafford Forge (145, 125, 105), Manasquan (115, 105, 85), and Port Republic, Howardsville and Manahawkin (55, 55 45 each). Bobwhite quail numbers will be 400, 270 and 270 each for Peaslee and Greenwood Forest.

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