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Little known, but open to the public, is a lovely pond and woods on the campus of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, about a 20 minute drive north of Trenton. The Institute is a famous institution that is the temporary home to visiting scholars from all over the world, best-known for providing Einstein his US home towards the end of his life.
The pond supports solid populations of sunfish, bass, and most-challenging of all, grass carp that grow to 25 lbs or so. It abuts the Institute Woods, which is transected by old woods roads which can be used as hiking trails (and cross-country skiing if there’s been a good snow fall). (Click here for a trail map). These trails connect to the Princeton Battlefield, and the Quaker Meeting House, and make for a pleasant stroll. It’s dead flat, but great if you’re just starting a walking program, or don’t like hills.
Of course, the flat, wide trails are perfect for cross country skiing any time there’s a snow cover of 8″ or more. The princeton woodsie types show up in fair numbers to go skiing, effectively setting tracks (even though there’s no one “grooming” the area). It’s a perfect place for beginning xc skiers, and for more advanced types to warm up for more challenging skiing.
But for me, the pond’s the main attraction. Starting in April, as soon as the water warms sufficiently, there’s constant action to be had fishing from the banks. Early season, you’ll want to show up in the warmest times of the day. As the water warms, try to avoid the mid day, and hit the pond in the mornings and early evenings. The biggest problem you’ll face are the myriad of Princeton dog owners taking their pets to the pond for a swim.
Easiest to catch are the sunfish. Some are tiny, but there’s a good number of adult-hand-sized pumpkinseeds, fat and feisty, that will give a child a thrill, and look beautiful when pulled out of the water after a fair-old battle. The secret to fishing with kids is to get them “catching”, and I don’t know any place in Mercer County that’s more reliable than here.
Next are the bass. These are a much warier than the sunfish. During much of the spring, the smaller fish (up to half a pound) divide up “beats” along the bank, and these can be taken if you cast stealthily to them. If you’re a fly fisherman, try a little beadhead, and watch the fish turn on your fly – set the hook if you see the mouth move. More challenging still are the larger bass (fish up to 6 pounds have been taken here). Often these hold in the deeper water, but at times they’ll school up and start cruising the pond for baitfish. There’s something pretty dramatic about seeing a half dozen or more bass in formation, every one at least a couple of pounds, circling the entire pond perimeter, a dozen feet or so from the banks. Little baitfish hold in the shallows, and every once in a while one or two of the big bass will slash into the shallows, scaring the batfish into the mouths of the cruising school. While they’re pretty focused on what they’re doing, you can sometimes get them to take a large lure or a popper.
Finally come the grass carp. Sometimes you’ll not see any…they’re holding in the deep water. Sometimes, as carp do, you’ll see them schooled up but not moving. It’s a magnificent sight, as you won’t believe that such a small pond will hold such large fish: the larger ones are easily 36″ long and 10″ broad. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll see them feeding actively. A peak time is in the spring, after the lawn’s been mowed, surface-feeding (“clooping”, is the official term) on the grass cuttings that have been blown onto the pond.
The carp are exceedingly line shy, and will move away from any splash in the water near them or even fast movement along the bank. But it’s possible, with some luck and skill, to catch them. Certainly on bait, but even on dry flies in the right conditions.
Access and parking are easy. From the Princeton Pike, heading north, make a right at the light onto Olden Lane (this is known as Lover’s Lane to the left, so pay attention to the right-hand street signs). After a long couple of blocks, as you go down the hill, you’ll see the main Institute building on the right. Take a right at what is obviously the main entrance, and drive past the main building. You can park in the lot to the left just past the building.
The pond is a truly lovely spot to wile away a few hours catching fish, and to contemplate the nature of genius.