Conservation Success Story: Delaware River Fly Fishing
Often named the best wild trout stream east of the Rocky Mountains, fly anglers rave about Delaware river fly fishing, especially the Upper Delaware river. A comeback story of monumental proportions, the Delaware basin was named the 2020 River of The Year by American Rivers. Here’s the story, and where and how to fish.
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Comeback of The Delaware
Surprisingly accessible from numerous major metropolitan areas, the Delaware mainstem is still the longest free-flowing river in the eastern USA. Boasting numerous access points for every type of water recreation, the Delaware basin is supported by the most extensive National Wild and Scenic River protection of any watershed in the country.
Today, the mid- and lower sections of the Delaware River – slicing through NY, NJ, PA, and DE are not only improving but thriving. As reported by AmericanRivers.org, a combination of federal safeguards, state programs and extensive local initiatives supported by numerous fly fishing organizations and clubs, have dramatically improved water quality. As a result, fish and wildlife have repopulated tremendously, and every community along the Delaware is setting a strong example of river stewardship.
With respect to fly fishing, the Delaware is renown for its huge wild browns, rainbows, and thriving smallmouth bass fisheries – along with literally every other species you could hope to fish including huge striped bass runs, brookies in the upper regions – you name it, the Delaware has it.
Delaware River Club
But as recently as 50-75 years ago, the Delaware was besieged with domestic sewage and industrial pollution. People you can talk to today, remember being sickened by the noxious smell. So bad was the Delaware, that parts of the river were actually dead zones, akin to a third world country without environmental laws and controls. Sections of the Delaware were simply unable to support any fish or aquatic life at all. Moreover, plans for the river were to carve it up by installing dams for flood control and water supply. The Delaware was at risk of losing its natural character forever.
For more on this incredible success story, such as fly fishing Delaware Water Gap, and other rivers that face their own challenges in the present, we encourage our readers to check out these articles and support AmericanRivers.org.
If you live anywhere in the Northeast or Mid-Atlantic region, and salivate about flying out west to pursue big, wild trout, well guess what. Much closer to home (a benefit during Covid-19 no less!), thanks to its tailwater status, Delaware fly fishing benefits from consistently large, wild fish even when other streams slow down during the dog days of summer.
The river’s huge main stem is formed by two tributaries the that join at the small hub town of fly fishing Hancock, NY – the East and West branches. Because both branches flow from tailwater sources, stream temperatures are very consistent, and remain cool year-round. As a result, aquatic live thrives year-round, an actual rarity for east coast rivers.
If you are fishing the Upper Delaware in July, you are luck – in fact one guide even advised us to not come till the last week in June, when some of the largest hatches including the famous Delaware River Green Drake hatch start in earnest!
The consistency is not only true for both famed tributary branches, but also for roughly 30 miles down the main stem, as far as Calicoon. Collectively these three stretches are dubbed the Upper Delaware (sometimes called the Little Delaware River). [Note there is one stretch with an exception to the rule, the lower part of the East Branch which can warm up much more in summer.] While the West Branch tends to remain cooler than the East branch, both branches plus the upper mainstem provide fine fishing, with the largest fish in the main stem.
Don’t take this comment though to minimize the size of the fish you can catch in the tributaries, though! With an overall average size of roughly 14-16 inches, and beasts we have landed well into the 20s and larger, the every part of the Delaware is a consistent producer of large fish.
Pro Tip: long and thin, invisible yet strong leaders and tippets are key to enticing large fish to take on the Delaware, yet still being able to land them. The balance between presentation, invisibility and strength is an important bullseye to strike for success landing large fish on the Delaware. This is in contrast to many western streams, where fish tend to be less leader-shy.
If you aim to fly fish Upper Delaware, you’re in luck. It is conveniently located, no more than 150 miles northwest of New York City, 175 miles from Philadelphia, and 295 miles from Boston. And of course easier to reach throughout the region, given how large the Delaware basin is. This isn’t to say the river is crowded, we have had plenty of float trips without feeling like we had to compete for fishing spots.
A big part of the draw is the scenery, with surrounding rounded and countoured “mountains” characteristic of the Catskill region that is part of the Delaware drainage basin. We say “mountains,” because if you are from the west you might consider these to be more like big hills, but incredibly scenic nevertheless.
The river has a wide variety in character, depending on what stretch you are fishing. The West Branch Delaware drops down rapids below its dam, then flattens out and to braid around islands that gradually change into long, wide pools punctuated by shallow riffles. The West Branch has predominantly browns, still with some rainbows and brookies to be caught. Much of the West Branch can be waded, or at least fished by shore, though drifting will gain you access to more fishable water of course.
In contrast, the East Branch is relatively flat, slow and cooler temperatures in its upper stretches above Shinhopple. In the case of the East Branch, thick weeks form in the summer make fishing from a boat preferable. Fish species change from a predominance of brook trout in the upper reaches, to larger browns further down as the water temperature increases.
The East Branch drops down a series of rapids at Shinhopple, giving way to the main branch with its big trout habitat. Here you will start to find with long, deep pools – and by long we mean close to 1/2 mile long – alternating with, riffles, big boulders and precipitous drop-offs where the river channels up against wooded ridge lines.
The area downstream of Shinhopple can be fished either from shore or by boat. Wading is tricky, and while possible we urge caution. What we like about this stretch is that strong, sometimes massive rainbow trout hold in the riffles, much like their western counterparts. This is in contrast to many of the hatchery bred fish in other streams, that exclusively hold in the tail end of pools that mimic the slow and steady flow of their hatchery environment.
The river is so long, and access points so plentiful, that we recommend starting out with the services of one of the local Delaware river fly fishing guides. Delaware fish are plentiful, but also highly focused on Delaware specific hatches, such that not only your fly selection, but also gear, rigging, and technique can make the difference between getting skunked and catching over two dozen fish in a day. Once you start to learn not only fly selection, but also where to put it and how, you may have more success as a do-it-yourselfer.
For gear, on the upper stretches you will do well with a 5 to 7 weight, 8 to 9 foot quality rod. You’ll want a quality reel with plenty of backing, as big browns can dive deep, often executing their famed “barrel roll” to try and break you off. The larger rainbows are smart like western trout, and will use the current against their broadside to strip your line downstream to the next pool and then furiously run and sometimes jump in an attempt to shake off your fly.
One last thought on gear, since Upper Delaware river conditions can vary significantly, it can’t hurt to take several rod sizes and weights. We have often found ourselves using, for example, longer and stiffer 9-10 foot rods with 8-9 weight line to cover lots of water with large, deep pools efficiently.
The Delaware is blessed with multiple heavy hatches, creating a banquet feast for trout. As a result, matching the hatch is critical, especially when the fish are picky. Don’t be fooled by assuming what’s in your box will match what’s on a hatch chart Upper Delaware – you need the locally tied, exact matches to be successful.
While there enough Delaware river insects hatches that entire books are literally dedicated to them, the best flies for Upper Delaware river include:
Caddis (tan), from mid-April – early September
Blue-Winged Olives, from August – September
Tricos, from August – October
Terrestrials all summer as river bank tall weeds drop a continual feed of terrestrials to waiting fish.
Of course, an upper Delaware hatch chart is easy to find online and will enumerate many more West Branch Delaware fly patterns, East Branch Delaware fly patterns, and main stem hatches of interest. While Delaware river dry fly fishing is the most publicized, don’t forget that fish eat most of the time under the surface, and anglers are consistently successful with streamers, buggers, nymphs, and emergers.
Fortunately, paved roads line much of the river, with access aided by railroad tracks on the NY side of the main stem. Pay attention however, much of riverside access is private, with access only by permission or with a guide who has a relationship with the landowner. At the same time, public access points and boat launches are plentiful, and well publicized with maps and descriptions easy to find online.
One nice result of the watershed approach to basin management is the collaboration between different states bordering the river. So, you don’t need to worry about which fishing license to get – NY and PA have a reciprocal fishing license agreement (that at least applies to the main stem).
One heads up – river flows are subject to dam releases, which can result in sometimes rapid flow changes and therefore fishing conditions. You can usually find the scheduled dam releases online, and certainly call ahead to a local fly shop or guide service to check the flows before you fish. There are fortunately many Upper Delaware river outfitters, and they all keep Delaware river fishing reports, so we won’t try to duplicate them here.
Edge of the Woods Outfitters
When flows are lower and therefore temperatures warmer, trout will move decidedly upstream, especially into the cooler West Branch. Check to make sure you know the season dates exactly, but typically it lasts from mid-April until the end of September. If flows are too high, consider one of the many other recreational opportunities you can do through the many Lower– and Upper Delaware outfitters as well as DIY: canoeing, tubing, rafting, birding and wildlife spotting, etc. Also consider joining one of the many Delaware river clubs to support conservation and continue to enhance this terrific river. Whether you are fly fishing the Delaware River Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, or any other state, you can’t help but have a great trip.
By now we expect you’ll be heading out the door to fly fishing Delaware river (or Little Delaware river fishing as it’s sometimes called) but in case you’d like a little more reading, here’s another one of our articles for your enjoyment!