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December 11, 2017
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A Year-Round Fishery: Bass, shad, walleye, stripers, perch, eels

Megan Dean holds her fish caught on the fly, a Delaware River smallmouth bass.

By Bart Larmouth

The Delaware boasts a variety of habitats that help nurture one of the most diverse year-round fisheries in the country. Many do not realize that the border waters of Pennsylvania and New York remain open for catch and release fishing year-round.

The upper reaches are known for some of the best trout fishing in the East—large, wild brown and rainbow trout are as abundant in the cold waters as are the aquatic insects on which they feed, luring fly fishermen from across the country. They wade or float the river in droves, especially in the spring when the famous “Hendrickson” mayflies are hatching, bringing even the biggest of trout to the surface to feed.

While spring is the best known trout season, the cold waters coming from the reservoirs keep the river water temperatures cold throughout the summer months, yielding one of the few trout streams in the East fishable even on the hottest of days. At times on the West Branch during the Sulphur hatch at Stilesville, you will see fly fishermen in 90-degree weather enter the fog-shrouded 40-degree river merely to jump back out after half an hour, mind-numbingly cold.

Downriver as the water warms, fishermen seek out smallmouth bass water. “Smallies” were the predominant fish in the river prior to the creation of the Cannonsville and Pepacton reservoirs. While the river may not boast some of the larger examples of the species (five-plus pounds), it makes up for this in the sheer population of bronzebacks down to Delaware Bay.

Smallmouth are found in abundance in shallow rocky areas adjacent to deeper pools. Tenacious fighters and tasty on the plate, fishermen up and down the river target these aggressive predators both with flies and conventional fishing gear. Omnivorous, they love crawfish, hellgrammites, baitfish—virtually anything that moves, making them one of the more cooperative fish when it comes to taking a lure or fly.

Anadromous fish (born in freshwater, migrating to the sea and returning to their birthplace to spawn) such as shad have been staples of human consumption for ages. Every spring, these fish migrate from the ocean far up the Delaware to procreate, giving fishermen along the way ample opportunity to catch these feisty forktails. Shad start their migration in Delaware Bay typically in late March, moving hundreds of miles upstream as far as river flow will allow. Shad roe is considered a delicacy by many, and there are “Shad Bakes” along the lower sections of the river, some with over a century of history behind them.