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.
Walleye are a highly sought-after species in the Delaware, boasting some of the best tasting, sweetest meat of any fish. They dwell in slow, deep pools and in the eddies behind submerged boulders, feeding primarily on baitfish and aquatic insects. This makes them perfect quarry for those who love to bait a hook and sit quietly on shore or in a boat. Since they are a schooling fish, one good “honey hole” can yield a great night’s fish fry. The other attraction for walleye fishing is that while there may be an established “keep” season, it is a year-round fishery, with the fish being active even in the winter months.
Famed for both their flesh and fight, striped bass are best known as an ocean fish, sought and caught off the shores and bays of the Atlantic. What is not common knowledge is that they are able to survive in conditions of fresh, salt and brackish water, and will readily follow bait and other food sources (like our above mentioned shad) well up into the fresh waters of the Delaware.
While they typically are landed by anglers on the lowest stretches of the river, closest to the Delaware Bay, stripers have been caught as far north as Hancock, NY, where they find the local rainbow trout an excellent delicacy. Collecting in the larger pools and moving in schools, they quickly become the apex predator in any section of river they find themselves patrolling.
There are plenty of others species found in the river, each with its own allure. Bluegill, yellow perch, crappie and other panfish are popular with the novice angler, as they are usually the first thing to grab our worm-wrapped hook as a youngster, and are prevalent up and down the river. Muskellunge, a.k.a. muskies, lurk in the slower back eddies and side channels, waiting for unsuspecting quarry to swim by. Large, ferocious and toothy, this “fish of a thousand casts” is notoriously hard to catch, and this challenge appeals to many experienced anglers.
No matter what stretch anglers find themselves on, the entirety of the Delaware River is an amazing year-round fishery, and they will without doubt find a place to wet a line, as well as a species to target while there.