The sky was just overcast enough to give the feeling the fishing was going to be exceptional, but not enough clouds to cause any immediate concern for rain gear. The July air was heavy. The water was crystal clear and as it tumbled over the rocks it looked a lot colder than it was. A trout fisherman at heart, the colder the better is often my thought when it comes to summertime trout fishing. It was a good thing I wasn’t trout fishing because the water warm enough to wet wade.
All spring, fly fishermen from throughout the east make the trek to the Upper Delaware River hoping to catch one of the glory hatches and maybe a few of the hard fighting wild rainbows or browns that make the river their home. On their way, many fishermen drive by another stretch of the river that has its own challenging wild fishery. The area I’m talking about is between Narrowsburg and Port Jervis, NY and the fish is the smallmouth bass.
On this day, my good friend and fellow fly fishing guide, Wayne Aldridge and I decided to meet up and take a break from the mediocre trout fishing caused by low water flows and warm water. We slipped the drift boat off the trailer into a stretch of the Delaware that over the last thirty years or so had become one of my favorite smallmouth haunts.
Late in June with the spawn complete and the rising water temperature increasing their metabolism, the smallmouth return from their honeymoon with a ravenous appetite. If you’re a smallmouth fisherman you look forward to this as much as trout fishermen anticipate the spring Hendrickson and Quill Gordon hatches. For trout addicts, this fishery is a great quencher for the dog days and doldrums of warm, low water trout streams.
We strung a few six weights to provide a mix of ammunition as we started out. I chose to try my luck with a sink tip line and one of Dave Skok’s mushmouth saltwater flies, while Wayne drifted a hellgrammite he tied from Bill Skilton’s recipe with Bill’s wooly bugger marabou chenille. It wasn’t long before we were each into bass, scrapsters, but none the less smallmouths.
A few fish later and it was time to change flies, and change flies we did. It was now time to play “let’s see if they’ll eat this”! I didn’t keep count, but I don’t think there was an unused fly in the boat by days end. I also can’t remember not catching a fish on everything we threw. That’s one of the fun parts of this sort of fishing. Zonkers, E-Z Zonkers, Wooly Buggers, Sneaky Pete’s, Trim Jim’s, Stone Flies, Clousers, Crayfish, Leaches and others I just don’t recall, all had their hooks connected to fish.
This stretch of the Delaware encompasses over thirty miles of prime smallmouth habitat and is part of the nearly seventy-five mile long Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River. We were fishing an eight mile piece of it. The most use this part of the river sees is by recreational canoes and rafters who enjoy its swifter currents and relative remoteness from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. This more or less knocks out weekend fishing unless you don’t mind the traffic, which isn’t too bad if you stick to early mornings and evenings. The greatest fishing pressure this part of river sees is during May when mostly spin and some fly fishermen are chasing American shad.
I have to say, like with all fishing, the most fun is when a fish comes to the top to eat your bug. Skipping Sneaky Pete’s and Trim Jim’s across the riffles gave us almost non-stop action on smaller fish, while propping the deeper water with streamers and hellgrammite flies gave up the bigger fish. All we needed to do was to keep our fly in the fishy looking stuff.
Smallmouth bass habitat is easy to recognize. Simply, it looks like trout water, just warmer. Deep pools, boulder strewn runs, rapids, riffles, cuts and ledge pools are home to what many call the “hardest fighting, pound for pound, freshwater game fish”. Although native to the Great Lakes and Ohio River drainage, the smallmouth bass has either accidentally or intentionally made it way into waters throughout North America. Most would agree that he’s been a welcome transplant to the Delaware and has established a secure wild population.
The best time for smallmouth fishing is late June through October. The flies you select change with the season, but basically it’s a match the hatch game, with the hatch consisting of baitfish, hellgrammites, leeches, baby lampreys, crayfish and the like. Huge selections of patterns aren’t necessary, but you will want to have a good number of each of the patterns you have. One rule of thumb in fishing is that the fly that’s working the best is the one you only have one of. And then you lose it!
A good mix of wooly buggers in black, brown, white, and olive along with white zonkers covers you for the baitfish imitations. Not that others don’t work. They do, so don’t hesitate to experiment. I’ve had some really nice fish take deceivers, mushmouths, crease flies and other saltwater patterns. But to be successful you really don’t need a huge variety of flies, although it does add to the fun.
Leach patterns in black and olive work well when the baby lampreys have hatched, as does the standby wooly bugger. Clousers not only cover you in the crayfish department but add a different action as a baitfish fly too. Stonefly nymphs, and hellgrammites fished on a dead drift are very effective. Like trout fishing, detecting strikes often requires a good deal of concentration, but sometimes they just plain slam it as happened to Wayne numerous times that day. More than once, we could see his hellgrammite fly just sitting, well actually hooked to a rock, and a smallmouth would dart from behind a boulder and crush his fly. Very cool, and also very unusual but we were in the middle of an exceptional day of fishing.
Add in some Sneaky Pete’s, Trim Jim’s, Stimulators, deer hair bugs and Wulf style dries and you’re on the top too. White Wulfs are good durable imitation for the late summer white fly hatch.
The same tackle you use for trout is suitable for smallmouths, but just to be a little specialized, nine foot six and seven weights are ideal. Realistically, anything from a five to eight weight will do the job. My personal choice is a fast action nine foot six weight. The stiffer rod is a big help in driving the hook home.
Lines, leaders and tippets can be as assorted and as complicated as you want to make it. A floating line with a seven to nine foot leader down to 3X is a good start and one that would see the most use. Sink tips and full sinking lines have their place in the deeper pools and runs. Here, three or four feet of straight mono or fluorocarbon in the eight-pound test range works fine.
The time of day mostly affects the type of water you choose to fish and what techniques to use. In the early morning and late evening the fish often move into some pretty shallow areas where they hunt or wait for the currents feed them. In slower pools this can mean weed beds, rock rubble or submerged logs and the like. Underwater humps are another area not to be over looked. Many times you’ll find bass herding bait against the bank or wedging them against some structure. This mostly happens really early or really late and the fish are normally good ones.
During the middle of the day, the fish will take cover in the deeper ledge pools and fast running riffles and channels. The pools present a different kind of challenge since here you will need to use sinking lines and painfully slow retrieves to prompt a strike. Expect the take to be subtle and when it comes strike hard.
With the rivers banks on both the Pennsylvania and New York side of the river in private ownership walk-in access is limited, but there are several boat launches that allow float access. If you prefer to stay on foot just stay below the high water mark and you can wade wherever you like from these areas also.
On the New York side of the river access is from state route 97. This scenic road goes from Port Jervis, NY to Hancock, NY. Starting at its down river point in Port Jervis and traveling north, you will find five well marked public access points between Port Jervis and Narrowsburg, NY. The Pennsylvania side is a little trickier to negotiate since there is no one road that follows the river, but rather a network of roads that go to and from the river at various locations. A good map like a DeLorme gazetteer will simplify things a whole lot. A couple of the Pennsylvania accesses, such as Lackawaxen and Darbytown are also easily found from route 97 on the NY side.
A NY or PA fishing license is valid on the river or from either shore. Unless you’re a Pennsylvania resident, New York offers the best value for a nonresident angler. We never hooked into any big fish that day, a few fifteen to seventeen inchers won the pool, but we did have a blast with a bunch of smaller guys and over the years I’ve learned you never know when that four pound plus fish is going to grab your fly. So when the summer heat has your favorite trout water shut down, or if you’d just enjoy the fun and challenge of fishing for another game fish, the Delaware River has some feisty smallmouth bass waiting for you.