Artful Angler: Fly fishing on the Upper Delaware

Text | S. Zoe Hecht

“Game fish is too valuable to be caught only once.”
—Lee Wulff

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Photographs | Copyright David B. Soete

The Delaware River conjures up many images within and outside the community. For anglers, the river is where fly fishing was introduced in the United States in the late 1800s and where it has grown into a thriving sport throughout the Catskill region.

With nearly 80 miles of cool water year round, The Upper Delaware and its two branches are some of the finest waters and largest wild nature fisheries this side of the Rockies. The area also has an abundance of aquatic insects, such as caddis, mayflies and stoneflies, that hatch from late April through September, corresponding to the height of the trout season. This combination of cool water and insects makes for the perfect trout habitat.

The Catskill Fly Fishing Museum Center
The long-held reputation of the Upper Delaware and its environs as a major fly fishing region made it a natural center for the sport’s history, which includes notable Catskill-style fly tiers such as Walt and Winnie Dette and Harry and Elsie Darbee in Roscoe, NY, “Trout Town USA”, and esteemed fly fishers like Louis Rhead, Theodore Gordon, Lee Wulff and Poul Jorgenson. Thirty years ago, discussions ensued in the community about creating a permanent repository and educational center. Now, with a fraternity of more than 2,000, the Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum (http://www.cffcm.net) has a picturesque home just outside Livingstone Manor, NY on the Willowemoc Creek.

The museum has three annual events: a Fly Fest in winter, a September meeting devoted to rods and a seasonal gathering in May on tackle. At the museum’s most recent Fly Fest, dozens of fly tiers met to make, show and share their flies with other anglers. These handmade flies can easily be compared to small pieces of intricate and beautiful art, each one colorful and elegant, no two exactly the same.

Trout fishing methods
These artificial flies are the angler’s method to catch fish. The nearly weightless fly is cast with a rod and moved over the water in a way meant to resemble natural insects or other food organisms that attract the fish. A fly used on the water’s surface is “dry,” while a fly that sinks or floats in the water is “wet.” Both methods offer challenges to catch a trophy trout.

Fly fishing takes manual and observatory skill, instinct and a scientific strategy. Patiently watching and reading the water for motion on the water’s surface on any given day, and accumulating this knowledge over seasons and years, as well as detecting and identifying the insects and their relationship to different fish, are factors in designing/choosing your fly and catching your fish.

Although the Delaware is home to a wide variety of fish, trout are the major draw for the fly fishing community. Brown and brook, commonly called brookies, are abundant. Some are raised in hatcheries, but many more are wild. And at the confluence of the East and West branches up in Hancock, NY where the Upper Delaware begins, a wild strain of feisty rainbow trout has thrived since the turn of the century.

Other Delaware populations
Other fish include smallmouth bass, which are most common downstream from traditional trout waters and caught with both fly and light tackle; and walleye, a fish generally caught at night, reserved for the skilled angler and found in deeper waters. At February’s Fly Fest, the gathered members unanimously declared the gamey walleye as the most delicious fish to fry, eagerly anticipating a catch. While it is best caught in the fall months, walleye are caught year round.

Among the hardiest fresh water fish in the river, and the largest in the herring family, is the American shad. Shad start their lives in freshwater, feed as fry on plankton and insects, then, as water temperatures drop, they migrate en masse to the ocean where they live for the majority of their life cycle. After living in the sea for several years, the shad return in spring to spawn to the Delaware River. They can be seen swimming upstream through currents and over rocks, and their return is celebrated through annual shad fests at various spots along the Delaware.

The Delaware River is also home to the American eel, Anguilla rostrata. This fish, which can be sighted undulating gracefully underwater like a sleek ribbon, is revered by the Maori, considered a delicacy by the Japanese and Dutch and is an integral part of the river’s eco-system as a scavenger of the river detritus. Whereas shad are anadromous, eel are catadromous, which means they live much of their lives in the river, and then spawn in the ocean. According to recent research, the American eel may travel as far as the Sargasso Sea and back in its lifetime.

Turner’s Delaware Delicacies Smoke House (607/637-4443) is a highlight of any trip to the Upper Delaware region. Ray Turner, the region’s “Eel Man,” builds a new eel weir each year, then traps and later smokes thousands of eel. In addition to smoked eel, Delaware Delicacies offers a wide range of other smoked fish, cheese and local preserves. Turner also has river access down the road from his property where, for a small fee and a call ahead, you might get directly onto the East Branch and some great fishing.

Fishing guides
Fly fishing is not restricted to the Upper Delaware River and its two branches, but extends to the Beaverkill, the Willowemoc Creek, the Lackawaxen River and neighboring creeks and streams. Along the Willowemoc just up from Junction Pool is Roscoe’s “First Cast,” where the region celebrates opening day in April with local dignitaries, celebrities and fishing enthusiasts. Each section of creek and river has its own unique quirks and characteristics. The novice might consider hiring a guide for a half or full day to learn the region and mechanics of fly fishing before investing in fishing paraphernalia. As skills and confidence increase and interest peaks, a good rod is recommended as the best first investment.

Highly experienced anglers also hire guides and/or rent equipment at one of the local fly shops rather than transport gear for a day trip. Booking in advance is advisable as guides schedules fill up quickly. Day passes or seasonal licenses are required and can be obtained on line, at the National Parks Service and at several local fly fishing shops. These licenses are reciprocal between New York and Pennsylvania at most fishing sites.

Fly fishing is more than the act of catching a fish. Anglers speak of the beauty that surrounds them, the solitary or companionable aspect of wading or drifting in a boat, and those arresting moments when water and sky meet and a bald eagle soars above while a rainbow trout pulls on a line. And just like the variety of fish in the river, anglers vary in age and gender. In fact, women anglers have long played a significant role in fly fishing history and will be honored at the American Museum of Fly Fishing’s exhibit, “A Graceful Rise” in June.
After having washed away the smell of the river, many Upper Delaware River anglers end their day at the Bluestone Grill (www.bluestonegrill.com) in Hancock for an excellent repast and to share their stories of fly fishing on the river.

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