Delaware River

In Trout, Ernest Schwiebert describes the Delaware fishery as, "the finest fishery in the eastern states, the big water on the Delaware between Hancock and Long Eddy. It is a river of swift half-mile riffles and mile-long pools, and only twenty-five years ago it held a population of smallmouths and walleyes pike . . .after the completion of the Pepaction Reservoir above Shinhoppie, on the East Branch of the Delaware, the river can run cold and strong from the dam tail waters to the sprawling riffles above Port Jarvis." . . .that evening we fish a sweeping waist-deep riffle that surged past our waders in the twilight, and when a heavy hatch of big Isonychia drakes came off in the shallows, the big rainbows started rolling and slashing on top." Schweibert also says, "Since the Cannonsville Dam was filled on the West Branch of the Delaware above Deposit, the main river below Hancock and Fishes Eddy receives another source of cold dam tailings. Its population of big rainbows is remarkable, and there are fly hatches of incredible diversity and numbers . . .we fished one of these mile-long flats one evening in late summer, hooking a half-dozen fat rainbows that accelerated downstream on blistering runs that spooled deep into the backing. It is not easy fishing. It calls for a willingsness to wade deep; and the double haul is almost mandatory."

East Branch

History of the Fishery

Prior to the construction of the Pepacton Reservoir in 1954, the East Branch of the Delaware River was a warmwater fishery. Summertime water temperatures reach into the low 80s. A 1936 NYSCD study showed that species that dominate river were walleye and pickerel. . .some trout, consisting mostly of browns, inhabited areas of riffles and influxes of cold springs.

The West Branch was essentially a warmwater fishery as well until the construction of Cannonville Reservoir in 1963. However, according to Kay Sanford of the NYS DEC, the West Branch was actually warmer than the East Branch, making it less suitable for trout and smallmouth bass, which were the primary species.

The NYS Legislature enacted a law in 1976 regulating reservoir releases to accommodate environmental requirements that gave the DEC the power to govern over 31 reservoirs, including those controlled by New New City. This legislation improved reservoir releases and the fishery of the Delaware.

[For a MAP of The Delaware River, click here.]

The East Branch

. . .The East Branch can actually be divided into three sections, each with its own distinct characteristics. The stretch above the reservoir is a quaint little freestone harboring 9- to 12-inch browns, which are mostly stockers. Easy wading and abundant fish populations make this stretch an ideal choice, specially for novices. There are some large browns that are caught in the fall during their spawning migration up from the reservoir. Fishing various feeder streams, such as the Batavia Kill, Tremper Kill and Platte Kill, may produce an occasional lunker.

The upper stretch below the dam, which runs about sixteen miles, resembles a spring creek. The river consists mostly of long and glassy pools with weeded bottoms with harbor abundant populations of insects and crustaceans. Brook trout dominate the upper stretches and brown trout increase in population further downstream. Large brown trout, some up to 26 inches, are taken from the East Branch, especially by those who are adept at stealth approaches and matching the hatches.

Another good spot is the pool below the town of East Branch, above Bolton's Eddy. The bend produces good fish. This deep pool is excellent holding water and best fished from the east side; however, when the water is high, it is nearly impossible to cross the river.

There is also excellent holding water at Pea's Eddy where there is a large island and numerous brooks which enter into the river. Don't overlook obscure pockets above pools and along grassy banks.

The West Branch

The West Branch of the Delaware is perhaps the premier tailwater fishery in the Northeast. The construction of the Cannonville Dam in 1967 created a coldwater fishery for 33 miles of the West Branch. It is a river of abundant and diversified insect life, which is both a curse and a blessing for the prospecting hatch-matcher. The maintenance of cold-water flows creates an ideal habitat for fish and insect life, its smorgasbord of hatches necessitating an exact imitation and precise presentation. This challenge created the birth of new patterns, such as the Comparaduns made by . . . Al Caucci and Bob Nastassi in the 1970s.

The section of the West Branch above the Cannonville Reservoir runs a whopping 45 miles. This section of river mostly passes through farmland from which nutrients run off into the river and in turn into the reservoir causing an algae bloom in the summer months. Foot-long, stocked brown trout predominate this section, and offer easy and relaxed fishing.

The West Branch is known for very large fish and a 33-inch whopper of a brown was taken in the no-kill stretch in 1998. Some large fish are taken during springtime when water spills over the top of the Cannonville Dam bringing alewives into the river. Anglers should fish very large white streamers (i.e., Zonkers in size 2) on sink-tip lines (200 grain is preferred) along the banks and around grassy knolls, ideally from boats during high water. The fall is also an excellent time to catch some very large trout.

The time of the Brown and Green Drake emergence and spinner fall sometime in early June also presents a perfect opportunity for taking big fish. An added bonus during this time is the nighttime emergence of Acroneuria stoneflies (best imitated by yellow Stimulator patterns in size 8) and big Pteronarcys salmonflies (in size 4). Anglers braving the night are sometimes rewarded with 20- to 24-inch rainbows and browns. By late May, water levels are unusally low, making the river easily navigable and more hospitable.

The no-kill section is located from Rt.17 Bridge down river for two miles. According to the NYDEC personnel, this stretch probably holds the most number of fish (about 1000 per mile) and the largest in the West Branch during most of the season.

Downstream from Hale Eddy begins the "border waters," where on the west side, the river is bordered by the state of Pennsylvania. There is good access (angler's parking is marked by Pennsylvanis) along the road which parallels the river. The "Gamelands," as it is referred to, contains miles of good fishing water.

In Hancock, easy access is found at the bridge on Rt. 191. This pool gets fished heavily but is also known to hold big fish. Work your way down from the fast water on top (from the east side) to the deeper section below. Good fish tend to rise just out of reach on the far side of the deep section and a boat is needed to effectively present the fly. Moreover, the current slow in the tail out of this pool just to make things more difficult.

The Main Branch

The Main Branch of the Delaware River is formed by the confluence of two tailwaters, the West and East Branches of Delaware. From the Junction pool in Hancock, New York, the Delaware meanders around hills where towering conifers abound, flowing through four states and finally emptying into Delaware Bay. However, it is the first twenty or so miles which harbor decent wild-rainbow populations, consisting mostly of browns and rainbows. Summertime releases from the Cannonville Reservoir keep water temperatures fairly cool but only for a few miles downstream of Hancock.

The main Delaware is characterized by a series of long and deep pools. During heavy water releases, the "Big D," as it is referred to by Delaware River regulars, resembles a giant spring creek. With its' grassy banks and huge boulders that occasionally spot the river bottom, the main stem is big water with huge, mile-long pools that resemble small lakes. Trout are all wild in the Big D and its rainbows are legendary in their blistering runs, often peeling off yeards of backing. Large fish often sip small insects off the top in "chum lines" created by eddies and structures. Precise hatch matching is a must and frequent refusals by seasoned fish are a common occurrence. Delaware's water is relatively calm and flat and so can be intimidating to the novice anglers. Learning how to fish a large river with flat water can be difficult and so hiring a guide for a float trip on a McKenzie style drift boat is highly recommended.

Important Mayfly Hatches

There are many species of mayflies that inhabit the Delware watershed. Due to their abundance, some are more important than others for the fly-fisherman. The following is a list of important mayflies in the Delaware River. [For the FLIES of the Delaware click here.]

Look for pockets above pools

Quill Gordon: Epeorus pleuralis, or Quill Gordon, is an early season hatch, usually occuring in mid-April. Nymphs inhabit the oxygen-rich fast waters and bolt to the surface during their emergency. They are fast swimmers and anglers can best imitate their emergence by allowing a wet-fly imitation to swing downstream and rise up at the end of the presentation (i.e., Leisenring swing). An effective way to fish this "miserable weather fly" is to cast a duck-quill winged wet fly upstream and allow it to sink. As the fly swims downstream, twitch it to entice the fish into striking. At the end of the swing, twitch the fly again as it rises up toward the surface. This famous hatch can last to mid-May during some seasons. I have found that hatching can occur when the water temperatures and is sustained at around 50 degrees. Unfortunately, pollution and siltation has restricted the range of these mayflies in the Delaware.

I have experienced good hatches of pleuralis species on the lower stretches of the Delaware, especially around Collicoon. However, the unpredictability of the weather in the early season makes this hatch a very difficult one to fish. Quill Gordons have been known to hatch on cold and windy spring days. Try to stick to days with warm afternoon temperatures for more predictable hatching activity.

Publishers Note: Listed below are other major hatches by name. The book provides the same depth of information on each of them as for the Quill Gorden above.

  • Paraleptophiebia adoptiva: Blue Quill.

  • Ephemerella subvaria:: Hendrickson.

  • Ephemerella rotunda: Red Quill or Dark Henrickson.

  • Ephemerella dorotheas: Surphur.

  • Ephemerella cornuta: Blue-Winged Olive.

  • Epeorus vitreus: Surphur.

  • Stenonema vicarium: March Brown.

  • Stenonma fuscum: Gray Fox.

  • Stenonema ithaca Light Cahill.

  • Ephemera guttulate: Green Drake.

  • Ephemera simulans: Brown Drake.

  • Ephemerella attenuata: Blue-Winged Olive.

  • Tricorythodes: Tricos.

  • Baetis: Baetis.

  • Pseudocloeon: ultra-tiny Blue-Winged Olive.

  • Isonychia bicolor

  • Pseudocloeon

  • Isonychia bicolor

  • Potamanthus distinctus

  • Ephoron leukon

  • Heptagenia hebe
Fast water on the East Branch

Low-Profile Patterns

Traditionally hackled Catskill patterns excel in riffled water. They are designed to float high and stay buoyant. Delaware's flat water, on the other hand, requires the use of flies which float lower on the surface film. "Low-profile" flies present a better silhouette and imitate more closedly the emerger stage of the mayfly. There are many fly patterns which fall under the catagory of low-profile flies that are effective on the Delaware. In Selective Trout Doug Swisher and Carl Richards claim that the most effective fly to emerge from their studies was the no-hackle fly . . .

Selective Trout popularized the no-hackle patterns and flies in turn revolutionized the low-profile theories. Swisher and Richards' innovation ideas led the way for the creation of other low-profile patterns which are so effective in catching fish.

Comparaduns were developed by Caucci and Nastassi on the Delaware River. In their book, Hatches II, Caucci and Nastassi write, ". . .if the water is relatively calm and the duns are riding the current peacefully, a hackleless pattern such as a Comparadun, which features a distinct wing silhouette, would be the correct choice."


Presentation is even more important than using the right fly when fishing the Delaware. Since is river is large, long casts are frequently made to reach rising fish. Windy conditions are quite common, a five-weight fished on a nine-foot high modulus graphite rod is preferred. As a rule of thumb, try to get as close as possible to rising fish. The shorter the line, the less currents will have to be dealt with and therefore, less drag on the fly. If long casts must be made, move up and above the target and make a quartering downstream cast. However, just before the fly lands, bring the rod back and allow the fly to land a few feet above the target. Then instead of mending, bring the rod gradually forward in the direction of the current so the line will not drag the fly. Moreover, strip out line to float the fly downstream; this allows a lot of water to covered below with minimal effort. Just cast quartering downstream and start stripping out line without creating too much slack line in case you need to set the hook.


According to the NJDNR, close to a million shad enter the Delaware system each year making it truly the king of shad river. In early March, shad begin to collect around Delaware Bay; they move into the Delaware River by late March to early April when the water temperature rises to about 40 degrees. The shad then travel about 330 miles upstream to the town of Hancock, New York where the main stem separates into the East and West Branches. At the junction of the two branches, the majoriety of the shad swim up the East Branch, some all the way to Pepacton Dam. Even before the reservoirs were built in the 60s, shad seldom ascented the West Branch. . .

My initiation to shad fishing came as an accident some twenty years ago. While fishing a dorothea spinner fall one late June evening, I hooked what I thought was a monster rainbow trout. After a fierce 10-minute battle (which included spool-clearing runs and cartwheeling jumps), the fish finally came to my net and to my amazement, it was a 5-pound silvery shad. I was not only surprised at the accidental catch but what the fish actively took. From the time I knew about shad, I thought shad did not feed once they entered a river system. Many years and countless shad later, I realized this earlier notion not to be true.

Other Species

Smallmouth bass are prevalent throught the main river, especially the warmer sections down river, from Callicoon to Port Jervis (about 40 miles). Walleyes inhabit the deeper pools of the Delaware. Although not a fly-rod quarry, muskies are stocked in the Delaware. I have never seen nor caught a musky but hear that they are sometimes taken from a section of river in Narrowsburg, which contains the deepest pool on the Delaware. Pennsylvania stocks tiger muskies in certain sections of the river and regular muskies in others.

Striped Bass

Recovery of the striped bass in the Delaware came in the late 1980s when sewage treatment and discharge into the Delaware was improved . . .which increased the dissolved oxygen content. Due to lack of data not much is known on the migration pattern and reproduction of the striped bass in the Delaware. What is know is tht some very large fish are being caught throughout the river, sometimes fish as large as one lucky angler's 36-pound 44 1/2-inch monster caught in 1996.

Most striped bass on the Delaware are caught from late summer into early fall at night. Heavy tackle, up to a 9-weight, is advisable. Large flies, such as Zonkers in size 4 and minnow patterns up to 1/0, are recommended. Most stripers are in the 18-28-inch size but on occasion a large fish will keep things interesting. ~ George L. Spector

For a MAP of The Delaware River, click here.
For the FLIES for The Delaware River, click here.
To ORDER The Delaware River direct from the publisher, click HERE.

Credits: From Delaware River part of the River Journal series, published by Frank Amato Publications. We greatly appreciate use permission.

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