Return of the Delaware

September on the Mainstem

It was thirty-eight degrees when I walked out on my porch yesterday morning, a sure sign that the time had come to alter my morning fishing routine and seek the open waters of the Mainstem. The river has finally cooled beautifully during this past week of early autumn temperatures, and I had heard of a friend’s success finding active trout. It may be the last week of summer, but a morning in the thirties and an afternoon high of sixty-five clearly shows that the dog days are behind us.

I puttered around during the morning, finishing some reading and writing a promised book review. It was nice to be able to relax rather than hurry to hit the road. I sorted through some fly boxes to make certain the right flies were in my vest, which has spent most of these past weeks on the sidelines. I cleaned the double tapered five weight fly line on my old St. George and paired it up with Dennis Menscer’s eight foot hollowbuilt, readying myself for a visit to the big river in the afternoon.

It was around two o’clock when I slipped into my waders, pushing my feet into my battered studded boots and pulling the dry laces up tight. Ankle support counts in fast water on the Delaware’s rocky bottom. I found a couple of vehicles parked when I arrived at the river, no doubt anglers like myself anxious to return to the river on a gorgeous and wonderfully calm afternoon. There was just enough pale, lace curtain cloud cover to take the edge off the brightness of the high sun, a good omen for surface fishing.

The river was low, flowing not much more than 800 cfs, if you add the East and West Branch flows from the Fishes Eddy and Hale Eddy gages. Even with the cool weather and gentle water temperatures, I figured the Delaware rainbows would be more comfortable in the faster water with a little bit of depth.

I prospected one favorite riffle, my mind going back to an epic bow that once intercepted my swinging Leadwing Coachman in that smallish little cut. Leviathan gave me a tug reminiscent of a steelhead, ran, then vaulted into the air displaying the deep green and flaming red the species is known for. A huge rainbow, easily better than two feet long, heavily muscled and vibrantly alive with the wild energy of the Delaware strain. He took back to the water, ran short but hard again, then snapped my 5X tippet with a vicious head shake. Ah the photo in my mind of that leap! I see it vividly each time I think of that riff.

I passed an older gentleman wading slowly, leaving him plenty of water while I eased into a chute of fast water downstream. Knee deep and uneven, I believed I would find what I sought there; and I did.

Here and there I spotted a couple of spurts, a trout would rising hard to something, and I suspected that a few stray isonychia mayflies might be to blame. I knotted one to the 5X at the end of my leader, pausing to think about the Delaware rainbows that had snapped my 5X tippets in the past, but feeling confident that the soft tip of the bamboo rod would cushion even their energy. It only took a few casts to prove myself wrong. I missed the first opportunity, casting quickly to a second spurt upstream in the same bubble line, and overreacting just a bit on my hookset. I never even felt him, but my line came back without the fly.

I checked that tippet carefully as I knotted another comparadun, satisfying myself that it would hold if I maintained my decorum. The character of the afternoon was already clear: the rises would come a handful of times, each in a different place, then cease for several minutes, and I didn’t want to waste time rebuilding my leader while any rises were showing.

I must have made half a dozen casts when the next spurt appeared, knowing our bows’ penchant for moving upstream as they feed, and covering the line of drift from downstream to upstream. The next spurt interrupted the drift of my fly and the Menscer assumed the deep, throbbing arch I know and love! I was thankful that Mr. Bow didn’t want to spool me, choosing instead to make short runs and hard changes in direction, using the considerable current to his advantage. No trout I know fights quite like a Delaware River rainbow!

This was a typical nice river bow, perhaps seventeen inches long with good wide flanks and plenty of high voltage electricity, which he expended both in the air and in the water. You can never be sure whether an individual fish has migrated upstream to summer in colder water, or hunkered down by a spring seep in one of the Mainstem’s deep eddies to survive three months of seventy-five degree and higher water temperatures. You only need catch one to understand why dedicated Delaware River anglers are always clamoring for higher reservoir releases. I released that fish with a wide grin and thanked him for playing the game with me.

The isonychia seemed to lose favor quickly, and I confronted the conundrum once again. What rises I observed were the hard, aggressive spurts that make me think that fairly substantial insects must be involved, yet the only flies I saw in the air were small, likely olives and Hebe’s. I couldn’t quite convince myself to drown a size twenty olive in that bubbling chute of current, so I tried a caddis for a while and then settled on one of my Poster versions of a Hebe.

The afternoon was moving along toward evening, and I could feel the air cooling. With the mid-river action ceased, I worked back toward the bank and downstream a bit to look for rises where the current softened slightly. A couple eventually showed, likely moving fish as the big river is noted for, and my casts remained untouched. When a fish rose a second time in about the same place, I took it as a sign and peppered that bubble line with casts, finally joining battle with a second warrior.

Rainbow number two bent the cane and spun the pawls on my seventy plus year old Hardy even better than his predecessor, and that took some effort. When he leaped clear of the surface I saw a somewhat wider flank than the first bow’s. This fellow must have found a few more meals through the long hot summer than his brother. Finally drawing him close enough to scoop him with the net, I pinched the little fly and turned it free from his jaw, another nice Delaware rainbow with the heart of a steelhead.

Life on the Delaware isn’t easy for these magnificent wild rainbows, and it is rare for a fish to live long enough to reach twenty inches. I have been blessed to catch several of that size during twenty-five years of Delaware fishing. The typical nice Delaware bow, the fish that will spool you with ease should they have the inclination, will measure between fourteen and eighteen inches long. Their heart however is immeasurable.

An exceptional Delaware River rainbow: twenty-two inches of strength and indomitable spirit taken on a May 2009 float trip with Delaware River Guide Patrick Schuler. It would be eleven years before I would eclipse that trout with a pair of longer and heavier Delaware bows.

The Mainstem welcomed me back with open arms, and I thanked her as I lingered during my hike back to the car. Spring and autumn are the seasons of this great river. Should New York City ever fix their leaks and curb their incredible waste of our watershed’s precious, pure water, perhaps the amazing Delaware rainbows way thrive in summer. It would be truly inspiring to be able to see this fishery reach its full potential.

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