Catskill-Delaware Spring 1997

You don't have to think of the great rivers of the West anymore when you think of guides.   Just visit the Delaware River and you will be pleasantly surprised by the number and quality of the licensed guides available to take you fishing or hunting.   Join Narrowsburg fishing guide Tony Ritter as he takes you in his boat on a travel....

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Story and Photos by

Anthony Ritter,

NYS Licensed Guide



Heavy mist blankets the river as you embark in a flat bottom boat.   All is still.  You neither see nor hear other people.


It is spring 1997 although it could be 1897.  We're ready for you to join us as we travel downstream floating along with the current of the Delaware River.

The Upper Delaware River Valley begins in Hancock, and runs south for about 75 miles to Port Jervis, New York.   This waterway has had the distinction to be named a "Scenic and Recreational River" by the United States Government.

The valley offers the river traveler a variety of wildlife during their voyage.   Bald eagles, great blue heron, hawks, white tail deer, mink, beaver, and black bear are a sampling of the birds and animals that inhabit this area.   In addition, the river supports wild rainbow trout, shad, walleye, smallmouth bass and an assortment of panfish.   This roster of wildlife would be impressive if this region was in Northern Canada; it is even more so since the Upper Delaware is but a two hour drive northwest of New York City.

As your guide today, I'd like to give the reader a thumbnail sketch of some of the fish that you will encounter on the river along with some tips on technique - but first some background history of the river and its people.


Big Eddy - Narrowsburg


The history of the Delaware River dates back to the Lenape Indians and of the first white settlers that populated this area around 1640 near what is now known as Cochecton, New York.   Later on, in 1754, a group known as Connecticut Yankees, came to this region seeking land.   Among those early colonists was Daniel Skinner whose son, Daniel, was to become "Lord High Admiral" of the Delaware.

Skinner was the first man to utilize the Delaware River as highway for the lumber trade.   In 1764, he constructed a huge raft made of white pine that had been harvested from nearby forests.   He then managed to navigate this raft downstream from Cochecton to Easton, Pennsylvania and on to Philadelphia.   The lumber industry increased to such a degree that by 1830 at least 1,000 rafts were floating down the Delaware River to market each year.

Trips were made in early spring when the river was high and fast.   Enterprising souls, many of whom were farmers and lumbermen, would sometimes make two trips each year depending on the flow of the river.   The peak years of the lumber industry coincided with that of the coal trade in 1840.   One would think that both enterprises could co-exist in this rural area.

The coal trade was comprised of a network of canals linking the mines of northeastern Pennsylvania to the Hudson River for coal export south to the New York City markets.   A canal for coal barges was constructed which ran due east parallel to the Lackawaxen River and terminating at the confluence of the Delaware River in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania.

Upon reaching the Delaware River, the operators of the barges found that the Delaware was teeming with large rafts heading downstream.   Who had the right of way?   Fighting broke out.   The bottom line to both the coal and lumber executives was this - time is money. 

The board of directors of the Delaware and Hudson Canal hired an engineer by the name of John Roebling, who would later achieve fame for the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, to design a bridge, or aqueduct, so that the canal barges could "float above" the Delaware River thus expediting their cargo.   The bridge still stands today and is open to vehicular traffic.   It is credited with being the oldest suspension bridge in the nation.

As we float down the river, occasionally you might see a freight train running along the stone embankment tight to the river.   I am awed by the time and labor it took to place those stones piece by piece.   The laborers who built these walls and laid the railbed worked for the Erie-Lackawanna train line.   Most of them were immigrants and by 1850 the rail system was completed.

The Erie was an innovator in that it was the first railroad in the United States over 400 miles in length, the first to link the Atlantic seaboard with the Great Lakes, and the first to construct a telegraph line along its right of way.


As with any network of high speed travel, accidents occurred and the most famous of which as the railroad disaster that took place during the Civil War.   A northbound train carrying close to 800 Confederate prisoners en route to  Union prison camp in Elmira, collided with another train because of a drunker dispatcher.   The result was 49 Confederate prisoners dead along with 17 Union guards.

Rail travel was more profitable and faster not only for those transporting goods but also for urban dwellers looking for an escape from the grimy cities.   With the increase in rail travel came the influx of tourists and the resulting wave of Victorian boarding houses, spas and country resorts.   The tourist/recreation industry was born and continues to this day.

Whether it be canoeing, camping, bird watching or fishing, recreation plays a major role in the Delaware River Valley toady.   In my opinion, this river has one of the best fisheries in the United States.   So, if you care to wet a line, now's a good time for a few tips.




Shad are anadromous fish.   This means that they live their life in the Atlantic Ocean but return to freshwater to spawn.   The Delaware River was where these fish were born and by instinct they return to their natal beds after three to four years at sea.   Shad are related to the tarpon and are very strong fighters on rod and reel.


Tony with Delaware River shad


The area between Hancock and Barryville provides exciting sport from mid-May until early July.   Shad can be fished  from shore or boat and will strike a variety of shiny lures - spinners, darts or flutter spoons.   The object, though is to get your lure down deep - that is where the shad are.   They strike not out of hunger but out of some primal spawning urge.   Location varies depending on river height.   With high water anglers should concentrate on side eddys and when the water recedes, the pods will follow channels as they make their run upstream.



The river traveler will also encounter eel weirs on their voyage downstream.   Eel weirs, or traps, are made of rocks and may stretch out in the shape of a "v" to the width of the river.   You will probably encounter these structures from July until October.   Why?   Well, these "rock wings" have to rebuilt by hand every year since the early spring freshets of high water and ice destroys the weirs.   In addition, they are easier to build when the water is lower and warmer.

At the end of the "v' are wooden slats angled upwards with wooden crates to hold the eels on either side of one "v".   The eels are funneled into this "v", drop into the crates and are harvested at the end of each day.

The American eel, which is highly prized as table fare, are catadromous fish.   Quite simply, that means that they live their lives in fresh water and return to salt water to spawn - exactly the opposite of the shad.

Eel weirs, which at one time were quite numerous on the Delaware River, have dwindled down to a few.   Voyagers should always be ware of these structures and should travel to the right or left of them - never through them.




In recent years, eight pairs of bald eagles have nested or made the Upper Delaware River valley their year round home.   This is in addition to the 100 or so eagles who migrate down from Canada during the colder months.   Eagles have found the river valley to their liking as there is an abundance of fish along with plenty of secluded forests for them to roost.  The Eagle Institute offers year round seminars and field trips for those interested in learning more about the majestic bald eagle.



Rainbow trout were first introduced into the Delaware River by accident in the 1880's.   As legend has it, containers of trout were being transported by rail and there was an accident.   Quick thinking on the part of the trainmaster salvaged the cargo.   He dumped the trout into Callicoon Creek, a tributary of the Delaware, and these rainbows have naturally reproduced since then.   

To my knowledge, there has never been any stocking of hatchery raised trout on the Delaware.

Man with Delaware River trout

The rainbows that you may catch are all wild.   They have beautiful markings and possess an electric energy that will strip your line before you know it.   By the way, the trainmaster who rescued those trout back in the 1880's was one Dan Cahill for whom the popular Light Cahill fly is named.

Rainbows, for the most part, like fast pocket water for that is where there is oxygen and plenty of food.  They will feed on caddis larvae, stonefly and mayfly nymphs under rocks in fast shallow water.   Travel a few yards downstream of these riffs and chances are good that you'll hook into a Delaware rainbow.




If you're one of those anglers that gets a tad impatient if you haven't had a tug on your line every twenty minutes, the Delaware smallmouth population won't disappoint you.   These fish are abundant and are always scrappy on light tackle.   A few years ago, the legal size was increased to twelve inches and, in my opinion, that has made the fishery better than ever.

Smallmouths will average eight to twelve inches but you'll find a number of bronzebacks that will exceed fifteen inches and they'll really put a bend in your rod!   Smallmouths are most active when the water temperatures reach into the seventies.   I prefer June through September period for non-stop bronzeback action.   My favorite plugs during this period would be small floating Rapalas and Tiny Torpedos.   They are just the ticket when the water is warm.   In the fall, when the water cools, try using a lead head jig tipped with grub tails or deep diving small crawdad crankbaits.




The Upper Delaware River has a sleeper of a walleye fishery.   In this writer's opinion, the best time to target ol' marble eyes is when the water temperatures fall below 45 degrees - that would be from late October until ice-up or ice-out until March.   The season closes between march and May to protect spawning fish.


Tony with Delaware River walleye


Walleyes can be found in deep holes throughout the river.   The preferred method is to jig with live bait or to use a lindy rig tipped with a baby lamprey eel.   Make sure that your bait is ticking along the bottom with no slack in the line.   If you find yourself on the river on an overcast day or when the water is a bit stained - so much the better since walleyes are sensitive to bright sunny days.

Before we bring our boat in and go ashore for the day, I just want to stress a few points about river safety and courtesy.

  • Always wear a PFD (Personal Flotation Device)

  • Wear warm woolen clothing in cold weather

  • Do not overload your boat or canoe.  Keep your weight evenly distributed

  • Be courteous.   If you're boating, go behind wading anglers - they have the right of way.   And if you're using a boat with a motor - slow down!   You're on a river with lots of rocks and canoes.

  • Be alert for changes in the weather.   Get off the water in the event of lightning.

  • If you get swamped, hold onto the upstream end of your boat to avoid being crushed between the boat and a boulder.   Float on your back with your feet pointed downstream.   Do not attempt to stand in fast water unless it is too shallow to swim in since the current can pin you under if your foot is caught in the rocks.

  • Whatever you brought on your trip - take it out with you.   No litter please and

  • Much of the land on both sides of the river is private property.   Always ask the permission of the landowner when on private land.

The Upper Delaware River Valley is a very special place.   No matter what season of the year you choose, the scenery is unsurpassed with new adventures around each bend.   I hope you'll have a chance to experience this great river.

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