When The River Wakes Up

In a “normal” water year, things would be cranking along on the main stem of the Delaware, also known as “the big river”.  It’s definitely not as predictable as its West Branch, a fantastic tailwater, but it’s usually dependable for some bugs and fish faces.  Not as much this year.

 The flows haven’t been below 3000 cubic feet per second since July 2018.  Wade opportunities have been difficult and limited.  In a typical year, we go through the usual progression of bugs starting in mid-April.   

This season kicked off at the Friends of the Upper Delaware One Bug tournament. A couple steadfast friends and I volunteer to cook the Friday Night Kickoff BBQ.  We’ve successfully managed to feed 250 people or so for 11 years now.  At this point, it’s a well oiled machine, but it’s work nonetheless.  We spend the rest of the weekend on a special section of the river, where we can spread out and fish.  

It’s also a good place for a shore lunch, and spit banter at the guy working the rising fish.  No better casting coaches exist, then a couple of guys standing on the bank drinking beer lighting up a pal about what he’s doing wrong and what he can do better.  Some years, I never fish above this section – it’s that special.  When it’s on, it’s magical.  If it’s not, it’s a still place free from commercial traffic, where you can air out some line, and swing up a few big bows. 

My favorite hatch arrives mid-late May, and runs for a couple weeks.  Emergers and duns being important at the beginning, and the big spinners hanging around after the hatches wane.  March Browns.  It’s not a heavy hatch, but it tends to move the big fish.

On the Delaware, you usually pick a favorite branch.  Mine would be the Main.  The only drawback, is it can be inconsistent, when compared to the East and West Branches.  With the very large volume of water we’ve had for almost a year, the water has been high and cold.  This is good for the fish.  The flows kept the anchor ice from forming, which is good for the bugs too.  It seems that the higher water had really put the hatches off.

Fast forward to Memorial Day Weekend, we scared up a few on the blind, but still hadn’t seen it happen.  I’m a faithful person, but the way this season has started off has put that faith to the test.  Long days of little to no activity, more spikes in gauging station reports, and the armada reporting big fish and big numbers from the West Branch (which I really only fish under duress or desperation).  I left Sunday morning wondering when the hell it’s going to happen. IS it even going to happen?

I’ve had a lot on my plate these last few months.  Work challenges.  Closing delays on a new house in town.  Equipment failures.  Vehicle repairs.  Life stuff.  The worst has been being in a holding pattern on the closing, and not having the ability to properly plan fishing trips.

This last week, I was put under some pressure to get some furniture moved out of the Amish carpenter’s shop and into the new place.  The weather looked iffy, so I rented an enclosed trailer.  My bride, living the frustration of me, suggested I get the bedroom set in, and spend 2 days fishing.  What a good idea. 

An aside:  sometimes I’m asked how I get so much time on the water, in near and far places, being a husband and father of two.  All I can say, is I was upfront about fly fishing and all it entails when we started dating.  The absolute truth is I’m married to a very strong, supportive, and understanding woman, whom I appreciate and cherish.  Plus, I hold up my end of the bargain too.  Truthfully, I wish she had the interest to string up a fly rod and join me.  Maybe someday.  She does appreciate a float, provided there is food and drink.  And we don’t float well after dark. 

The first night was on foot, and the evening consisted of standing and watching for bugs and risers.  Neither obliged.  Honestly, that was okay.  It was nice to feel the push of the water, the anticipation of it happening, and the stillness of relaxed concentration.  The next morning brought me up with the sun. Instead of a morning of fly tying and coffee, I got it all together for a full day float.  Aside from a couple privateers like myself, no one was out yet.  The right oar pushed off the launch at 8:00am. 

Caddis were bouncing all over the place, and the fish were happily feeding on them in the shadows tight to the bank.  Before rounding the bend, some big fish met the black rubber of the net.  The winds were light, and the sun shone brightly.  The fish didn’t seem to mind.  Neither did I.

Around 2pm I picked up FUDR Executive Director, Jeff Skelding.  He’s a steward of both the river and the town, has done a lot to bring people together, and rowing in the same direction.  In his words, “it’s all connected – environmentally, economically, culturally, and politically.”  We’ve fished a few times over the years, but never on consecutive days with extended time.  Jeff lives on the river, and fishes almost daily when conditions permit.  He’s definitely a stick.    

 By anyone’s account, I already had a banner day before getting to Jeff’s house.  A doctor wasn’t required to confirm, my blood pressure had returned to normal levels, the scowl had vanished, and my soul was as bright as the sun. We checked out the usual spots all the way down.  Picked off a few fish.  The big bugs still hadn’t arrived though.  Spent some time catching up and surveying the water in the IDEAL spot, and still nothing.  We kept moving.

Knowing this water, and knowing that if spots were quiet, I moved down to where we’d finish the night.  Sliding around the corner, we were greeted by a blanket hatch, and a river boiling.  They weren’t cheeseburgers, but they had upright wings and stood out in the shadow of the mountain.  Hell yes.

We had such a night, that we decided to celebrate by having dinner out.  At the bar, spirits were high.  Seemed like just about everyone that fished had a memorable outing.  Although it was a Friday night, so I guess a few people could’ve been drunk.

The next day, we put in downstream of where we had started together the day before.  The big bugs showed up, as did some of their smaller counterparts.  It was superb.  Big fish up and eating.  The river finally woke up.  We lost track of time and fish.  Jeff avowed that he’d never had a day like that.  Let alone 2 in a row.  I’ve had some very good days over the years.  They’re all good in their own way.  This was sure memorable. 

I left real early Sunday morning.  Not with the heavy disappointment of previous trips this year.  I eased on to 17 heading West, with the satisfaction of knowing it was on and I witnessed it in all it’s glory.  And I’m headed back in a couple days to close. 


Mike Cartechine

Mike is a Rust Belt resident that started fly fishing before The Movie. He cut his teeth on the warm water fisheries in Ohio before moving east. His home river is the Upper Delaware, and in 2017 he founded the Upper Delaware River Native Fish Society, which raises awareness and respect for the native shad, chub, sucker, and black bass of this fabled fishery. He can also be found swinging muddlers for lake run fish on Great Lakes tributaries, and learning more about salt any chance he gets.

Mike prefers medium-fast action 5-weights with clean lines, sharp knives, meats cooked over fire, real Neapolitan pizza, and a well stocked & organized drift boat.

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