When the hendrickson hatch is in full swing, there’s no river I’d rather fish than the West Branch of the Delaware. The WBD is a bug factory. This river provides a substantial emergence of hendricksons, along with other tasty insect species for trout. Prolific hatches produce trophy trout. Few rivers in the East rival the biomass of insects that are available on the West Branch. Even fewer waters produce so many 18″ plus wild trout. Still, it’s not a river without complications and a myriad of challenges for the angler. The insects and fish are there, catching them is another matter!
To cap off Spring Break I managed an overnight trip to the West Branch of the Delaware. I invited a wonderful father and son duo from church to join me. They are eager fly fishers, having taken up the sport several years ago. It was their first trip to the Upper Delaware River System. We stayed at the West Branch Angler Resort and spent a day and a half fishing the Lower East Branch, the West Branch Angler Resort water and the Special Regulations/Trophy water on the West Branch. The father managed three quality fish nymphing riffles. The son experienced success as he hooked a couple of nice fish using a Quill Gordon or his personally tied Antron Rusty Spinner. He didn’t get them to net, but it was a positive start by reading the rise form, selecting the appropriate fly pattern, casting, mending, executing the drag free drift and picking up the slack line in time to hook the trout. Just deceiving these wild, wary fish to take in low, slow water conditions deserves recognition. I’ve witnessed plenty of anglers experience less catching success on their first foray to the WBD. Well done for a first time trip to the Upper Delaware System!
I redeemed myself from my last trip to the WBD. Experience and stealth sure help on this river. Each day I landed several fish in the upper teens. My largest was a measured 20″ brown trout that gobbled a Foam Shell Hair Wing Rusty Spinner, size # 16. Even landing a few nice fish, it’s tough not to feel like the river has the upper hand right now. It is highly challenging to catch them. The bugs are there, but so is the incessant wind, the low flow and heightened selectivity and wariness of the WBD trout. On Thursday, we saw minor white caps on the West Branch during the hendrickson hatch. That shuts down 98% of the dry fly fishing. Heavy wind gusts deter rising trout. It’s tough to master dry fly fishing with 20 mph gusts. Another complication is that the low flow rate of 270 cfs makes for exceptionally spooky trout. A year ago when I fished the WBD it was flowing at 1,600 cfs (Like most anglers, I’m concerned about the low water, lack of rain and forecast for warmer temperatures). Low water may bunch up trout and move them to particular stretches of river, but they are also more well sensitive to out of water threats. Loud talking, foot steps, boots scraping or a minimal wake puts down feeding trout. I didn’t see as many shallow bank feeders this trip. Most times, they appeared to prefer the comfort of deeper water. Another complication to catching these fish is the quantity of insects available. Apple caddis, early black stoneflies, yellow stoneflies, blue quills, blue winged-olives and hendricksons are all on the menu. You have to determine which insect and what stage of the hatch these fish prefer. Couple the sheer number of insects on the water with gusty wind, inconsistent risers, low water and spooky trout, and you have a perfect angling scenario for technical, dry fly fishing.
If you fish you are an optimist. That’s good, because you need a healthy dose of optimism to be successful during tough conditions on the West Branch. There are angling tricks and strategies that you may employ to increase your hook up possibilities. A few dry fly tactics for this technical tail water include:
- Avoid entering the water or wade even slower than a heron. If you can cast to a fish from land, do it. Keep your rod tip low, stay low and avoid lining the fish. Even one extra false cast might alarm these fish.
- Wear drab, dull clothing. Multiple times, we spooked fish merely by walking on the road above the river. Bright colors, sudden movement or casting shadows can all be avoided. During low water and with bright sun, these fish have a wide cone of vision to detect potential threats.
- Position yourself upstream and to the side of the fish. This position allows you to make a fly first presentation, keeping the tippet above the fly. You want the fish to see the fly first, not your leader. I like to drop the fly 8′ to 10′ above the feeding fish, straighten/mend my drift so that the fly is lined up to drift directly into the fish, fly first. As your fly drifts, purposefully point your rod tip at the water and gently shake out coils of line to feed and extend the drift. If the fish doesn’t take, let your fly gently drift well beyond and then it will swing to the side. Gently pick up or twitch/retrieve your fly, taking care not to spook or line the fish.
- Maintain patience, observe the fish and determine if it have a feeding pattern, what it is feeding on and when is the optimal moment to manage a presentation. You may need to cast between the narrow window of calmness, when the wind doesn’t blow. I like to cast to a feeding fish when the feeding ring is still visible. The rings of the rise form may reduce the fish’s cone of visibility. The fish is also returning to a holding position before the next feed, so your cast has the potential to be less noticed.
- If you have placed 5 or 6 accurate, drift free casts on an actively feeding fish, change patterns. Select a fly with a different profile, color variation, smaller/larger size, etc. A larger pattern may be exactly what is needed to command the trout’s attention during a heavy hatch period. Continue to study the rise form of the trout. Or, simply seine the surface of the water to determine what insect/stage is being consumed.
- Go for that most active, aggressive fish. Those are the ones that are more likely to inhale your offering. If you are within casting distance of several feeding fish, opt for the most active of the bunch. That fish is more likely to be a player and take your fly.
- Fish as long a leader as you may comfortably cast. I’m already using a 16′ – 6x fluorocarbon leader. If you have the good fortune to hook a fish, let it run. Gently let the fish pull out any spare line and calmly fight the fish from the reel. These are strong, acrobatic and heavy shouldered fish that will gradually wear down w/ consistent, lateral rod pressure.
Finally, I wanted to share an ugly angling incident that I witnessed firsthand. On Friday, I was one of three men fishing a 200 yard stretch of the Special Regulations Area. Two fellow fly fishers approached from above and they were heading to a rocky gravel point, well below where anyone else was fishing. Observing that these two men were heading to the rocky gravel point, the two fisherman near me, abruptly reeled in and noisily waded across and downstream the long pool. They intended to cut the new arrivals off at the rocky gravel point, at the other side of the river. These two rude wading anglers put down my fish, spooked all fish within several hundred yards and intentionally blocked out the new arriving fly fishers. It was a boorish, inconsiderate, unethical angling act and I’m surprised that only a few minor words were exchanged. We all love to fish and want to catch fish. That’s not an excuse to ruin fishing for others or to purposefully cut off a fellow angler. We can all do our part in sharing the resources, promoting ethical angling and maintaining the integrity of our beloved sport. A little consideration and communication can go a long way. If those aggressive wading anglers had of shared or held back, there likely would have been more rising trout for all parties to share. Let’s continue to do our part to promote good will and friendship among anglers!