Thursday, November 24, 2016

Delaware River at Interstate 80 and Delaware Water Gap

A sudden cold snap typically puts fish off from feeding, but we've had cold weather here in New Jersey for days now, and though I hoped the stable quality of the weather might mean some fish feeding despite cold water, the Delaware River seemed completely deserted. Thirty nine-degree water clear as a bell, bottom visible 12 feet down, current slow with low water as severe drought persists; we never sighted a fish of any species, and the structure near the pillars of Interstate 80's gateway into Pennsylvania proved to be less of a fish attractor than I had hoped. I'll explain this in a moment.

We bought 2-cycle oil in Chester for Mike's untried 3 1/2-horse outboard many years old, and then gas in Flanders, listening to Stevie Ray Vaughan after I had switched off WQXR classical music to play "Shake for Me," my hybrid striped bass theme song from May when we trolled for these lightning streaks. Nothing shakes on the line like a hybrid bass. Conversation had just got started back in Bedminster and for more than seven hours total, never quite ceased. The music played under what we had to say.

At 13 State Route 183, Stanhope Bait and Boat--13 my favorite number and not surprisingly the name of a Door's album--we found the shop closed and surmised that Diane, think that's the proprietor's name, must have left for a Thanksgiving destination along with the many others crowding the highways. I shot a photo of Lake Musconetcong covered by skim ice from aside her shop.

So we continued north on 183 to connect with U.S. Highway 206, drove through Andover and stopped at a shop chiefly advertising guns and ammo. I muttered my bewilderment about live bait; Mike quickly pointed a sign to my left advertising it. So we stepped inside to immediately witness a man trying out an AK-15, I think Mike said it was. Not firing it, but peering through the sights. I better liked the shotgun typically used for hunting that I might have noticed in passing as another man examined the weapon. The woman proprietor was one of the many kinds I like--steely backbone, fit to deal with tough customers, attractive, and friendly in no way obnoxious. As she scooped our three dozen shiners, I asked her of any fishing report. She told me Aeroflex is down 15 feet, salmon coming over the gunnels. I told her we were after walleye on the Delaware and before she said more, the two gun prospectors chimed in to confirm that now's the time for those fish.

It is and isn't. I didn't say that, but of course that's what I thought. When the river warms by as little as less than a degree or two, on those unusually mild days as we enjoyed here in New Jersey just days ago--temperatures above 70--or maybe when it's considerably cooler than that but warming the water--walleye get caught on plugs in the shallows as sunset approaches during winter. Otherwise, it's jigging pretty deep and possibly tipping those jigs with live shiners, or just using a plain shank size 6 hook and a medium-size or large split shot. Shiners tempt a take or two more likely than lures, or maybe half a dozen hits rather than one or two, as back in the 1970's I fished down river at Bull's Island with my brother Rick and we caught that many walleye on a chilly December day. My coldwater history on the Delaware doesn't encompass much experience, but I have caught smallmouth bass while wading the river in December, also. How I managed to keep my feet from going numb involved standing on rocks above water level. Those were boot-foot waders I used, but not of high quality. I've fished the river enough in the cold to have rich memories.

I began succumbing to fantasies of doing what Mike and I did today about 10 years ago. In December 2004 or 2005, my son and I fished the river below Carpentersville from shore on a December 7th, trudging through a foot of snow. We rode out to Phillipsburg and cast plugs in February sometime around 2006. All well and nice, but not in a boat like that time with one of my brothers. I dreamed and dreamed of just a 12 or 14-foot boat with a 9.9-horse outboard. Artistic temperaments like mine have chemistries more potent than hallucinogenic drugs which only mimic what comes natural to us, at least if any of us has such chemistry to the pronounced degree I experience, which isn't to say I suffered my dreams of the Delaware, but enjoyed them deeply. Of course, I imagined some pretty great fish, though I knew the likelihood of getting skunked if I ever were to get out on the river, rather than fish it from shore, since after all, you can't rent a raft to float downriver in November, and I knew the unlikelihood of ever affording a boat, given my chronic financial straits. The truth is, years after the deepest of these dreams, I spent more money on camera equipment than to have paid for that 14-foot boat and outboard, minus the charges of storage space, since condo association rules where we live prohibit trailers in the lots. Finally, I had a solution after experimenting with an inflatable for a few years. The squareback canoe I keep hidden behind bushes flush against a wall of our unit.

Mike's outboard failed us today, but my 55-pound thrust electric got us way upriver without any problems. Those pillars in the photo below create eddies that I know hold bass during the warm months, since my son and I have done well wading and fishing those closest to the Jersey bank. We fished eddies only a few feet deeper mid-river, seemingly great for relieving bass and walleye from fighting cold current, but I don't think any fish were present at all. We fished very methodically, thoroughly, and then began to poke our way back downstream with the sonar graph on, finding that the same depth of about 10 feet extends some 400 yards down below the bridge before water deepens to about 12 feet for at least another 400 yards, before finally deepening to about 16...until reaching 28 feet deep across the river from the ramp at least a half mile below the bridge. So fish that must have some relation to deeper water--55 feet deep at most further downstream--don't have much structure in the form of rocky edges and deep water rising to those relatively shallow pillars, which would draw and guide them to and fro. The bottom we could plainly see beneath us is featureless and uniform. Just hand-size rocks for the most part, leading nowhere. I had hoped for a hole of about 20 feet deep just downstream of the bridge, assuming depths would increase on downward. Well, a long way downward.

And we fished those depths way downward, drifting with slow river current, keeping shiners at bottom. We came upon another boat, two anglers complaining of catching nothing, as they said they often do catch bass in the cold, though they didn't manage to find a bait shop open for the shiners they wanted, and fished jigs instead. Not that hair jigs, or jigs with plastics, don't work at all in the cold.

Always important to get out. I forgot everything else, and a lot of what is otherwise becomes very stressful and not rewarding of much pay, not that I don't recognize it's more important. It's just that it's more important yet--to forget what's important.

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