Saturday, July 8, 2017

Delaware River Smallmouth Bass: Summer Approaches



Summer Smallmouth Bass on the Delaware River



By Bruce Edward Litton





          During summers the past decade, I’ve taken my family float tripping on the Delaware River. Me, my son, his uncles, and also friends never failing to catch plenty of smallmouth bass. Warm water means smallmouths gorge on a smorgasbord of forage, including crayfish (especially molting), hellgrammites, other insect larvae, hatched insects, terrestrial insects, leeches, nematodes, other worms and a whole host of forage fish. Unlike summer largemouths, smallies fiercely hit lures or bait throughout the day, but if you’re keen on a big one over three pounds, the hour around sunrise and sunset makes a difference for wise old fish.

          A wide variety of river habitat holds Delaware smallmouths in quite abundant numbers, the average size about a pound, fish over two pounds fairly frequent, a bass over three pounds an unusual event, although until the state record seven-pound, two-ounce smallmouth came from Round Valley Reservoir, the record held at six-pounds, four-ounces from the Delaware. On occasion I hear stories of six-pound smallmouths getting caught. While plenty of bass come from shore or by wading, float tripping involves classic river outings. Primitive camping is allowed some places along the river, Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area permits available. If you don’t own a canoe or kayak, rental agencies exist, and arrangements for inflatable rafts work also, just be sure to bring a 10-pound mushroom anchor to make fishing more efficient.

          Floating for smallmouths involves pace. Anchoring allows thorough coverage of a promising spot, and catching as many as half a dozen bass before action fades happens frequently. Newcomers to floating should keep river mileage to a minimum and get a feel for how long they like to linger on spots. We’ve rafted as many as seven miles in about eight hours, taking a leisurely lunch onshore. A southerly wind, however, challenges headway especially for rafters but even canoeists. Typically, we take our time doing about half that distance I mentioned.

          The closest the river comes to real wilderness in New Jersey locates Sussex and Warren counties as perhaps the best smallmouth bass fishing, but Hunterdon and Mercer counties offer very good fishing for bronzebacks all the way down to Trenton. Introduced to the river’s fishing just north of Trenton during my middle teens, as soon as I earned my driver’s license, I started fishing with friends north of the Water Gap, but I fished successfully around Titusville, Lambertville, Bull’s Island and Byram in Mercer and Hunterdon also. In recent years, the Phillipsburg and Belvidere areas have proven their worth.

          Everywhere myriad river structures hold bass, but during the summer months, the best spots situate between the heads of strong rapids and deep holes or slow stretches well below the fast water. Current seams and eddies with depths of six to 10 feet complicated by boulders—smooth and jagged—give bass staging points to ambush forage awash in flow. Crankbaits such as the Storm Hot ‘n Tot, Flatmaster Tournament Series EBS, Bandit Mid-Range and Deep Diver among dozens of other choices all produce in a variety of colors, although for sunny days, I prefer chrome finish to provoke reaction strikes. Cast upstream and especially fish directly downward along seam edges, where bass anticipate forage coming to them.

          Very effective for the same sorts of spots and deep holes, jigs allow a subtler approach, and after I catch an eager bass or two on a crankbait, I like to grab a second rod and fish very close to the subsurface eddies and seams boulders create. These less obvious meanderings of current hold picky bass loyal to little lairs, and during the middle of the afternoon, the biggest bass may be least likely to lurch away from staging spots to charge a crankbait. Get a jig right on the nose and you may catch a reluctant taker. Berkeley Gulp! Leeches prove extremely effective as trailers for eighth to quarter-ounce leadheads.

          Thousands of boulders and rocks have space underneath them to protect bass either wary or eager to ambush. We’ve caught jet-black smallmouths from slow stretches two feet deep; from riffles and mid-size rapids; from seams and eddies and from the hidden mystery of deep holes. Each of these camouflaged fish shot out from darkness to take the lure. Slow stretches with just enough current flow to make the water surface look appealing often hold quite a few bass you can’t see because they hug the rocks or hide beneath.

          Many of the transitions between stretches you may float will be shallow. I’ve never lost the thrill of innocent surprise catching bass as we pass boulders left and right with barely enough water in the eddies behind to cover bass’s backs, and it seems as if every summer we catch a few of these fish with no thought to anchor. Rapala floaters will catch bass in shallows—whether of riffles, eddies behind rocks or of slow stretches---but as we rough and tumble quickly downstream towards slower water, we just toss eighth-ounce jigs about. And sometimes we don’t have to cast. We just pitch the lead behind a rock as we pass and pull the bass aboard. (These fish have always weighed a pound or less.)

          In contrast to sun-heated shallows, the best deep holes on the river drop off from steep shale ledges. Some of these underwater cliffs develop concave shapes from current erosion, and bass position in the shade. Casting a jig right against the rock face and allowing it to fall to bottom may result in a hit on the drop, so keep the line taut enough to feel the tick if it happens, but not so tight that the descent angles the jig back towards you. If the distance cast were the same as the depth below, a tight line would mean the jig coming to rest on bottom directly under the rod. You want to fish against the wall all the way down, which requires an open bail and index finger control.

          Like jigs, Senko-style worms catch so many bass, it’s possible to fish nothing else all day. Light colors with sun, dark when overcast, fat-bodied Senkos five inches long cast far and get gobbled. Almost all of the river structures serve them. Some of the holes reach great depths and quarter-ounce or heavier jigs can plumb the very bottom, but Senkos sink fast unweighted and will prove effective as deep as about 15 feet. Casting far upstream of a deep belly and allowing current to carry the worm into the hole is a deadly imitation of forage at the mercy of the river’s sweep. Line control in such situations is not a straight affair, but by keeping six-pound test monofilament loosely taut, you’ll know when a bass takes. Just make sure to reel line and use the rod tip to judge a tight hookset.

         Longer six to seven-foot, medium power rods cast further than shorter rods of the same strength, though with some loss of accuracy. For crankbaits, a fast action tip is needed, which also helps with feel when fishing jigs and to work topwater plugs during the memorable magic hours early and late.                   

      

            

2 comments:

  1. Great tips! I just completed an overnight kayak trip through the Gap from Dingman's Ferry (Pa.) to Poxono access (18 miles). Smallmouth were very active (smashing senkos and other lures), even caught a few rock bass at night from shore. Camping in the Gap is available near Walpack Bend (Peters area, Hamilton area). A great guidebook is "Canoeing the Delaware River." I've paddled and fished 85 miles of the river from Calicoon, NY, to Worthington State Forest (which also has a campground). The upper Delaware in New York has more challenging (fun) rapids than the Gap section, but the Gap is a great place to learn to handle moving water.

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    1. Thanks! A friend and I paddled 40 miles...can't remember if overnight or two nights, but we had to paddle like mad towards the end. This almost 40 years ago. (Saw a musky mid-river near the surface, caught just a few bass at most.) For more than the past decade, we go to Barryville, NY, and rent an inflatable, bringing along a mushroom anchor & paddling. Catch plenty smallmouths. Some walleye, too. Exciting to read your account. I just love that Poxono area & do well fishing from shore, but it's been about six years now since I last tried there. Good to hear about camping. I have memories other than the 40 mile paddle, too, and they will never fade out. Oh, and once, a brother and I paddled from Lordsville to Calicoon, but we didn't catch many.

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