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December 03, 2016
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‘More eagles than people!’

Talk to anyone who targets smallmouth on the Delaware River and you will know that now is the time. Just after I suggested that we were in the “dog days of summer” and that fishing could be dull, Rich Roth of Eldred did a Delaware float with two buddies and they caught 105 smallies. That’s hardly dull.

Smallmouth have always been part of our fishing heritage. Find an old photo of Zane Grey, and he’s apt to be holding a smallmouth dubbed “Grandpa” or perhaps “King of the Lackawaxen.”

I suspect however, that even Hall of Fame angler Zane Grey wasn’t likely to have a 105-fish day very often. Today, however, a six- to eight-mile float may produce epic catches. Two factors contribute to the spectacular fishing: water conditions and shad.

While the 70-degree water temperature mark indicates the time for trout fishers to pack the fly rods away for awhile, it also triggers smallmouth activity. Veteran river guide Tony Ritter suggests that the 70- to 76-degree temperature range makes for a very active smallmouth fishery.

What do shad have to do with it? We’re not talking about the shad we delight in catching in May. Those shad are then migrating upriver from the salt to spawning areas upriver. It is the product of that spawn, the next generation, that impacts the bass fishing.

It is at this time of year that the shadlings begin their migration back to the salt. These tender little beauties migrate en masse and become the primary food source for the smallie. Imitate a shadling heading for tidewater and you have a first-rate smallmouth bait.

Kurt Hagemann has been meeting fishers’ needs since 1979 at his Tackle & Variety Shop in Shohola, PA. Back in the day, prime baits were hellgrammites and shiners. Today any silver/blue baby shad imitation will work, if fished on a light spinning rig with four- to six-pound test line. Lures include Heddon Torpedos, the silver/blue #9 Rapala and white or silver finished Yamamato Sinkos or Venom soft baits. When the smallies are on the feed, “it’s hard not to catch them,” according to Kurt.

The right conditions are also necessary. In addition to the correct temperature range, Ritter looks for clear water at normal levels and the shadling migration.

He suggests his fly-rod clients throw clousers, zonkers, woolie buggers, poppers and gurglers. For spinfishers, he also likes Heddon Torpedos, or Storm Chug Bugs and the Rebel Pop-r. For soft baits, he recommends Sinkos rigged regular or wacky (hooked in the middle) style, and Kei-Tech rubber grubs fished with a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce jig head. Sixty- to 80-fish days are not unusual. The whole Upper Delaware from Hancock to Port Jervis is good fishing. Ritter likes to target three floats: Callicoon to Damascus, Narrowsburg to Ten Mile River, and Ten Mile River to Zane Grey’s. All are great producers, provided you focus on shallow oxygenated water at a depth of two to six feet.

There is even more to this story. The smallmouth fishing remains strong through September and even into the first couple of weeks of October. After all their foraging on the shadlings, the bass have put on a growth spurt. They will be in prime condition and have “shoulders.” Late-season bass are spectacular fighters.

These float trips offer far more than great fishing. The views and scenery are spectacular, and this time of year the river is uncrowded and pristine. It’s not uncommon to “see more eagles than people,” says Ritter.

I’ve never taken a river float when I wasn’t dazzled by the river’s beauty right in our own backyard, and you will be too. You don’t even need a rod in your hand to enjoy and appreciate it.

[E-mail me at andyboyar@gmail.com for comments and upcoming events.]