The forgotten fish
Spin fishing for smallies in the Upper Delaware
Smallmouth bass, also called the “bronzeback,” “brown bass” or “smallie” are among the feistiest and most acrobatic of all the freshwater game fish, and lucky for us are the most prolific fish in the Upper Delaware River. Warm-water fish, smallies mostly populate the waters from Callicoon downstream. Since they eat anything and everything from aquatic insects and crustaceans to baitfish, terrestrial insects and frogs, fishing for them is considerably easier than for the more finicky trout who live in the colder waters upstream of Callicoon. The average-size smallmouth bass in the river is 9 to 12 inches, with 12 to 18 inchers being fairly common. This article is meant to help the neophyte, and especially youngsters, get started angling for smallies.
Getting started in river fishing is neither difficult nor expensive, particularly for smallies. An inexpensive light- or medium-action spinning rod from 5 to 7 feet, spooled with 4- to 8-lb. test line, a small tackle box, and a pair of fishing or long-nosed pliers is all you will need to get started. If you are going out for the first time, I‘d recommend as a starter set-up a 6-foot “light action” spinning rod matched with an appropriate sized reel, filled with 6-pound monofilament line.
An attractive aspect of smallmouth fishing is that, unlike trout, they are most active during the warmer months. From late June through late September, there isn’t a more enjoyable way to spend the day on our beautiful Delaware than angling for bass. And you don’t have to get on the water early, since smallies are normally active during the warmest part of the day: 12 noon to 5 p.m. is prime time.
Smallies can be fished successfully from shore, while wading, or during a rafting or kayaking float from one of the many liveries along the river. Since smallies eat such a wide range of foods, you could have a diversity of lures in your tackle box. With a few jigs, soft plastic grubs, swim baits, 4-inch Wacky Worms, spinners, minnow plugs, or top water baits you’d be set for any situation.
But to keep it simple to start, and to maximize the prospects for success, tie on either of the soft plastic lures discussed on the next page with an improved clinch knot (look for an instructional video on YouTube) and hit the river.
Some helpful tips:
• Soft plastic lures really work! A 3- to 4-inch Keitech Swing Impact Grub rigged on a light (1/16 to 1/8 oz.) jighead, or a four-inch Yamamoto “Senko” rubber worm rigged “wacky style” with a #1 or #2 circle hook are deadly baits for smallies. (Again, look for an instructional video on YouTube.)
• In clear water conditions, stick to natural colors such as black, brown, green and white. Stained water calls for brighter colors. Fish the Keitech on a slow steady retrieve. The Senko should be drifted with the current. When water temperatures reach 70˚F, in-line spinners (1/8 to ¼ oz.), minnow plugs and top water lures walked through the riffles and rapids are a fun way to catch a bunch of smallmouth bass. The explosion when a smallie hits on the surface is quite a thrill.
• For safety and comfort always wear a hat or cap and polarized sunglasses. By cutting surface glare, glasses are invaluable aids for observing fish and are important protection from flying hooks or lures.
• Your needle-nosed pliers have a twofold purpose. One is to pinch down the barbs on all lures and jigs, especially the treble hooks on hard baits such as F9 Rapala or Heddon Tiny Torpedos. Their second purpose is to aid in the removal of the hooks from a landed or netted fish. Pinching down the barbs will protect you in case of a mishap and is important for the fish—which we advocate releasing unharmed back into the river.
• Smallies like to hang around rocks, and we have no shortage of them in the river. Cliffs, ledges and boulders just below rapids are great places to try your luck. Weed beds or wood (trees, branches, stumps, etc.) are great spots for some of the bigger bass. We once caught two 18-inch, 3.5-pound bass on consecutive casts just off a dead tree in deep water.
• When the water temperatures reach 70° and higher, many of the bass gravitate to the well oxygenated riffles and rapids. Concentrate on those areas during the dog days of summer with the above mentioned lures—you’ll have a blast. Early spring and late fall is when you will see the largest bass of the year coming to the net. Fourteen to 20-inch bass can be caught on very slow moving jerk baits, swimbaits or grubs. Giving up numbers of small bass for a few trophy-sized smallies is my favorite pursuit.
Please practice catch and release on these beautiful game fish. They are a valuable natural resource that must be preserved for our children and grandchildren. It takes a long time in our northern climate for a bass to attain trophy proportions. If you are looking for some good eating, sunfish, walleye and catfish will surprise you on the river and make great table fare—but pay attention to minimum size and in-season regulations. (Oh yes, over the age of 16 you will need a New York or Pennsylvania fishing license.)
To help getting started in this enjoyable endeavor, you might consult one of the several great sport shops in the area. They are very knowledgeable, will have all the right equipment in stock and will offer free advice to point you in the right direction. Among them are Pike County Outfitters, Milford, PA (Ted); Hagemans Bait and Tackle, Shohola PA (Kurt and Leslie); Barryville Sportsman, Barryville NY (Annette); and Toms Bait & Tackle, Narrowsburg NY (Mike).
Keep it simple, be safe and most of all, have fun. See you on the water.
[Michael Padua along with his son Evan are the sole proprietors of Sweetwater Guide Service, LLC based in Tyler Hill, PA. They are licensed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and the National Park Service. Visit www.sweetwaterguide.com or call 570/224-4747.]