August 5th, 2018
I subscribe to a quite a few fly-fishing magazines; and have for years. I typically read them cover to cover and I have learned so much from them over the years. Over the years there has been a number of articles on the very same topic in all of these magazines at least once: “The most technically difficult Rivers to Fly Fish in the US.”. There are two rivers always mentioned as the most technically challenging in the US: The Henry’s Fork and the Delaware River.
My story of me getting humbled on the Henry’s Fork in 2015 is here. And I will eventually go back and try to have some success there. Last year (2017) I did fish the Delaware River for about 6 hours and not only did I get skunked but I did not even see a fish. I caught the river on a blowout day and raining in August (that is an important fun fact in the story). But, the mighty Delaware did prove how really difficult it was that day. I tried everything…. At least everything I kow that works on western rivers. I am very proud to say that this time I had success on the Delaware River! Of course, there is a reason for my success on the Delaware….and you well know how I love to tell a story. So, here we go…
Background and Research
As usual, it starts with a business trip. I had a Monday mid-day meeting at the Verizon HQ in Basking Hills, NJ. I could not get there in time flying on United even with a direct to Newark on Monday morning from San Diego. So, I started looking at flights on Sunday. Sure enough, there was a cheap flight at 6am on Sunday morning. That would get me to Newark mid-day.
With an entire half of a day on a Sunday in New Jersey, I started the research on where I might be able to fish. I know NJ has some famous places to fish. Because most of my experience is in western rivers, I really am a neophyte in fishing the rivers of the east so I knew I needed help.
My internet searching lead me to Shannon’s Fly and Tackle, https://www.shannonsflytackle.com/ in Calafon, NJ. Within an hour of Newark, the local rivers they fish (like the Raritan) looked close and pretty awesome. But, it is august; I did know the rivers of the east tend to get too warm to fish in August.
So, it started with an email to the Shannon’s Fly shop and an exchange and the invite to call Len Ruggia at the shop. When I did talk to Len on the phone he was a wealth of information: so gracious and helpful. I felt somewhat guilty for keeping him on the phone as he pouredout information. I didn’t even know if I could get to his shop to repay him for the information by purchasing some flies.
At one point Len said, “if you are willing to drive up north you may want to consider fishing the West branch of the Delaware River upstream from the confluence near Hancock, NY. It flows cool and cold all year long. It only has a wild population of trout. All catch and release” As he talked, I couldn’t help but think about getting another shot at the Delaware. But, this time Len told me what to throw and how to throw it. One of the flies he suggested was called a Cahill. I had heard of that fly, but I had no idea what it was because we don’t use them in the West… At least I don’t. And because of that means I doubted we have any bug in the west that a Cahill imitated. Here’s the definition: A Cahill dry fly is classic Catskill dry fly originated by Dan Cahill over 100 years ago. A basic imitation of a Pale Morning Dun or a Pale Evening Dun, the Light Cahill fly is a standard that ranks right up there with the Adams.
When I read that I said to myself, “OK, it’s a PMD, but it’s white. Our PMs are not pure white.” and “Great, a hundred year old fly with no modern materials on the toughest river to fish in the US.” So then I started fantasizing about catching one of those famous wild huge rainbows they have on the Delaware with its most traditional fly. How could I resist that?
The bonus was I had a box of “Eastern Dries” that was a gift to me from years ago. I found it in my man cave where I have a plethora of fly fishing and fly tying stuff. And sure enough there were 6 Cahills in it of size 16 and 18. I grabbed the entire box and brought it with me to the East Coast. What the hell, right?
I was facing two issues, though. Firstly, the drive from the Newark Airport is 2.5 hours to get to the Delaware River. Only having ½ day that would mean I’d only get 2-3 hours to fish before it got dark. I’m the one that always says, “I’ll drive 2 hours to fish one hour.” And now was one of those times to live up to my bold statement. The 2nd issue was all the rain in the area. The river took a huge spike. I could only see flows and didn’t know if I’d get to a totally blown out river. but, I couldn’t resist so I set my heart on the W branch of the Delaware River. Of course, I got a late start out of the rental car facility because, well, it is the Newark airport. About 2 hours into a very beautiful drive into the Catskills, I called Kelly (my lovely bride of 29 years) and said, “This could be one of the craziest things I have ever done.”
From a satellite image, I figured out where I could park my rental car and found that location pretty easily.
Finding where to park your rental car in a place you don’t know that allows public access to a trout stream or river is 90% of the battle for a business traveler who is a fly fisherman. That is why after 20+ years of hard business travel and accumulating great fly fishing spots on my GPS, I created “Tim Huckaby’s favorite US & World-Wild Fly Fishing Locations-GPS Map File” I have proudly added the West branch of the Delaware River to my “favorite fly fishing spots”. You can purchase a downloadable version of that comprehensive map here:
I parked and quickly walked down to the river to take a peek before wadering up. The River was definitely high… way above what looked to be a normal water line. But, it was obvious the river had come way down. I could see a recent, meaning within hours, high water mark where the river must have definitely blown out; probably unfishable because you couldn’t safely get in the water. But the clarity of the river was still pretty good; almost perfect. Len told me he fishes up stream from where I was standing. I looked up stream and because the water was so high I didn’t see any fishable water. No structure, no pocket water, no pools, no seams, no tailouts. just a long big ass, river flowing fast and straight for at least a mile. I looked downstream, there was a creek entering the river that produced a seam, and then it melded into a run. There was a tree below the run in the water. I said to myself, “hmmm that looks good.” I said to myself, “Wait a minute. There are no cars in the lot and there is no one here. Just me. That’s either really good or really bad.”
It was now past 6pm, though. The sun goes down at 8:30. So, I wadered up and wandered down stream just 200 feet to the creek / river confluence. I stared at the water and said to myself, “Damnit, because of the creek rushing in and the way the sun is sitting right on the river up stream, I am going to have to do that 45 degree downstream drift they recommend on the henry’s fork. Sure the fly gets there before the tippet/leader, but, feeing line at the right inverval is hard, and the set is almost impossible. Plus, as was Len’s recommendation I was on 7x. I hate 7x. Every fly fisherman hates 7x. God made 7x and the 1 iron at the same time to piss us off.
I tied on a size 16 Cahill and ginked it up. As I was clipping the knot I heard that sound that snapped my head: A rise! I stared at the water where I thought the splash came from. This time I saw the rise. It was a little fish, but a rise is a rise. So, excitedly I stripped out a ton of line to feed the downstream drift. I made the cast. It was bad. It landed hard and in the wrong lane. Plus, I couldn’t stack line out quick enough for a natural drift. Uggg… I suck. In the process of pulling back the fly it swung right into the correct lane…. I assumed I ruined it. I assumed I doomed myself to another skunking.
My next cast and drift was perfect: a small rainbow rose and took my fly…and I pulled it straight up stream right out of his mouth. Encouraging none the less. Over the next 20 casts I got 5 takes and screwed every single take up before I figured out how to set to the side in the right timing. Within 10 minutes, I caught and water released a 12” wild rainbow from the Delaware River! I looked to the sky and thanked the lord and my high school buddy Ken Bendix, who loved to fly fish, and who we lost way too early to cancer. I know Ken wanted me to catch a trout on the Delaware. I just felt it.
I casted a few more drifts, but the prior short fight put down the spot. It needed a rest. So, I started walking up stream like Len recommended. I made it about a mile without seeing any fishable water. There didn’t appear to be any fishable water as far as I could see upstream. I had to walk up stream in the water because it was so high so it was slow going. I’m sure in normal flows I was on top of good water, but I had so little time so I chalked it up to 30 minutes of a beautiful hike. Then, I headed back to my downstream spot where the river had rested.
When I got back to the confluence of the creek and the river the sun had already disappeared from behind the Catskills. That meant I could stand in the creek and cast up stream making a set so much more effective. But, nothing was rising now. I decide to walk further downstream to see what was there. the water was froggy. There was a giant black bug hatching; nothing like I had ever seen before, like a size 8. But, no fish were taking it. I did see a couple white PMDs in the air, though. I startled and pissed off a beaver that slapped it’s tail at me. so, I walked back up stream to “my spot”. The glare made it real hard to see my fly. So, I started pretty much blind casting up stream, fanning the river from left to right, foot by foot. As I was making the big 40 foot casts to the right side of the river and trying to deal with the bad drifts coming at me fast and furious, I saw and heard the take. I set and got tight. This time it was clear it was a big fish. Damnit I was on 7x. Thank god, my drag was set really loose from fighting the little rainbow earlier because this big fish took off and my reel sung the happy sound. I palmed the reel to slow it down and turned the fish. It ran 30 feet, but I managed to pull it back about 20 feet but it also moved 20 feet down river. I still had not seen the fish. He didn’t jump. He fought like a brown trout. I pulled his head upstream and he just hated that. He ran down river and I had to follow, my reel singing. I was pretty much moving quickly through a raging creek to catch up. Fairly dangerous, but you take risks of falling when you are hooked up with a big trout. It was in that moment that I saw where the fish was headed and fear struck. He was headed for the deeper water under the tree. The tree, of which, many of the branches were in the water. I was close to the backing. I have always said, “I don’t know why I read of so many people getting into the backing. I never get into the backing. You shouldn’t even let a trout get you into the backing because the fight will be so long it might not recover.” And this fight was already long because I just couldn’t muscle him on such light tippet. I could not lose this fish to snags on the branches of the tree. “I’d rather snap him off.” I said to myself. So I pulled him hard downsteam veering him away risking breaking him off on 7x. Then I pulled him hard upstream turning his head the other way. Those two direction changes seemed to break his spirit. I was now 300 feet downstream from where I originally hooked him and I knew the long battle was not good for the trout. I had to land him now. It was nor or never. He was tired so he pulled in to shallow calm water pretty easily at that point. I could see he was a chrome colored rainbow and every bit of 16” if not 17” and well built. My mission was to let him go without taking him out of the water so he’d survive to fight another day. That is why I only got a single crappy picture of him. A trophy selfie would have killed the poor thing so I didn’t do it. I most certainly don’t need another trophy picture with a huge trout. As he swam away I screamed, “Woo!!!” to no one. because I had not seen another human and none seemed within miles of me… on one of the most famous and technically challenging rivers in the US…where I just caught and released a monster trout.
It was only after my success and sincere thanks, that I reported back to Shannon’s Fly shop by email that I learned Len Ruggia is the head guide at Shannons. And you know what that means? It means next time I have a business trip to the east coast I am going to hire Len to teach me how to effectively fish the rivers of the East. I cannot wait for that day. I’m pretty sure I can sneak that day in before winter. I strongly suggest you do the same.