Crack the Code on the Upper Delaware

I enjoy fishing all months of the year for wild trout, but if I had to pick a time where my angling experiences resonate with me the most, it would be from May to August. During the time I’m off from school I fish almost every day, the majority of the time on the Upper Delaware River system. Typically, I make four trips a week, depending on conditions. For the past few summers, I’ve worked as a grounds crew member on a golf course. I was up before six every morning, and come two o’clock in the afternoon I was on the road to the Delaware. Sometimes I would get out of work early, which allowed me ample time to fish the afternoon hatch.

The West Branch of the Delaware should need no introduction. It has been referred to as the “crown jewel” of the east, and in my opinion,  you will not find better trout fishing on the east coast than on the Upper Delaware River system. The whole system is a bug factory that is loaded with an astonishing number of big wild brown trout and rainbows. As soon as school is let out for me, I have a one-track mind. Every day all I think about is what the West Branch will have to offer. The main reason I have become so captivated by this river is how often it changes on a day to day basis, and the challenge it poses. I have seen many days that are similar, but none the same. There is something different every day that doesn’t quite happen the way it did before, and that’s what makes it addicting.

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The Delaware is a beautiful place. The water is cold and clean, the hatches are astonishing, the fish are wild, and big. It has always been a great place to be, and any worries from the day dissipate. All that matters to me is how I am going to catch the fish that has been consistently sipping duns on the bank. When it all finally comes together and you get that big fish you’ve been working to take, and you sink the net around it, it’s a great feeling that solidifies you. I am not sure I have the words to describe it. It’s just one of those things you need to go out and experience for yourself.

Personally, my favorite hatch is the sulphur hatch. It’s the hatch that I get to fish the most because it’s the main bug during the summer. Although, if the fish are up and eating anything I’m happy. They could be eating toads for all I care. Also, it’s arguably the most challenging time of year to fish, despite the number of fish rising and bugs coming off, and that’s what keeps me coming back for more.

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Typically, sulfurs start in early June and last throughout most of August. By late summer, the bugs will get as small as a size 20. The fish during the summer months become “ultra-selective”. Almost to the point to where I swear they somehow know the difference between a real dun and your fly. It is not uncommon to see pods of 18-20 plus inch browns methodically picking duns off the surface and not even acknowledging your fly. One would think that at least one of the fish would be destined to slip up at some point, but it never quite works like that. While this can be incredibly frustrating, I found it to become a game of “crack the code”. Every day there would be a certain way they wanted to have it and it is up to you to figure it out. When you finally do get the fish you have been working to sip your fly, it’s highly rewarding, and you want more. Although it’s almost never going to be handed to you, because what worked the day before likely will not work the next day, due to the dynamic of the river. 

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Each fish is a process. There is a detailed series of events leading up to the fish eventually sucking your fly under the surface. It takes countless casts, adjustments, and refinements in order to deliver a perfectly presented dry fly. Sometimes that still doesn’t suffice, and it leaves you baffled about what you are doing wrong and what you need to change. A rising fish is a catchable fish, and there is a solution to the seemingly impossible code. I believe that half of it comes down to the amount of time and energy you are willing to invest into your fishing efforts. I personally would not want to spend my time any other way.

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There is something special about standing in the West Branch as the sun sets, placing a fifty foot reach cast perfectly on the bank and watching the big fish I’ve been after come up and sip it off the surface. Setting the hook and watching the fish roll and thrash as it realizes it has been fooled, hearing the line zing off your reel as the fish runs up and down river. The fight these fish put up is second to none. At times it can feel like you have a lightning bolt at the end of your rod instead of a trout. While there are many other creeks and rivers that hold sentimental value to me, the Upper Delaware River system is my favorite place to fish, especially the West Branch, although the East Branch and upper mainstem are close seconds. There are some rivers that show you how to fish, and there are others that teach you how to fish. The West Branch is definitely a teacher. It is a river that will give you a little and then take it away just as fast. For that reason, it’s both humbling and haunting. That’s what beckons me back time and time again. 

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Here are a few suggestions I’ve gathered over the years from fishing the river.

  • Reach cast, reach cast, reach cast! Developing a strong reach cast is critical. Always position yourself upstream from the fish you are targeting. My rod of choice is a 9-foot 4 weight Winston Boron II paired with Scientific Anglers Amplitude “Trout” series of lines. Investing in a quality fly line makes a difference. 
  • Use a long leader. I seldom use a leader shorter than 13 or 14 feet, and I often fish with a 15-17-foot leader. You can buy a knotless leader and attach tippet, or you can build your own leader. I prefer to use leaders from Rio, and when building my own leaders, Maxima Ultragreen is a good choice. I primarily use fluorocarbon tippet, even when fishing dries, from either Trouthunter or Cortland. Cortland’s new “Top Secret” fluorocarbon tippet is very strong and durable, and Trouthunter has been pretty reliable for me.
  • Make your first cast your best cast. It’s crucial to make your first cast count. I believe you only get one shot at these fish. If your first cast isn’t where it needs to be, then your chances of catching that fish decrease drastically with every additional cast you make. That’s not to say you won’t get him to eat several casts later, but your first shot is always your best shot.
  • Don’t overwork the fish. If it isn’t in the cards for the fish your targeting, move on and find another one. Each fish is an individual, and force feeding the same fish seldom works. 
  • Slow everything down; take your time; walk the bank; or sit down and observe. Learn where the fish position themselves so if one doesn’t work out you know where to find the next one.
  • Have fun! Even if you don’t catch fish, it’s always fun to try. Appreciate fishing for what it is. If it were easy it wouldn’t be fun. Embrace the challenge and relax, good things will happen!
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About the Author

“Hello, my name is Beck Chickillo. I’m from Northeastern Pennsylvania and I’m currently in my sophomore year at Juniata College, located in Central Pennsylvania. I started fly fishing when I was 12 years old. All throughout high school and college I’ve fished avidly, making it a practice of mine to fish at least 150 days a year. My angling experiences primarily consist of fishing the many wild trout streams across Pennsylvania and New York, and tributaries of Lakes Ontario and Erie for Steelhead during the fall and winter months.”

To see more of Beck’s fishing excursions check him out @b_chickillo on Instagram

3 thoughts on “Crack the Code on the Upper Delaware

  1. Hi Beck –

    Thanks for the great blog! I wish I could fish as much as you do but can’t at this time. I fished that much at your age!

    I live about 1.5 – 2 hours form that area of the Delaware river I believe and you’ve inspired me to look into fishing it (that would be a great “Adventure Day” as I like to call them when I head out). Beautiful fish you shared in the images!

    Tight lines and tight bobbins – Freddy

    1. Hey Freddy, thanks for the kind words! I appreciate it! I would highly recommend giving it a try this year. It’s definitely more of a challenging river but it almost never disappoints! Chances are you’ll have your opportunities to make something happen.

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