Creeped Out in Lordville

Creeped Out in Lordville

East Branch? West Branch? Mainstem? The Delaware keeps anglers guessing . . . and tying flies until midnight.

  • By: Tom Rosenbauer
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Autumn 2012

Creeped Outin Lordville
East Branch? West Branch? Mainstem? The Delaware keeps anglers guessing . . . and tying flies until midnight.
 
By Tom Rosenbauer

FlyRod&Reel

Photograph by Barry & Cathy Beck

The Delaware’s varied hatches demand precise dry flies and delicate presentations. Combine those elements with stealth, and you might be into fish all day

YOU CAN’T FISH THE DELAWARE RIVER, OR any other stream for that matter, with just anybody. They need to fish at a similar pace, match your eating schedule, and stay out of your way while you stay out of theirs, an agreement on personal space that’s arrived at without one word being said. Plus, they can’t get creeped out when you take them to Lordville.
In the early days I fished the Delaware with a guy who was at times a farrier, a professional drunk—then an AA counselor—a ski instructor and a computer programmer. When he moved to Montana 20 years ago, to start a business controlling noxious weeds, I started fishing the Delaware alone. I needed solo trips at that time in my life. I craved being in a forty-dollar-a-night motel with a black-and-white TV and no phone. Meals consisted of vegetarian hot dogs, nuts and fruit—all stuff that I could eat on the run while driving from one pool to another looking for feeding fish. I wouldn’t get off the river until 10 p.m. Then I’d tie all the flies I needed until midnight and wake the next morning to do it all again. No one knew exactly where I was, and I liked it that way.
Later, I fished with a couple guys: Pat, a New Yorker editor with an astringent whit whose expressions I smile at to this day, and Rick, an accountant with endless optimism who would sit on the bank with you in a cold, all-day rain, with no bugs hatching, and still laugh out loud at least once every 30 minutes. Both died way too young, which made me realize the precious nature of a few hours spent on the water with good friends.
After they passed, I fished for a few years with my friends John and Joe, but that soon mutated into a grand extravaganza with a cast of what seemed like thousands (although it was actually about a dozen). We started staying in an upscale lodge, West Branch Angler, instead of the Shady Pines (not its real name) with its black-and-white TV adorned with rabbit ears, its U-shape mattresses, and its tissue-sized towels. Our low-key, no-itinerary annual trip became more about the eating and drinking than fishing. There were daily decisions about who would fish with whom, what time we’d be back for dinner. There were card games at night instead of fly-tying. It finally came to a head when I was working a pod of big fish on a glassy slick and John strolled up making a wake big enough to surf on. He boomed, “How ya doin’, Tommy?”
I considered going back to solo trips when I wouldn’t talk to anyone for days, but I soon found the perfect fishing buddy, Jeremy, who needs only coffee, water and unfiltered cigarettes to get through 14 hours on the water, and whose energy for life—especially fishing—never wanes. He is a superb saltwater fly fisher who can spot a school of breaking bonito farther away than anyone I’ve ever seen, and he got me into my first bluefin tuna on a fly. He had been to the Delaware once and left without catching a fish on a dry fly. So this past May I decided to share the Delaware and repay that bluefin favor to Jeremy. He accepted the invite and I said, with a knowing grin, “Meet me in Lordville.”
Lordville is a tiny place on the mainstem Delaware consisting of a few seemingly abandoned Victorian-style houses, all veiled by tall, scraggly white pines that seem in need of sunlight. One of the three houses has been repainted, but the others look like they’ve been neglected for 50 years. Roofs sag, windowpanes are broken, and the top of one house is veiled with streamers of blue tarp that drip from the eaves like a far-northern cousin of Spanish moss. The houses are creepy, for sure, but when you look through the windows you see pale forms staring back. In front of one house is a broken-down truck with wooden sides; another of these eerie forms slumps in the passenger seat like a forgotten crash victim. At first glance you might wonder what the heck happened here, but then you realize those forms are mannequins, left over from the town’s long-deceased mannequin factory. People know this intellectually, but when you leave the river after dark it’s easy to find yourself looking over your shoulder before sliding safely inside your vehicle and locking the doors.
Lordville does have a living population, and they even produce a Fourth of July parade. Still, the main reason for visiting this place is to fish the Delaware. The East and West branches of the Delaware, and the river’s mainstem, were home to smallmouth bass and walleye until the 1950s, when the Pepacton and Cannonsville reservoirs were built to augment New York City’s aging and complex water system. The reservoirs pulled cool, 40-degree water from their depths and deposited it in the river, creating ideal trout and aquatic invertebrate habitat. Today, even on 100-degree summer days, the upper East Branch and the entire West Branch offer cool flows and produce excellent hatches from May through October. The lower East Branch (below the mouth of the Beaverkill) and the entire mainstem Delaware aren’t as predictable, due to water temperatures that flirt with the 70-degree range during summer. Scads of wild browns that originally migrated from the Beaverkill River, and rainbows that came from lower river tributaries, feed heavily on abundant hatches and provide anglers with what I consider to be the best fishing east of the Mississippi River.
There’s a problem with this equation, however. In May, when I like to fish the river, water temperatures are favorable through the entire system and the fish may be spread out. And flies hatching in one pool may be completely different from those hatching a half-mile away. For example, while you’re on the upper East Branch looking for sippers in flat water you might wonder if there is a coffin fly spinnerfall happening on the mainstem. When you get to the mainstem and the coffin flies don’t show you might wonder if the rusty spinners are falling on the West Branch. All the permutations from past years drive you to distraction, because the longer you’ve fished a river system the more epic days and places you recall. Basically, it’s a constant quest to find the magic hatch that brings all the fish up, and until you do it’s difficult to settle down and say, “I’m definitely in the right spot.” That was the issue when I arrived on the Delaware last May, a half-day ahead of Jeremy, and started scouting the water.
During May I’m partial to fishing the lower East Branch. It doesn’t have the trout density or bug activity of the West Branch, but it’s big enough that you stretch your casting to its limits on some pools, and the wide-open gravel banks make it a pleasure to wade and walk along. Also, in May there is always the chance to land a big brown that wouldn’t usually rise to a dry. Plus there’s very little fishing pressure.
I found the East Branch up a foot or two, and it took some strenuous wading to push upstream into my favorite pool. By the time I got to my spot a few fish were rising and the water was covered with a size 14 olive mayfly. The few sporadic rises quickly turned into a full-fledged fracas. I had plenty of size 18 olive duns and emergers, and even smaller patterns—as far down as size 26—but nothing up in the other direction. I looked at my size 14 emergers: Hendricksons, gray foxes, Cahills, and caddis. I took the easy way out and threw a parachute Adams. After a few casts a fish took with a resounding splash, and after a brief battle I landed a large fallfish. Fallfish are gigantic minnows that don’t run or jump like trout and aren’t very pretty.
Despite getting pretty good at distinguishing between a rising whitefish and a trout, or a creek chub and a trout, I’ve never sorted out fallfish by their riseforms. So I kept throwing to all those feeding fish, and pretty soon I’d landed a half-dozen nice browns and rainbows that tore line off the reel in the heavy water. A giant pool with a blanket hatch, no one around, and enough nice wild trout to keep anyone happy. I couldn’t wait for Jeremy to arrive. That urgency was punctured by a driftboat clanking around the corner, but he slid through the pool without disturbing my fish. He anchored in the riffle below me and both of his anglers got out. Whenever I see a driftboat pause on its way down a pool I pay attention. When I see one stop and anglers get out of the boat I really pay attention. I filed that one for later.
By noon the bugs and fish had vanished, but I knew that the West Branch, with much colder water, would be turning on. There I might have to deal with crowds, though. Anglers on the Delaware system come in three varieties: Those who float with guides in driftboats or on their own in pontoon boats; those who fish the gregarious pools; and those who sullenly look for a place no one else is fishing. I’m in the last group, and over the years I’ve found a number of places on this heavily fished river where I can get away from people and also find fish rising any time from 2 p.m. until dark. I’ve never fished the more popular pools; the guys lined up, chatting and comparing notes seem to be happy enough, but it’s just not in my DNA. Maybe I’m missing some amazing fishing, but I’m partial to spots that rest at least a hundred yards from the parking lot.
The fishing on the West Branch didn’t seem to be as promising as it was in past years. I caught a few fish, but not what I’m used to. So, when Jeremy finally arrived I gave into my memory and inclination and said, “Let’s go to the East Branch. There’ve been reports of green drakes up there.”
When we reached the East Branch not much was happening. A few sulphurs, but no green drakes. There were a few fish rising and we made a handful of casts. As we worked toward the tail of the pool I told Jeremy about the driftboat that had stopped while I was fishing earlier, and he went down to check it out. I saw him casting like a maniac and when he finally returned he said, “Man, there are a lot of fish just exploding down there in the riffle, but I can’t catch them.” We waded down to take a look and he wasn’t exaggerating—big fish were pounding flies. I started right out with my sulphur, but couldn’t beg a rise. I looked down on the water and saw a half-dozen big mayflies—maybe size 10. At first I thought they were March browns but they looked way too dark, almost mahogany with dark gray wings. I guessed they were Isonychia, which, of course, I did not have. So I tried a brown drake emerger and was able to pick off a few nice fish until it got too dark to see.
 
That night I tied size 14 olive emergers and size 10 Isonychia duns while Jeremy cooked burgers, fully planning on hitting the East Fork again in the a.m. But we got a call from friends who were way up on the West Branch and had seen an epic sulphur hatch in the afternoon . . . for the past four days. They hadn’t even left the pool next to their cabin. So instead of going back to the East Branch we went to the upper West Branch and, of course, it was less than epic. Additionally, my sulphurs were too small and didn’t match the larger naturals. Back to tying new patterns that night.
The following morning we went back to the East Branch, where we found all those olive mayflies in the big flat pool. And we waded down to the riffle where we found some big March browns. It was a real treat to find big browns feeding on them, because often you see that bug and an occasional rise, but seldom anything approximating active feeding. Jeremy got three stout, wild browns in that fast water on a big dry fly and I was feeling good.
Feeling fortified with patterns to match any circumstance, that night we stayed late at my favorite spot on the lower West Branch, where typically the water froths with fish just at dark. As the day faded without wind into a perfect scenario for evening fishing, the bugs never materialized.
By now we had the morning routine down on the East Branch. Two hours fishing the olives in the big pool followed by another two in the riffle below, catching fish on March Browns. We again tried the afternoon shift on the upper West Branch, but the fish seemed listless and I figured each must have had at least two dozen casts thrown over them, day after day, for the whole summer. Maybe we should have considered that our five buddies had pounded those trout every day for almost a week. When I did just that I said, “OK, that’s it. Tonight we’re going to Lordville.”
When we drove into Lordville, there was not a single car in the small parking lot under the bridge. My first thought was We have the whole place to ourselves followed quickly by Maybe there’s a reason for that. We tried to pick away at a few fish sipping right below the bridge, but couldn’t wade deep enough to get the right presentation. I dragged Jeremy way up the far bank to the tail of the big pool above Lordville, where we waited for sippers amongst big rocks along the bank. It was getting dark, and the coffin flies never showed. Finally, a single decent rainbow decided to sip along the bank. I told Jeremy to try him, but he urged me to do the same. After 20 minutes and a half-dozen failed patterns, we slunk down the bank to Lordville and my truck, which I envisioned to be surrounded by several pale Zombies waiting to jump out of the bushes.
Driving away that night I asked, “So were you creeped out in Lordville?” Jeremy said, “Uh-huh. But I’m fine with being creeped out as long as it’s somewhere we can catch fish.”
 
Tom Rosenbauer is The Orvis Company’s marketing director, and a dedicated pursuer of fish, wherever they swim. His favorite fishing? Bluefin on a fly.
 

Photograph by Tom rosenbauer

In May, water temperatures are favorable through the entire system and the fish may be spread out.
 

We waded down to take a look and he wasn’t exaggerating—big fish were pounding flies.
 

Photograph by Tom rosenbauer

[continued on page 67]

Browns and rainbows inhabit the Delaware, and each species grows to robust size. They are all treasures. Release with care.
 

[Creeped Out In Lordville]