Sulfur dun, green drake, blue-winged olive, quill Gordon, woolly bugger. To the nonfishing eye they seem but tiny fluffs of hair wrapped around nasty little hooks, hardly deserving of their exotic names. Here on the Upper Delaware, however, in expert hands, these flies come to life as the highly skilled deceivers they are, luring onto their barbs some of the wiliest, fightingest, most gorgeous trout anywhere.
Dry fly fishing--where the fly is cast upon the surface to tempt the trout--first took hold in the U.S. on these celebrated Catskill waters, and no wonder. On a recent Sunday morning, a bright sun rising behind our tents, I and my trusty fishing crony, Jimbo, eased into the West Branch, near Deposit, N.Y. Although the river was high and fast, we waded for hours, seeing no one, casting long and upstream, as we explored among the channels and the islands. We caught just two brown trout each, and not very big ones either. However, two browns here are worth eight anywhere else.
This is wild-trout country. When fly fishermen talk about smart, it's usually about the trout in their lives. And they're talking natives, trout born of eggs in such rivers as these, grown to size against disease and predators, and a lot smarter for it. You can fool these trout onto your line, but you have to know the insects of the river as they hatch, and you have to cast the right fly just ahead of where you think you saw that trout rise last. Miss and you may spook him. That makes these wild trout distinctly unlike most fished in America these days: the stocked ones raised in state hatcheries and dumped in local streams. They're bred pampered, not smart, and they'll go chasing after everything--worms, lures, even gum wrappers--until they're fished out or die.
True wild-trout waters are scarce, especially near urban areas, and that's part of what makes the Upper Delaware unique. It's two hours northwest of New York City, convenient to Philadelphia and even Boston. Yet fishing it, you would think you were in Montana.
The region spans hundreds of square miles and includes 100-plus miles of wide, fishable rivers. From Deposit, the West Branch flows south and east to Hancock, N.Y., where it meets the East Branch, which has merged to the east with the famed Beaverkill, and the two branches together tumble into the Main Branch, flowing 75 miles to Port Jervis. The rivers remain cool, ideal for browns and rainbows through the hot summer months. Fishing remains good through the fall, and well-bundled diehards even fish in the winter.
BULKED UP. The fishing is always serious. The trout here have the brawn of their Western cousins, growing to 27 inches long on the Main Branch, but they're considered brainier, harder to catch, and certainly harder to keep on the line. "The Delaware River rainbow has equal stamina to any native-born Western rainbow in Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado," says John Houghtaling, owner of Fly Fishing Plus in Riverdale, N.J. "They'll clean a reel in a second."
Jimbo and I fished on our own, but it makes sense for anyone new to the rivers to hire a guide, either for wading or floating in a drift boat. A guide will know what's hatching and what flies are working. A guided wading day for two runs $225 at the West Branch Angler & Sportsman's Resort (607 467-5525) and the Delaware River Club (717 635-5880), the two best-known resorts. Float trips run a bit more.
NO LOOSE LIPS. Lodging is surprisingly cheap. The most expensive cabin at the West Branch Angler goes for $300 a night, but it sleeps up to five. We paid $15 apiece to camp at a private grounds, but nearby there's Oquaga State Park at $14 for up to six people, with hot-water showers, yet (800456-CAMP). A handy listing of area motels, fly shops, and streamside resorts can be found in the Mid-Atlantic Fly Fishing Guide, available at fly shops from Virginia to Connecticut. Or try the Chambers of Commerce in Hancock (800 668-7624), Deposit (607 467-2556), or Livingston Manor (914 439-4859).
If you do come, though, don't tell a lot of people. Big as it is, old as it is, the Upper Delaware is still kind of a secret. Let the others go to Montana. We'd rather fish these legendary waters any day.