One of the largest rivers on the Eastern Seaboard, the Delaware River is a major shipping route, a drinking water source for millions of people, and a waterway that played a key role in American history. It is also an exceptional fishing river.
The Delaware is a world-class trout stream in its upper reaches, while the lower Delaware supports epic annual runs of striped bass and American shad. Other fish, including black bass, walleye and catfish, inhabit virtually all areas in between.
A humble stream at its headwaters in New York, the Delaware begins as two waterways: The East Branch Delaware and the West Branch Delaware. These two branches meet in Hancock, New York to form the main stem.
From there, the Delaware rapidly gains strength as it surges southward for over 300 miles, fed by hundreds of tributaries and forming the borders between New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. The river ultimately empties into the Atlantic through Delaware Bay.
Portions of the Delaware River were among the first waterways to be awarded Wild and Scenic River status in 1978. To this day, there are no dams or other impediments along the entire main stem.
Delaware River Trout Fishing
Let’s start at the top, where the Delaware River emerges cold and clear from the Catskill Mountains. New York’s portion of the Delaware River system offers some of the best trout fishing in the Empire State and anywhere on the East Coast, with plentiful brown and rainbow trout and the occasional brookie.
This prime trout water includes the East and West Branches of the Delaware, as well as the first 30 or so miles of the main stem that straddles the PA line. It’s common to hear all three rivers in this area collectively (and somewhat confusingly) referred to as the “Upper Delaware.”
Upper portions of both the East and West Branch are abundantly stocked with brown trout by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), and the upper East Branch also has a modest population of wild brook trout.
Both branches are dammed, and the sections below each reservoir—Cannonsville Reservoir on the West Branch and Pepacton Reservoir on the East Branch—offer phenomenal tailwater trout fisheries.
These tailwater sections are especially noteworthy because they are not stocked. Rainbows up over 15 inches and browns over 20 are common, and the occasional brookie can be caught here too. All of them are wild fish.
Ample hatches of Hendrickson, Sulphur, Blue Winged Olives, and various caddisflies and stoneflies offer opportunities to match the hatch from April through June. There is also a fantastic Green Drake hatch in June and July that provides some of the best action of the year.
Cold water is released from beneath the dams on both branches, keeping the tailwater sections well within the preferred temperature ranges for trout all summer long.
Of the two branches, the West Branch is widely viewed as the best, largely because of better public access and easier wading conditions, and also because it is generally a little cooler. The lowest section from Hale Eddy to Junction Pool is especially revered.
But the East branch Delaware is not to be forgotten. The area around its confluence with the Beaver Kill River, an excellent trout stream in its own right, offers some great fishing.
The upper portion of the Delaware’s main stem also offers some excellent trout opportunities, though much of the land around the river is privately owned. Anglers commonly use drift boats to reach pools otherwise off-limits from the bank.
Great trout fishing is available as far down the river as Callicoon. Below that, the river becomes increasingly dominated by warm water species, but you may catch some trout—mostly rainbows—considerably farther down.
More: Check out our simple guide to trout fishing tactics, including top lures, baits, and more.
The annual striped bass migration up the Delaware River is a major event every spring. This fishery took a nosedive in the latter part of the 20th century due to a wide range of factors but has come roaring back in the last 20 years.
During years when the winter and early spring are unseasonably warm, stripers start to show up in the river as early as March 1st. Typically, it’s a bit later, with the season really getting into gear around late March and early April.
Big females are the first to show up. These giants sometimes weigh up to 60 pounds, and they’re typically slow and lethargic this early but will gobble up a well-presented baitfish in the Lower Delaware River.
As April progresses, they’ll be joined by more and more stripers in a range of sizes, and they’ll become increasingly aggressive.
Gizzard shad and American shad measuring 5 to 7 inches are great striper baits, which you can drift live or use as cut bait. Live eels are popular too. Various shad-imitating plugs, crankbaits, spoons, jigs and swimbaits come into play as the water warms and stripers become more active.
The month of May arguably offers the best striper bite on the Delaware River, though fewer trophies are caught than in early spring. Expect lots of aggressive 10- to 20-pound fish.
Throughout the spring, it’s possible to follow the striper action up the river and back down again. Some fish make it all the way up the river to New York, but the majority of the striper fishing happens in the lower, tidal portion of the Delaware, as far upriver as Trenton, New Jersey.
The whole area from Philadelphia to Trenton can be excellent. The best Delaware River striper fishing spots in this section include the Tacony-Palmyra and Betsy Ross bridges, the Dredge Harbor south of Amico Island, and around Neshaminy State Park.
By June, most of the big, spawned-out stripers will have returned to the ocean, but this month also offers great fishing for smaller “schoolie” stripers above the falls in Trenton. These smaller fish bite readily and put up a great fight, and most measure 18 to 20 inches.
For anyone who is accustomed to viewing shad as nothing more than bait for other fish, the idea of lining up shoulder-to-shoulder along the banks to catch them may seem perplexing. But the American shad that run every spring in the Delaware River are different.
Compared to the gizzard or threadfin shad that populate many lakes and reservoirs, American shad are larger, harder-fighting, and although perhaps something of an acquired taste, better eating.
The Delaware River shad run is usually timed similarly to the striper run, with shad generally arriving just ahead of the stripers. Big female American shad, which are referred to as roe shad, commonly weigh 3 to 5 pounds and may occasionally top 8 pounds.
They migrate up the river in head-swimming numbers, with the best fishing usually starting in late March as the water warms up to 50 degrees. These fish migrate well beyond the tidal portion of the Delaware.
The best shad fishing takes place in the Pennsylvania/New Jersey portion of the river, but New York anglers also catch their share by the time the fish make it to the Upper Delaware during the month of May.
By June, the event is usually about done, though some shad are still caught as they migrate back down the river to the ocean. It’s good fun while it lasts, with nearly non-stop action if you get the timing and location right.
Location is a key factor, as shad travel in tight schools and are always on the move. A good spot one day could yield nothing the next, and moving a distance of just a few yards could make all the difference in the world.
A good bet is to focus on pinch points where the Delaware River narrows, forcing shad to funnel through. Some of the best spots are bridges along the shore of Bucks County, Pennsylvania: the New Hope-Lambertville Bridge, the Route 202 Bridge, and the Stockton Bridge.
Eagle Island and the Bulls Island Eddy are also good spots.
The lures of choice are small, fuzzy-tailed jigs known as shad darts. A wide range of other small jigs and lures can also be effective, and for a real challenge, try fly fishing for shad in the Delaware River with brightly colored shad flies.
More: Check out our American shad fishing techniques and tips.
Delaware River Bass Fishing
The Delaware River offers excellent bass fishing, with varying opportunities throughout the tidal and non-tidal portions of the river. Smallmouths are the more widespread species, but largemouths are also quite common in the Lower Delaware.
The non-tidal Upper and Middle Delaware is very much a classic smallmouth river. Starting in Callicoon, New York—above which trout are more dominant than bass—smallmouths weighing 1 to 3 pounds are abundant down to Trenton, New Jersey.
Bass fishing in this stretch starts to get really good in May when water levels begin to come down a bit and the temperatures warm up. Smallmouths spawn around the end of that month, sometimes continuing into June.
Summer is really the time to take advantage of Delaware River smallmouth fishing. The water is generally low and fairly clear, with long, slow pools that make the non-tidal portion easy to float.
River smallies typically hunt in shallow areas around dawn and dusk and will often blow up on a popper or other topwater lure in lower-light conditions. During the middle part of the day, they usually seek out two things: shade, and a break in the current.
A great summer tactic is to target every rock, bridge piling or other structure that creates a current break. If there’s a distinctly shady side of the structure, that’s where bass will be waiting. Current seams and eddies are also key areas.
Crayfish are the primary forage, so start with tube jigs and Ned rigs in natural shades. At times, though, smallies will key in on baitfish and chase a soft or hard jerkbait.
Great spots for bass fishing are too numerous to name. However, some of the best water borders New Jersey’s Sussex and Warren counties, particularly the stretch within Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.
Below Trenton, the river is quite different. Many areas are significantly industrialized along the banks, and the tidal influence repeatedly raises and lowers the water level by up to 10 feet daily. Largemouths are a bigger part of the equation down here.
Artificial cover like piers, docks, pilings and bulkheads hold bass in the tidal Delaware, and expansive grass beds also harbor largemouths.
Mouths of creeks and drains are also good areas to target.
When the tide is low, the bass shift from shallow cover to deeper ledges.
Other Fish Species
Dozens of fish species call the Delaware River home, including many just as prized by anglers as the game fish listed above. So don’t miss out on an opportunity to catch these additional species:
Delaware River Catfish
The Delaware River has long offered excellent catfish angling, especially in the tidal portion of the river.
Channel catfish thrive in the deep, slow water of the estuary, but can also be found in pools way up the main stem of the river as far as New York.
Channel cats up to 10 pounds are fairly common, and smaller fish weighing 2 or 3 pounds even more so. Having a boat is the ideal way to reach the best deep holes, especially in the tidal Delaware, but bank anglers catch plenty of cats from docks, parks and piers.
The best bite is often after dark, but a lot of feisty channel catfish are caught on cloudy, overcast days.
In summer, when the water upriver on the Middle Delaware is low and clear, the night bite is the way to go.
Night fishing is definitely the best bet for flathead catfish. Relatively new arrivals to the Delaware River, these non-native catfish have become increasingly widespread since the early aughts. Flatheads are capable of reaching 50 pounds.
More active predators than channel cats, flathead catfish often gobble up live shad, carp and perch, whereas the baits of choice for channels are chicken livers, shrimp, worms and crabs.
Flatheads typically spend their days in thick, snaggy cover, but emerge to prowl flats, eddies and current breaks under the cover of darkness.
Anglers mostly commonly catch flatheads in the stretch of river from Lambertville, New Jersey, to Riegelsville, Pennsylvania.
In recent years, a handful of giant blue catfish have been caught in the Delaware River estuary. Though not yet common, these fish, which can top 100 pounds, may continue to increase in number.
Delaware River Walleye Fishing
A significant sleeper walleye fishery is available in the Delaware River. Anglers catch lots of 2- to 3-pound walleye here, and there’s always an honest shot at a brute weighing 7 or 8 pounds.
That being said, Delaware River walleye don’t have a reputation for being easy to find and catch. Many anglers cover water by trolling crankbaits.
The non-tidal stretch of river that forms the border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey has a lot of potential walleye spots.
Spring and fall are the best times to catch Delaware River walleye.
Also, as a general rule, walleye bite better at night, but plenty of quality fish are caught during daylight hours, especially when there’s some cloud cover or the water is turbid.
The latter is often the case in late winter and early spring, when some of the biggest walleye of the year are caught. High water in late February and early March tends to push walleye up close to the bank, where the current is less severe.
Walleye season is closed from mid-March to the first weekend in May to protect them as they spawn, but once the season re-opens, there is often excellent fishing into June.
Tributary mouths and places where deep holes meet shallow sandbars, gravel beds and flats are key areas.
Bridge pilings and old walls and wing dams are good targets, too, with Treasure Island, Bull’s Island and the Scudder’s Falls Bridge being good potential areas.
Farther upriver, the stretch between Milford, PA, and Dingmans Ferry has a lot of good walleye water.
Delaware River Musky Fishing
Catching muskellunge in the Delaware River often takes anglers by surprise. But stocking by state agencies on either side of the Pennsylvania/New Jersey state line has been helping to develop the Delaware River into a significant musky fishery in recent years.
Muskies were first introduced to the river in the 19th century, though a more intensive management program for these fish is a much more recent development. As a general rule, the upper part of the river offers the best opportunities to catch them.
Sampling by the PA Fish & Boat Commission produced several muskellunge in the Smithfield Beach area of the river, including fish over 40 inches. The Lehigh River, which enters the Delaware River in Easton, also has a significant muskie population.
The best fishing for muskellunge tends to be in summer and fall.
Oversized crankbaits, swimbaits and spinners are the lures of choice, and heavy line and tackle are essential.
The deepest pools of the Upper Delaware River are the best places to find muskellunge.
These fish are ambush predators, and they use cover like downed trees and other woody debris to hide. Therefore, casting to visible shoreline cover is often a good approach.
Though muskellunge thrive in rivers, they avoid strong current. That makes the Upper Delaware, with its long, slow pools, a great place for them.
Muskies often respond well to lures with a fast retrieve, though a more subtle approach may be required when the water is low and clear.
Planning Your Trip
The Delaware River offers excellent fishing in almost every season. Spring is prime time for trout, striped bass and American shad, while summer offers excellent fishing for black bass and catfish.
Because it flows through or near several major tourism regions—the Catskills in New York, and the Poconos in Pennsylvania—lodging and other amenities are seldom far away. Although much of the river is surprisingly wild, it also flows through one of the most populated areas in the United States.
Getting to the Delaware River
Several major cities—Wilmington, DE, Philadelphia, PA, and Trenton, NJ—are located directly on the river, and many more are nearby. Parts of the river are 90 minutes to 2 hours from New York City.
Interstates 76, 95, 78, 80 and 84 all cross the Delaware River, providing multiple easy routes to reach it. US-209 runs parallel to a significant stretch of the upper Delaware River in Pennsylvania, as does PA-611 a little farther south.
Bank & Boat Access
Places to access the Delaware River are too numerous to list in their entirety, but each state the river passes through provides ample opportunities to either launch a boat or fish the river from the bank.
Starting in New York, the DEC maintains many miles of public fishing rights on both the East and West Branches of the river. Official map and guide sets to the West Branch Delaware and East Branch Delaware are very helpful for finding places to get on the water.
From the spot where the two branches meet in Hancock, NY, to a point 73.4 miles downriver near Millrift, PA, the river is designated the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River. It is managed as a unit of the National Park System.
This entire section forms the NY/PA border, and state agencies on both sides provide boat launch and bank access sites, including excellent sites in Damascus, PA, and Narrowsburg, NY.
Continuing southward, the National Park Service also maintains a 40-mile section of river between Pennsylvania and New Jersey as Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. This section is managed for recreation, with numerous campgrounds, hiking trails, boat ramps, and fishing access sites.
Many towns and villages provide access farther down the middle section of the Delaware (to say nothing of informal access sites at bridge crossings, of which there are many).
The area between Easton, PA, and Phillipsburg, NJ, has a lot of great access near where the Delaware River intersects with the Lehigh River. The D&L Trail mostly hugs the shoreline from here to Trenton, and additional boat ramps are at Black Eddy, PA, Bulls Island, NJ, and Lambertville, NJ.
Trenton marks the beginning of the tidal portion of the Delaware River, and also the most heavily developed and industrialized section. Even so, there’s a lot of great river access, including Pennsylvania’s Neshaminy State Park and New Jersey’s Amico Island Park.
Delaware and New Jersey share the lowest section of the Delaware River. Here, marshes and swamplands line much of the river, with Delaware City Marina being an excellent launch site near the mouth of the river.
Know Before You Go
Fishing limits, seasons and other regulations vary in different parts of the Delaware River, and among the varying states it touches. For the most part, state lines follow the midline of the river, and anglers on either side must abide by the limits set by the appropriate state.
Fishing license requirements also vary.
New Jersey and Pennsylvania have a reciprocal agreement allowing anglers to fish on either side of the river, by boat or from the bank, using a fishing license from either state.