Upper East Branch of the Delaware – a Journal by Lucien Baranov
June 1 – 3, 2021
Tom McCoy and I arranged to take a trip to explore the Upper East Branch of the Delaware after having read Mitch Keller’s book East Branch. I bought and read my copy at Tom’s recommendation. In his book, Mr. Keller recounts six years he spent in the 1990’s living as a trout bum, fishing the area around Margaretville. The book speaks about how he survived six winters of working and living there just to be able to fish as much as he could. He is no fishing expert, but he plans to learn to trout fish by solitary exploration and by educating himself on the nuances of the art of fly fishing. The area Mr. Keller is especially interested in fishing is the section of the East Branch between Margaretville and Pepacton Reservoir. If you’re a fly fisherman, it’s a worthwhile read. Even if you’re not, it might be for you too.
Having fished around Margaretville numerous times in my fly-fishing career, but never having explored the section Mitch Keller spent a lot of time fishing in (and thinking many times I should someday), I felt it was time to go there. And so, Tom and I agreed to meet at the Bun ‘N Cone diner at noon in Margaretville on June 1, 2021 to begin our own exploration of the river section.
I arrived in Margaretville around 10:00 am. With a little time on my hands, I did some reconnoitering of the river above the bridge in Margaretville. There is a trail that goes part way up the river on the town side from a local park. I walked the trail a bit to scout out the river here. It feels a little nostalgic. The trail did not exist years ago I note as I continue eastward along the path which ends, then opens up to a beautiful grassy farm field left fallow. The only place the grass is cut is along the river. Is this to allow easier access to the river for fisherman, I wonder? I’m guessing the farm owner is fly fisherman friendly. I need to find out the story at some point, but welcoming fisherman and tourists in this area is likely part of the area business plan I surmise due to the region’s commercial recovery and the devastation of the 2011 storms. Click this LINK for information about that.
Having seen enough for the time being, and wanting to wait for Tom and I to explore together, I go back down the trail and I decide to try my luck with a little fishing down by the Margaretville Bridge as I await Tom’s arrival. With no cell service, I manage to find a local Wi-Fi feed on my phone and I use it to fire off a text to Tom telling him I’m in the water before I go in.
I move my car to the supermarket parking lot near the BUN ‘N CONE and put on my gear. I decide I will nymph fish using a new rod I recently acquired and a new type of nymphing rig I want to try which I learned about on my recent Pennsylvania trip to Penn’s Creek with some of our LITU friends. I go down to the river on the south side of the bridge where the access looks easier and get into the slow water. The fast current is on the other side (where the fish will likely be I figure). I am fishing with an 11-foot nymphing rod rigged with indicator line, a small balloon (yes, a real small blow-up balloon I have tied on below the red and yellow indicator line as my floating indicator) followed by two droppers and then some split shot on a third dropper at the end. I have learned from fellow fisherman Peter Dubno, this is called a drop-shot rig. Click this LINK to see the You-Tube video by Kelly Galloup for more info on this effective nymphing rig.
I begin to fish. Across from me towards the opposite bank, I notice a large submerged boulder. I take a couple of casts and drift the rig down along the underwater rock. I can tell the rig is working right because the balloon is moving at a reasonable pace and vibrating, indicating the shot are bouncing nicely along the bottom where they’re supposed to be. On the third pass, the balloon goes down and I pull back to set the hook. I’m into a heavy fish and my heart skips a beat as I realize this.
At first the trout sulks in its hold, then starts to move, and I fear it may decide to head downstream where it will then possibly throw the hook. More than a few trout have eluded me with this strategy (if a fish can have a strategy). I put on some side pressure in hopes of preventing that from happening. The eleven-foot rod feels a little unwieldly as I rear back with it. This fish is not cooperating as it fights me in the fast current for a minute or so. I realize I need to move it into the slow water behind me if I intend to land it. I put a little more pressure on the line and I get him over out of the fast water as it continues to fight, but now it’s just me and the fish and no strong current. I pull out the net and coax him in on the third try. This is a beauty for sure. Around 18” I estimate. Some say it is bad luck to catch such a nice fish early on in a fishing outing. We’ll see. I take a few pics and release the beauty, and it swims back into the current towards its lie.
I check my line and rig to make sure all is in order, and start casting again. After a while, I notice I’m being watched from the bridge. It’s Tom McCoy. “ Hey, Tom!” I exclaim. Tom calls out, “Let’s go fishing!” Happy to see Tom and anxious to join him, I recklessly make my way straight to the other side through the fast water. Not the wisest decision, but I make it through and up the bank without mishap.
We pass on the Bun ‘N Cone for the time being and decide to explore the river above Margaretville a bit. We are making our way toward the supermarket parking lot where our cars are parked when we’re flagged down by a lady who calls from her car. “Hey, are you guys fishing”? she exclaims (a rhetorical question for sure) as she waves a copy of Mitch Keller’s book East Branch to us. She says she’s just returning the book to the library and recommends it to us. Tom and I both smile and after quick introductions, explain to her it was this very book that inspired us to be there. What a coincidence! Tom and I were in the right place at the right time and we were right where we were supposed to be in the grand scheme. Believe what you believe, but I think at times there is a guiding force in the universe. We walk back to the car still smiling and thinking we can’t believe what just happened.
We move our cars to the park located behind and east of the supermarket where I had parked earlier and Tom gets his gear on. I fiddle with my rig and talk while Tom dons his boots and gathers his gear. Ready to fish, we start up the path and spy a few spots I had seen earlier. I tell Tom this river section has been dramatically changed (by some entity or group) from when I used to fish here years before. Some deep holes have been created by stream alteration as flood management perhaps or stream improvement I surmise. Tom decides to try by a swim hole (evidenced by a rope hanging from a tree over it).
Tom relates that Chuck Neuner, a mutual fishing friend told him once that he often fishes swim holes because other fisherman bypass them thinking there are no fish in them. I go down with Tom. Tom takes a few casts with a dry fly while I look at the river. No takers for Tom. After taking a few pictures, we move up along the path looking for other access spots. The access to the river for wading is limited due to high water (it’s running about 450 CFS at this time – average is about 300 CFS). We go to the end of the path which opens to the grassy field I had walked to earlier. We continue along the trimmed swath of grass looking for likely entry points to the river. Tom finds a spot and goes in. I leave Tom and go further up. I find the spot I’m looking for across from the liquor store which is near the Margaretville Motel (used to be the Merit Motel years ago) where we’re staying across Rte. 28.
I get into the water, and I start to cast into the riffle above my entry point. Several drifts, no takes. There is pocket water below me. The current is fast and strong. I make my way slowly, and I make half a dozen casts in each likely looking holding spot. No takers. I go to make an adjustment to the split shot dropper and I look for my hemostat/crimper. It’s gone, and the braided steel line on the zinger that was holding it has broken. Usually I stow my tools into a fishing vest pocket even though it’s attached to a zinger. I guess the last time I used it I forgot to. Oh well. I’ll just keep an eye out and try to retrace my steps on the return walk in the unlikely event I find the ‘stats and the scissors that were attached. Unless, if they fell in the water – then they’re lost to me for good. No action here for me, and I head back downriver to find Tom and stop at the spot where I left him. He’s moved. I go to send a text and see a text on my phone from Tom and he’s told me he’s going to try down by the bridge. I head downriver and as I walk I look down occasionally for the hemostats. To my amazement, I find the hemostats in the high grass with the scissor cap attached, but no scissor. I’m happy to get the hemostats, but I wonder where the scissor might have been lost. I get to my truck and take off my fly vest, and there under the back of my pickup are the missing scissors. A good omen perhaps? I get in my truck and head back to the supermarket parking and find Tom stowing his gear. Guess the bridge idea was nil. Part of the game.
We decide to skip lunch (we’ll munch on some snack bars) and head downriver into uncharted territory (so to speak). About a mile up 28, we pull into the spot closest by which I’ve marked on the Google aerial map on my iPad. The pull-off has room for a few cars. There is a vehicle path from the parking spot leading down towards the river. I go down the path with my pickup and Tom follows with his vehicle. We come to a closed off entrance. I pull off the path and so does Tom so we don’t block the gate. We get our gear on. Tom is ready first and heads down the path. A minute or so later I follow. The grass along the path is high. The sun is bright and it is early afternoon. The air smells of a mixture of unknown, delightful sweet fragrances. As we approach the river, three immature bald eagles fly away from us. Once at the river, we are on a high steep bank. The river bank is lined with only high grass along this section where we are standing and we can easily see the river stretch out to either side of us. I note the riffle hole directly below us. I’m in awe of the beauty. We find a path that leads upriver and locate a sandy bank where we ease into the water. Above us to the right there is slow moving flat water. We look for fish sign. I think I see a rise along the left bank on the far side. Tom heads to try his luck in the flat water above. I go down to fish the riffle below with my nymphing rod. I am carrying an extra rod rigged with a dry fly as well. Below, the current splits around a small island, the faster water being on the left and emptying into the riffle hole I intend to fish. I wade down the right side of the island where the water is shallow and slow. Once I approach the bank edge, I go place my dry fly rig against a shrub and note where I put it.
Ready to fish, I take some casts above the riffle pool and watch my balloon indicator drift along. The water is fast and my flies are moving too quickly. I stop and add more weight to the drop shot rig. I cast again and I note the balloon vibrating, signaling the shot are bouncing the bottom and the flies are near the bottom moving slowly enough. As I cast, I see a rise at the end of the V formed by the junction of the two currents below the island. It’s a small fish. I won’t bother with it. With no takes at the top of this run, I work my way down the fast riffle. Tom then arrives and we chat. Neither of us has had any action. We are hopeful as the day wanes that there will be some evening activity.
As we are standing on the bank, Tom piles a few flat rocks on top of each other and I look on curiously as he does this, thinking that maybe he’s decided to pass a few moments making a cairn. He IS making a cairn, but for a specific purpose. I realize this when he sits on the pile of rocks he has lain. Yes, it’s a makeshift stool he has built in a few seconds. Tom looks at me with satisfaction as I snap a few shots of him sitting on his clever creation.
After a refreshment of nutrition bars and some water, we move further down to try new water. I stop at the tail end of the long riffle that empties into a deep pool. Tom moves a little further towards the back of the pool. We start to see an occasional rise now in a couple of spots. I switch my nymphing rod for my dry fly rig. I cast to a few likely fish holding spots with no takes. There is a fish coming up about once a minute in the middle of the pool. Not much in the way of airborne bugs, it also looks like fish might be taking emergers. The big question is always, what? I do see an occasional March Brown or Sulphur. I tie on a Snowshoe Sulphur. I like using it because I can also drown it at the end of the drift to elicit strikes if the occasion fits. After a bunch of casts, no takes. Ugh! Tom has the same luck.
Suddenly I hear Tom call me from below from about fifty yards away. Tom is standing on the gravel edge and a large brown creature is sitting just ten feet away from Tom not moving. It’s a beaver, I realize. I’m a little concerned about Tom being attacked. Those furry, adorable looking creatures can be very aggressive and territorial, and it’s best to avoid them if possible. Tom wisely decides to back off a couple of steps showing he is no threat. The beaver then runs off into the woods. Tom vs. the beaver.
The magic hour approaches and we slowly move upriver with thoughts of trying the long pool before getting off the river. There are fish rising occasionally. Not many though. Tom moves up to work a couple of rising fish. We fish for a while. I change my fly to a brown spinner with sparkly wings. Tom has moved below me and watches while I make some long casts. I get a good drift and a fish rises to the fly. I try to set the hook miss. I’m known for this when I have a lot of line on the water. I forget to set sideways and leave the line on the water instead of trying to lift it off. Tom said it counts. I’ll take it! Thanks, Tom. A couple more casts, and Tom has moved out of the water. I follow to catch up.
We get back to the cars and make our way back to the motel. We freshen up quickly and we drive around town in my pickup to find a place in the area still open for a decent meal. By the time we get to our possible last alternative, it’s also closed, on top of all the other places we tried. We decide to try to make it Brio’s in Phoenicia. It’s 8:45 pm. Tom calls Brio’s and gets through. They say they stop serving at 9:15. We make it there with minutes to spare for a great burger and fries. The food is very good there (in my humble opinion) and the staff are friendly. I recommend them. Back to the Margaretville Motel after dinner, we agree to meet the next day at 8:00 am to go to the BUN ‘N CONE for breakfast.
The sign at the BUN ‘N CONE has been torn up and is no indicator of the decent food you can get there at reasonable prices.
Tom and I linger over breakfast sharing about some of life’s triumphs and tragedies. Our meaningful sharing reminds me that Tom is a special friend. I feel privileged to be his fishing buddy.
But, we’re here to fish and off we go to try the next spot down-river. This time we head down the road on the north side of the river and stop at another spot I’ve marked on the map. From the map perspective, the river looks further away than it really is. Again, Tom is ready to go before me as I re-rig. I tend to dawdle. I tell Tom I’ll catch up. Tom calls back to me to say the river is right nearby. I get down to the river a few minutes later. There is fishy looking water all around me. The river level has dropped to about 400 CFS today and the water-temp has risen to about 56 degrees. Much better conditions today. There are a few bugs in the air – some March Browns and Sulphurs I note. I see Tom fifty yards above me working the confluence of two flows below an island with a high bank edge. I start to cast and expect a take at any moment, and I am disappointed when after a number of casts, my little indicator balloon does not get pulled under by a trout. After a while I make my way to Tom. He tells me there are a couple of fish rising on the other side of the seam where the smaller and slower flow meets the larger flow on our side of the river. It’s nearly impossible to get a decent drag-free drift there from our side with a dry fly. Tom says I should give it a try with my nymphing rig there and he moves to try further upriver. Then Tom comes back down while I’m still working that section, and he moves back below our entry point to try there. The water is still high and challenging to wade.
In the riffle in front of me the water is very fast and I gradually add more split shot on my rig to slow it down enough for a fish to grab one of my flies. I have to put on nine BB shot. I work my rig through the eddy in the seam created by the two currents. When I put it where I want it, the rig moves back up river and I guide it through allowing the flies to move naturally along the bottom of the seam. On about the fifth cast the balloon goes under quickly and I set the hook into a scrappy wild jumping rainbow of about eleven inches. Seeing me with a fish on, Tom scrambled quickly upriver to get close enough to take a couple of pictures. Thanks, Tom!
Tom comes back upriver and tries to move up along the bank to see if he can get to the riffle above near a bend, but the water along the bank is too deep there and Tom returns after a while, Tom talks about getting to the smaller river branch on the other side of the island (perhaps by driving to the other side of the river he suggests). I noticed previously as I was wading that the current slowed before rising over the gravel bar to the fast riffle.
I suggest we cross there. Tom is skeptical, but we make it across with relative ease. That was the easy part. Once on the island I follow Tom along the edge until we come against an impassable deadfall. We move up onto the island and try to find a way through the thick brush while avoiding the pesky briar. We wind our way through after several detours. The best path is through high ferns. After breaking a sweat, we finally make it and we emerge onto the smaller current split. Tom goes to the spot where he saw risers and casts there. I move up to explore. I turn a bend and look upriver. It looks flat and unremarkable, so I turn back down to watch Tom fish.
I pull out my phone to take video in hopes that Tom gets a fish while I shoot. And he does! Tom lands a brown! Tom continues to fish, but there are no more takers. We find a deceptively easy crossing point in the riffle below us that could have been our much easier crossing point before. It was hard to notice from the other side because of the reflection on the water. I wait for Tom and we make it over in a few moments.
We get to the cars and continue westward in the same direction we were going and figure we’ll access the next spot by going back east on Rt. 28. When we make our left onto Route 28, the sky releases a torrent, but it is short-lived. We pass the spot we’re looking for that’s on the opposite side of the road. We continue up the road and turn around at the first spot we had stopped at the day before. We head back west again and find the culvert (the third spot I had marked on the map). We pull over on Rt. 28. There is just enough room for two cars on the pull-off at the side of the road.
The Third Spot
We get our gear back on. The rain has subsided, but the skies still threaten. I take only the nymphing rod. With a little difficulty we find a relatively safe way to move down the culvert until we are down on the gravel bed that leads to the river. We come out to face a beautiful deep flat pool fed by a fast riffle. A tree overhangs the head of the pool. The pool is very deep. The water is very clear. On the far side of the pool at the widest point is some deadfall. As the pool narrows into a deep channel below there is more deadfall on the opposite bank then below that the river opens up and widens into shallower water. Below that point, there is a riffle that flattens out under high overhanging trees, and then the water splits again around a small narrow island then rejoins and rapidly descends on a long fast braid of about two hundred yards. At the end of this, there is a sheer rock wall perhaps fifty feet high where the river turns to the left.
Tom moves below to fish the deep pool and further below. I throw my rig in the fast water and work it into the pool. I take a dozen casts and I hear a groan from Tom. He’s missed one. I’m glad to hear that. Not because he missed the fish, but because it means there’s activity. I continue to fish and work the pool. My rig gets stuck and I lose the whole thing in the deep water. I had put too much weight on the shot dropper. I re-rigged tying bend to eye to save time. I got stuck again, tangling the line around my rod. Instead of re-rigging, I stop fishing to see what Tom’s up to. The magic hour is approaching and as Tom and I meet up, I tell him it’s time to retire the nymphing rod for today and I’m going to the car to get my dry fly set-up. He advises he saw a couple of rises in the riffle just above the feeder creek.
When I return ten minutes later, Tom is working the flat below the pool again. I stop at the end of the feeder creek and I notice upstream along the right bank fish are rising near and under the overhangs. The sight of quality fish rising energizes me and I look forward to the hunt. There are three or four good fish working in that piece of water. I decide to cross over to the left side to have a better casting angle for a reach cast and to avoid running my line over the fish, a potential put-down factor. For a brief explanation of the reach cast, see THIS YouTube video.
I decide to work the first fish I saw come up just above the bend near an overhang. I position myself directly across the river and keep a low profile. I make sure I have enough room for a back-cast. I’ll have to keep it high to avoid the shrubs behind me. I watch and wait for the fish to rise so I know where he is when I make my cast. In the meantime, I take some line off the reel to get ready. He’s coming up about every thirty seconds now. My first cast is short. I gradually let out more line as I cast to place the fly in the feed lane. This takes another three casts. With a drag free drift my fly (a March Brown Emerger) passes over the lie and the trout eats the fly. I set the hook and have a good tussle with a respectable 12” brown. I show Tom (who is fishing just below in the pool) and the fish slips out of my hand and into the water. Another fish is rising above the one I just caught, but closer to the bank. It’s a bigger fish, I judge.
The fish is under an overhanging branch. I manage to get my fly under the overhang by dropping my fly in an opening a few feet above and drifting it into the feeding lane. It takes a few tries to zone in and the fish takes, his head shakes, and out comes the fly! It felt like a perfect hook-set. I reel in my fly and discover the line is wrapped around the hook from the bend to the eye, perfect for keep the hook from sinking in. I untangle the line, snip the tippet, and retie. The fish are still rising every few seconds now as I see groups of March Browns emerge. There is another fish rising above the fish I stung, and even though the stung fish is still rising, I opt for the other one which is another good fish. As before, I wait for the rise to find his lane and cast. Like the other fish, this one takes the drag free fly as it passes into his feed zone, and it’s a solid hook-set. It’s a good fish.
Tom is not far and he’s taking video. The fish jumps in front of me and lands with a kerplunk. It’s a brown. He fights. I put side pressure on and pull out my net. The fish resists and thrashes at the top. I ease off the pressure a bit and give him room in hopes he doesn’t throw the hook. Then I pull up again and I ease him into the net. He’s a solid 15” wild brown. I hold him up for Tom to see then hold him in the net under water to remove the hook. I let the fish recover before I release him and he swims off. Sublime is the best way to describe the moment.
Check out the YouTube of the trip by clicking HERE.
It’s about time to make our exit. Though fairly early, it’s been a full day, the rain has started to pick up again, and we want to get a good meal in. Tom is leaving early the next day for a prearranged appointment. I haven’t decided whether I’m going to fish in the morning. We plan to eat at the Inn Between across the street from the Margaretville Motel. We return to our rooms, but take our time and a while later, the rain picks up again, and we get in Tom’s car to go to the restaurant. When we get there the restaurant has already closed. Bummer. So off we went back to Brio’s, but this time get there with fifteen minutes to spare, and have ourselves another great meal.
As planned Tom left early the next morning. I was sad to see my friend Tom leave. There was a light rain falling and I decided to stay to fish.
I will skip the details about the part where I intended to fish across the road from the motel and almost fell in twice. Instead…
I made a beeline back to the “culvert spot” we had fished the previous evening. By the time I got to the river, I felt a bit tired (not having slept well) and I decided to make myself a rock cairn stool at the edge of the river like Tom had made the day before yesterday. I carefully piled a few flat rocks as Tom had done and sat on them, then fell sideways.
As I picked myself up and stood at the bank, a fish rose five feet off the culvert stream inflow. I picked up my fly rod still rigged with the same fly from the evening before and made a cast five feet above from where the fish had risen. The fish takes the fly, I set, and he’s on. He makes a break for the deep pool below but I keep him out and land a very nice 13” brown.
Re-energized by catching the fish, I move downriver to explore some of the water below. As I walk, I look for fish-sign. There are no detectable rises in any of the likely spots where you would imagine fish to be. I check under the overhangs, the slow water, the riffles, and spots next to a deadfall. I walk on top of the island that splits the river and check both flows. I look downriver and I see the cliffs on the right at the end of my view. I marvel at the beauty and seeming remoteness of this place. Clearly, the wildlife like this place at night as I see scat all over the river rock embankment.
The road may be a hundred yards away, but you wouldn’t know it. Mitch Keller claims to have seen a mountain lion cross the river while he was fishing one evening. I can imagine that happening here, and I find myself on heightened alert suddenly, looking around thinking perhaps a bear or some other creature might emerge from the forest.
On occasion light rain falls. I make my way back upriver. As I get closer to the deep pool located at the entry point, I notice fish rising in the main current in the pool. I even see one rise in the flat-water way back in the pool near the deadfall along the far bank. That is a nearly impossible spot to cast to and still manage a drag free float. I approach the pool quietly and land my fly in the bubble line. A small fish takes the fly and I land a nine-inch trout. I launch the fly again and get another similar sized fish. After that I make a few more casts, and on the last cast I let the emerger sink and swing in the current. Another yet smaller fish takes and I land it as well. The rises stop.
I move up to the mouth of the flow of the culvert stream, and I wait and watch upriver along the bank where I had caught last evening’s two beauties. Further above that spot along an overhang, I think I see a fish come up and I wait and watch. I see it rise again in that spot. Definitely a fish there.
I get into the water and quickly walk in to waist deep and almost just as quickly up to knee deep water to cross, and I quietly make my way up river on the opposite side as I had the previous evening. As I do, I notice the fish is coming up regularly. Good. Once I arrive slightly downstream and across from the fish, I stop and watch again. I see half of the trout’s body come out of the water as it takes a fly. It’s a nice broad bodied brown. I pull line off my reel to start my cast and lay out my first cast well short of the fish. I let the fly move down below the fish before taking another cast. The fish is moving around. I make three more casts as I zone in to the brown’s feeding lane. It has moved closer to the bank now under overhanging trees. I pull a little more line out to cast and I land the fly in an opening eight feet above the trout and right in its feeding lane. No drag. As the fly passes over, the brown takes. I set and he runs downriver. I apply some pressure, but not too much. He turns and heads back toward the bank. Back and forth he goes and I move him gradually to my waiting net. She’s hefty. I leave the fish in the net and take a picture in the shallows of the side creek. Another real beauty.
It’s time to go and I decide to leave on a high note. What a wonderful time spent exploring this three-mile section of river with friend Tom. I only wished he could have spent the extra time with me this morning. I give thanks and head back to the car. Until next time. I will come back to explore some more, God willing.