FISHING THE Big D (DELAWARE)
James S. McKay
Top Ten Rapids of the Delaware River
Approximately ten million people live in the counties that the Delaware River flows through. This is about five percent of the total population of the United States placing it as one of the more dense portions of the country. The river is not known as a whitewater river and the strongest rapids are only a Class II Plus or Low III, but every year, the river takes someone’s life in some sort of recreational accident. Not all of the victims are young, intoxicated, non swimmers, or riding cheap inflatable rafts without lifejackets in class II rapids. Unfortunately, it is some combination of the above that leads to most of the deaths that happen yearly on the Delaware River.
Originally, the name rift was applied to rapids on the upper half of the Delaware River while falls was the term used for rapids in the lower half. Each drop in the Delaware River generates falls or rifts that have its own unique quality. Some of these qualities vary with seasonal flows making them easier or more hazardous depending on the flow rates. We have modified these rapids for our own use, making some safer and others more dangerous. What makes a rapid hazardous is not necessary the drop in elevation but downstream obstacles that can trap a capsized boater under tree limbs and rocks. Tragedy can also begin above the rapids when a wader falls into the main channel. Even the strongest of swimmer will have trouble fighting the power of the current and therefore, do not step into the river if you are a non swimmer. If your craft capsizes, remain with it by floating behind the boat and stay away from fallen trees. If you follow the main flow of the river, you should be able to navigate all of the rapids in the Delaware River without problems. One common factor of all these falls and rifts is that they all provide excellent fishing.
The Water Gap
4 of 5 for scenic quality
The Water Gap rift begins south of Shawnee Island and passes through the Gap and ends at Portland, PA. Here the mountain creates a river with a mixture of mild class one rapids, deep turning pools and a spectacular view from below. Trying to read the geology of the river here is just as interesting as the reading of the current. Before the gap opened a few million years ago, the river above here flowed northward so there were two rivers, not one.
Expect the first rapid once you pass the golf course at the mouth of the Brodhead Creek. Stay right of the abandoned bridge support. The next set will be at the end of Arrow Island. The last rift will be under an old railroad bridge. Public access starts at Smithfield Beach on the PA side in the National Park. To see the entire Water Gap, pass the New Jersey hand launch off of Old Mine Road within the gorge and float down to the ramp just past Portland, PA.
Tri Point Rift
“A perfect place to rest”
3 of 5 for scenic quality
This small but deceptive rift has taken lives. It is located south of Port Jervis, New York at the junction of the Neversink River and the common point between the three states. Here the channel makes a sharp turn southward and flows into the bank of an old, but scenic, cemetery. Along the bank are trees, branches, and roots that have caught floaters on their journey southward. A stop under the highway bridge I-84 is a nice place to view the scenic river’s turn, tri point rock and an impressive collection of cemetery monuments.
Frenchtown to Point Pleasant Rapids
Easy and Enjoyable
3 of 5 for scenic quality
Rafting companies use this six mile section for good reason. Here the river has a consistence moderately fast flow that meanders between many islands. The depth is shallow with mild ripples that surround the islands. The constant flow, shallow depth and mild ripples create a perfect place for rafting companies and novice river people to operate. Because of the multiple islands and channels, one needs additional visits to see the entire river, insuring repeat visitors for the rafting companies. The abandoned rail bed on the New Jersey side, now a hiking & biking trail, also provides an avenue for bicycle return trips for the lone rafter. The rafting companies put in at a public launch below Frenchtown, New Jersey and pick up at Point Pleasant, PA. The Point Pleasant landing on the Pennsylvania side is private. Public access is on the New Jersey side behind the old bridge abutment. The bank is steep but kayaks and canoes can be carried up. To find the next public landing requires a long slow paddle to Bull’s Island Park. The biggest hazard is the power boat traffic that is unfriendly to floaters. At the end of this eddy is the Bulls Island wing dam, which can be dangerous to the unaware victims. Bulls Island has two ramps, one above the wing dam and another just below it, both on the New Jersey side.
Trenton Falls at out going tide
1 of 5 for scenic quality
Trenton Falls marks the division between tidal and non tidal river. The state of the falls varies greatly due to seasonal flow and daily changing of the tides. At high tide, rocks and the current of the water disappear to form an eddy. But when is changes, it becomes a raging rapids with visible rocks. Beside the native bed rock, the bottom is loaded with concrete blocks with exposed rebar, car parts and shopping carts, all of which can puncture holes in kayaks and canoes. On the New Jersey side, a mile long pier blocks any attempt to beach a craft. The current here can become very strong and can carry one some distance in a direction they did not want to go. The Pennsylvania side is a little friendlier but at low tide the banks are covered with slippery mud coated rocks and mud holes. Access is just above and below the falls on the Pennsylvania side. This section is much better suited as a fishing spot than white water rafting.
The Tusten Rifts
4 of 5 for scenic quality
Three Class II Rapids make up this six mile section of River. The first starts just below a railroad bridge, five miles south of Narrowsburg New York. The rift starting at the railroad bridge is best navigated from the center of the river. The second and third Class II’s rapids begin about five miles downriver and end just before entering the Lackawaxen Eddy. These rifts are made up of large boulders that create winding channels down a steep grade. This section also has old stone eel weir or fish trap. Look for a V shaped rock line that crosses most of the river. Navigate outside of the V. Use Narrowsburg and Lackawaxen to enter and leave the river. This is not motor boat friendly water.
Cedar Rapids/ Shohola Creek rifts
4 of 5 for scenic quality
Several miles south of Lackawaxen is Cedar Rapid which begins at some campgrounds past Lackawaxen This short, but brutal, rift has no set channel, just lots of rocks. Four miles south of here, just pass the Highway 473 bridge at Berryville New York is the Shohola Creek rifts. This one is longer with a defined channel on the right side of the river. This section from Lackawaxen to Pond Eddy has a good mixture of slow moving eddies, fast moving channels, eel weir, and fantastic mountain views. With the many rafting companies and youth campgrounds here, this section of the river has heavy traffic on summer weekend.
Mongaup River Rifts
The Best of the River
5 of 5 for scenic quality
These collection of rapids begin downstream of Pond Eddy, New York and end at a Railroad bridge near Sparrowbush, New York in a gorge called Hawks Nest. This six mile run is by far the most enjoyable ride on the entire Delaware River. It has few eddies to slow the trip making it one of the fastest flowing parts of the river. Some of the name applied to the rifts here is the devil’s stair case and Eagle nest rift. The most dangerous is just past the mouth of the Mongaup River. This section is heavily used by rafting companies so on summer weekends this can be a busy place, which can lead to injuries. One can easily do all of the rifts between Lackawaxen and Port Jervis in a day.
Short and deadly
2 of 5 for scenic quality
The rift is located about 5 miles north of Narrowsburg New York. This Upper River rapid may have the steepest grade drop in the river. I estimate it drops about 10 to 15 feet in less than quarter mile. A sign on the highway bridge just above the rapids give warning and advising people to stay to the right of center toward the Pennsylvania side. Here the river acts as a natural wing dam where water is forced into a narrow gap. If one goes straight down the center of the channel with minor adjustments they should get through without incident. Fortunately at the base of the main channel there are no high rock lines to collect trees and there are plenty of places on both banks to de-water the craft if one becomes swamped. Access is just above the rift and five miles south at Narrowsburg. To portage this would be difficult and unnecessary unless river flow is low. These falls may be more treacherous in low flow periods. Because this is a popular place for visitors, this rift has a high collection of drowning victims.
3 of 5 for scenic quality
The second most hazardous rift on the river is Foul Rift. Once the river passes Belvedere, it drops 22 feet in a half mile through a narrow ravine called Foul Rift. It is classified as a strong class II rapid during moderate flows. In floods, it can be much more. What make this one of the most hazardous set of rapids in the river are the repeating lines of large downstream limestone rocks with submerged ledges. These rock lines can collect trees after floods which can trap and drown floating travelers. The steep banks on both sides offer only a few places to upright a boat, kayak or a canoe leaving the unfortunate crew to follow the waterlog craft the full lengths of the rapids. In the late 1700’s, a channel was cut through these rock lines so the log rafts and Durham boats could get through. Even after the efforts of the early rock removers to make the ravine safer for river traffic, people still drown here.
By following the main channel and avoiding down trees one should be able to transit this. The problem is the shallow channel meanders several times between the Pennsylvania bank and the center of the river. Start the journey in the center of the river at the first set of rapids than move to the right of an island on the Pennsylvania side on the second set. After the island, move quickly back to the center of the river before crossing the third and final set.
At one time this was considered a prime location for dam construction to generate hydroelectric power, so large tracts of land were bought for the project. Today, the land on the Pennsylvania side is open to the public. A hiking trail on the Pennsylvania side and an observation ramp provide people a way to scout the rapids for fallen trees and river conditions before attempting a transit.
Two good places to put in and take out is at Belvedere New Jersey and at Martin’s Creek, PA just below a Railroad bridge. Stay to the left on the rapids under the railroad bridge. North of the Belvedere Eddy are some good rapids too but put in is ten miles up river at the Portland PA ramp. Foul Rift is an enjoyable and scenic float trip for only skilled kayakers and canoeist to take. This is an isolated part of the river so if you do get into trouble there may be no one to help you. No commercial tubing companies operate this.
Wells Falls or the New Hope/Lumbertville Wing Dam at high flow rates.
Capsizing is nearly guaranteed
1 of 5 for scenic quality
The original foundation of this dam was laid in the 1700’s for a mill. It was later enlarged to increase depth for the upstream canal boat crossing. This place, in my opinion, has the greatest chance of capsizing any small vessel in the river and should only be attempted by skilled kayakers. What makes this the number one worst fall in the river are the large downstream rocks at the base of the narrow man made chock point. Here hundreds of tons of water per second drop about 6 feet through a 50 yard gap directly into a line of large rocks in the middle of the channel. It is best to attack by going left of center to avoid the rock line and during very low flows of 10,000 cfs. Fortunately this fall can be easily portaged on the New Jersey side and highly recommended if the flow is strong. I have never seen a motor boat attempt a transit through here and would not recommend it. The other two wing dams, Bull Island to the north and Scudders Fall to the south are easier for both motor boats, canoes, kayaks and tubes. All three of the wing dams have up and down stream access on the New Jersey side. Scudder Falls has three breaches at flow levels below 12,000 cfs. Above 15,000 cfs Scudder Fall might be the most hazardous due to the amounts of inundated islands that can trap floaters. Scudder Falls also has a large following of spring time wave riding kayakers. Remember, dams downriver are invisible to floaters so always know where they are. No commercial tubing companies operate these falls and no unskilled people should go through them.