On any given body of water, there comes a point in the season when it’s more on fire than any other time of year. Hook Shots host Joe Cermele calls the central Delaware River, carving the border between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, his home water. And in late April and early May, there is no place he’d rather be fishing. For a precious few weeks, shad, herring, and striped bass running up from the Atlantic change the entire dynamic of the system; you’ve got to get it while the getting’s good. But staple species like smallmouth can be just as eager to eat as the migrators. Cermele—and a cast of characters that proudly call themselves Big D river rats—will show you what their home turf is all about in spring.
The Deal: While the Delaware—which is the last major undammed river east of the Mississippi—is a hot bed for smallmouths, walleyes, muskies, and trophy trout in the branches, there are new players in town come spring. Some of the biggest American shad in the country make a massive run up the D to spawn…and smash flutter spoons along the way. Herring follow behind the shad, and spawning striped bass fresh from the salt are in hot pursuit. The action with migrators only lasts for a few short weeks depending on conditions, which is why the locals want to get rods bent as often as possible during this window. Of course, the usual players are still there for the catching. In fact, if you’re willing to work a little harder in the higher, colder flows of early spring, you’ve got a good chance of scoring a smallmouth or walleye at the top size mark for this river.
When To Go: Putting a trip to the central Delaware on your calendar is tricky, as the magic window shifts based on water temps and levels from snow melt and rain season to season. A safe bet for shad is the last two weeks of April, though these fish can still be running strong in early June. Stripers feed in the tidal zone south of Trenton, New Jersey, starting in early April, but the action can last to mid May in some areas. If you’re after bronzebacks, look for numbers in summer and fall; if you want size, work the banks with spinnerbaits and tubes in the high, chalky flows of mid to late April
What To Bring: Hook a 10- to 20-pound striper in the Delaware, and you’re in for a ride, because early spring currents can be fierce. Many anglers lean on surfcasting tackle from the bank, but a heavy-action inshore rod and reel that will hold plenty of 30-pound braid work from a boat. Just make sure your drag is greased. Six- to 7-inch diving plugs are staple lures, though it’s wise to carry a few loud Spooks or poppers, because this can be a surface game. For shad, any spinning outfit that holds plenty of 8-pound mono or 15-pound braid will get the job done, and all you’ll need is a handful of shad darts and flutter spoons. As these fish are brute fighters and have soft mouths, fight gingerly with a light drag setting.
Where To Stay: If you’re traveling to the central Delaware region, you’ll find no shortage of chain hotels in Ewing, NJ, and nearby Langhorne, PA. If you want to stay somewhere a bit more upscale in the quaint, artsy town of Lambertville, we recommend the Lambertville Station and Inn.