When the sentinel sycamores shed their yellow tatters and show their skeletons, when the oak-and maple-cloaked valley ramparts come all afire—in a word, when Indian summer truly arrives, then is the time for float-fishing down the Delaware. It is a sport as old and adventuresome as the Indians, and almost as forgotten. Take live minnows if you can, then hellgrammites, craws, grasshoppers or bass bugs, and always lamprey eels. If you can't gel live bait, go anyway with spinners and imitations. But do not miss float-fishing. For that golden idle moment between when the trout peter out and the woodcock tweeter in, there is nothing quite like it.
Have you ever stood beside a fishing water and wished it might suddenly evaporate, go completely dry for just a moment so you could behold all the monsters and curiosities it must contain?
Purse-seining, skin-diving, bathy-sphering are all motivated by this same totality of curiosity. And there is float-fishing. True, it is less penetrating than the others, but it is deeply satisfying because it gives you time to absorb all the wonders of the upper world around you while you probe the mysteries below. It is a pastime esteemed highly by sportsmen of true curiosity, patience and perception.
Mid-continent fishermen, especially in the Ozarks, have long known and practiced the art. It is the simplest and most rewarding way to handle a big river. Instead of trying to pick your spots in a massive flow of water, over unlimited feeding grounds, you commit your life and luck to the river's immemorial currents. You present your lure continuously to a whole, imponderable fish population instead of in snatches to a few fish here and there.
Float-fishing does not mean simply putting a bobber on your line to signal the bites, though it can include this. It means putting your boat—canoe, oared skiff or outboard—into a good-sized river and resolving to drift wherever the river listeth, not just for a few hours but for a day, or for two or three days.
You tarry at this rift, back eddy, sunken tree or log jam. You go ashore to gather bait or take a snooze. You step out of your craft to cast from a promising rock ledge, or detour into the mouth of a feeder brook. You camp beside the water overnight, preferably on an island. But always your progress is downstream, mostly amid the river's broad, ever-moving bosom where your bait or artifact moves along naturally amongst nature's offerings. You let the river itself take you to its fish. In the long float, the river knows best where that will be.
Float-fishing was rediscovered in Pennsylvania by a few experimentalists on the upper reaches of the Allegheny. News of their startling catches, including muskellunge (no less!) and northern pike besides the usual smallmouths and walleyes, reached Harrisburg. There the Fish Commission had a new director, Bill Voigt Jr., former executive director of the Izaak Walton League. An old hand at and believer in float-fishing, Voigt mustered a sizable task force of 61 veteran conservationists, sportsmen and sportswriters to float four of Pennsylvania's biggest rivers and to assess their potentials.
In four groups they descended the Allegheny from Warren, the Susquehanna's north branch from Sayre, the Juniata from Ryde, the Delaware from Narrowsburg. Some of the boats covered more than 100 miles in three days. Despite murk and muck from too-recent rains, the catches and discoveries were so memorable that the commission accurately bugled, "A lot of good fishing is going begging in Pennsylvania!" And the new vogue was on.
The Pennsylvania agents reported (and they are remedying) some difficulty in finding access and egress points along their rivers for float-fishermen. Private landowners don't relish herds of pickups and station wagons at their landings.
We had no such trouble when we float-fished the Delaware in September, putting in on the Jersey side. It was simple enough to have an accomplice drive the station wagon home after the boat was unloaded, then to telephone him from wherever we came ashore.