When Mark Lorenzini told his ex-brother-in-law he was going fishing below the Burlington Bristol Bridge, the response was: "What are you going to catch, a body?"

In fact, 40-inch striped bass can be caught in the much-improved waters of the Delaware River. And misguided stories like this frustrate Patrick Starr, who sees the river as an overlooked gem - cultural, historical, and recreational - that is badly in need of a sponsor.

His vision: a Tidal Delaware River National Recreation Area, 72 river miles from Trenton to Delaware City, managed by the National Park Service.

"We have treated the river as a backyard for decades. If you go back to the 1700s it was the front door," said Starr, senior vice president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council and a kayaker who says he could rent or store a boat near the Hudson River right in New York City but not here.

On Thursday, Starr led a tour - by van, since river access is poor - of some of the cultural and historical sites for park service officials and others, who responded with murmurs of awe. On Friday, he will lead a briefing for several dozen movers and shakers around the region. U.S. Reps. Robert E. Andrews (D., N.J.) and Allyson Y. Schwartz (D., Pa.) are expected to begin the lengthy process any day with an official request for a park service study.

The goal would not be new federal lands or substantial rules changes; dredging of the river, for example, would be unaffected. But the National Park Service could bring under one umbrella dozens of sites in three states and promote them as a single resource. It could provide money to build more river access. It could bring in rangers to run tours and other educational programs.

There are 17 national recreation areas around the country, from the Golden Gate in San Francisco to Gateway in North Jersey and New York City. Some are largely federal land and others almost none. Each is managed very differently.

"There is no cookie cutter," said Paul Labovitz, superintendent of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, which he described as an "overlay" of 25 units of state, county, and local government along 72 river miles in and around Minneapolis-St. Paul. Rangers lead bike, canoe, and birding trips. There is no entry gate, and the park's interpretive center is in a science museum.

Labovitz developed his love of the outdoors as a kid growing up in Northeast Philadelphia, where he watched water birds and fished for eels in the river from atop a big sewer pipe off Unruh Street. The river has grown dramatically cleaner since the 1960s and 1970s.

"The Delaware has a lot of recreational opportunities to offer that just need to be further developed," Labovitz said Thursday at a stop on Starr's van tour - a New Jersey observation platform with a view of the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge, which he said was "awesome."

The tour gave him a perspective that would be hard for most people to get. The Delaware, he realized, "is not just a community here, a community there. It's a river."

William Penn knew that, of course, as did Philadelphians through the centuries that followed.

"Philadelphia and Camden were the same economy," said Tom Corcoran, president of the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. in Philadelphia who held a similar position on the New Jersey side.

"Back in the heydays, there were 15 or 20 different ferry companies running all sorts of routes. Every two or three blocks in Camden there was a ferry station and in Philadelphia there was a ferry station and the river was just alive with people going back and forth."

Ironically, Corcoran said, it was the opening of the bridges across the river that killed people's connection with it. The last real ferry, not counting the tourist version that now runs, crossed on March 1, 1952.

The decline of the ports and construction of I-95 further divorced the region from the waterway that created it.

Indeed, tourists sometimes are surprised to hear that Philadelphia sits along a river at all, said Meryl Levitz, president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp.

To Levitz, a Delaware River natural recreation area has a brand-name potential similar to that of Independence Mall.

"Tourists used to hear 'Indpendence Mall' and they would say, 'What stores are there?' " she said. After more than a decade of planning, improving and themed marketing, she doesn't hear that question anymore - visits to the 27 attractions that are part of the national park are up more than 70 percent.

To Congressman Andrews, a natural recreation area designation would be about jobs.

"Recreation is a major source of employment. And a river is a major source of recreation," he said.

The idea is far from a slam-dunk. Three out of the last five "reconnaissance" studies done by the National Park Service - the step that Andrews is requesting - resulted in recommendations for further action, a spokesman said, and five of the last 10 that got to the next step resulted in positive recommendations. Decisions on new parks are ultimately made by Congress, which could take years.

Still, Rich Weideman, the park service's chief of partnerships, saw a good fit after Thursday's tour. Mark Lorenzini, the fisherman who surprised his ex-brother-in-law, sees potential as well.

"A lot of people don't know what's here," Lorenzini said Thursday morning at the Frankford Arsenal public boat access, ticking off his catches - bass (smallmouth and largemouth), perch (yellow and white), catfish (all kinds) - in the Delaware River.

Just the other day he baited his hook with herring for striped bass and reeled in a 60-pound snapping turtle. (He let it go.)

Contact staff writer Don Sapatkin at 215-854-2617 or dsapatkin@phillynews.com.