Shad, trout, invasives: What three kinds of Delaware River fish reveal about our region
Three fish, three realities.
Cranberry Creek is liquid glass, tumbling down hillsides into Paradise Creek, before it snakes its way into Brodhead Creek and joins the Delaware River miles away. This Poconos stream is barely as wide as a sidewalk, cool and shaded beneath a cathedral of trees. On a July afternoon, a fisherman was standing solemnly in the water, looking for the insect larvae that cling to the creek’s mossy rocks.
Rob Shane, Mid-Atlantic organizer for the nonprofit Trout Unlimited, found a caddis fly larva, hiding in its strange, shell-like casing beneath a rock. He searched through his fly box for something to match it, a tiny hook wrapped in fuzz and elk hair, slightly green, to fool the discerning trout. Though fishermen in the Upper Delaware of the Catskills would protest, these waters, particularly Brodhead Creek, are hallowed, considered by many to be the birthplace of fly-fishing in the United States.
“The water quality is exceptional,” said Don Baylor, a board member of Brodhead Trout Unlimited and author of The Brodhead: An Historic Trout Fishery.
Exceptional water quality, in 2019′s Delaware River watershed, is almost never an accident, including in the Brodhead, which Shane and Trout Unlimited have fought to protect from developers. Everywhere in the watershed, not just in Philadelphia’s industrial zones, local pollution, development, and the global forces of climate change all conspire against water purity.
Fish, perhaps more than any other animal in the watershed, are affected first by fluctuations in water quality. From the muscular shad that once filled nets and bellies, to the lone, sensitive trout hiding in a cold, mountain eddy, their numbers have been rising and falling for centuries.
Thousands of registered anglers, mostly from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, spend time on the watershed each year, likely accompanied by thousands more who don’t bother to buy a license. They often are the ones to first notice the subtle signals sent by three very different types of fish: the shy trout; the once-ubiquitous, now-returning shad; and alien predators that are very much on the upswing: invasive species like the hefty flathead catfish and the pugnacious northern snakehead.
Hallowed trout waters
Back on Cranberry Creek, Shane ate the caddis fly larva for good luck — “tastes like mud," he said — then went to work, his thin flying fish rod arching back and forth like a whip in slow motion, until he dropped the fly in a pool smaller than a bathtub.
Suddenly, Shane’s line grew taut, the rod bending down toward the water.
“There you are,” Shane said to the fish.
The brown trout Shane caught in this little creek was barely bigger than a hot dog, but for purists, trout caught on a fly are weighed like gold, the pinkish haloed markings more precious than jewels. Trout Unlimited was established in Michigan in 1959 to manage wild trout populations across the country. Brodhead Creek and many others in Pennsylvania hold populations of wild trout, mostly brown and brook. Shane said the organization has done years of work to help preserve that.
But Pennsylvania’s Fish and Boat Commission also stocks trout, including rainbows, by the millions each year, in sections of Brodhead Creek. Shane said the old, prestigious fly-fishing clubs along Brodhead also stock the creek themselves. If any of those trout go down into the Delaware, they return upstream to cooler waters in the summer.
Nearly every move made by man could affect them, from logging, to an oil leak in an old car, to an ever-warming planet.
“The survival of wild trout relies on both water quality and temps,” Shane said.
Often, Shane can tell the difference between a wild trout and a stocked one. A fish that’s been living in tight quarters with thousands of others can get a little ragged.
“The wild trout are sort of perfect,” he said.
The Founding Fish
On a sunny spring morning in Lambertville, N.J., just upriver from where Gen. George Washington crossed the Delaware, people were gathered by the water in waders, readying nets to capture living history. American shad were running and word had spread.
Past the canoeist and the honking Canada geese, several wide, flat boats were anchored in the eddies south of the New Hope-Lambertville Bridge, carrying anglers using more modern fishing methods to lure in the same prized catch.
In the mid-20th century, the Philadelphia portion of the river was so polluted from industrial waste and sewage runoff it was dubbed an ecological dead zone. For the American shad and other migratory fish that travel up the Delaware, it was a wall blocking their path north.
Steve Meserve’s great-grandfather Bill Lewis started a fishery in Lambertville. In 1896, the Lewis Fishery caught 10,000 shad there. A half-century later, whole years passed when the family didn’t catch a single fish.
“Shad are kind of like the canaries in the coal mine because they need a substantial amount of oxygen in the waterway to survive,” Meserve said.
Still, the family maintained the traditions, hauling vast nets north on Lewis Island, then rowing one out into current, while someone else walked the other end south close to shore, cinching it tight like a noose at the end.
“My great-grandfather was stubborn enough not to quit,” Meserve said. “He figured if everybody left the fishery, there would be no voice for the past, so he decided to stick around, to give voice to the fish.”
Author and fisherman John McPhee, a Princeton native, expounded on shad’s role in early America in his 2002 book, The Founding Fish, exploring the legend that an early shad run may have saved Washington’s troops from starvation at Valley Forge in the winter of 1778. Though Washington himself was a successful shad fisherman, McPhee found no evidence to back the story up.
By 1934, people complained that the few shad that made it up the river tasted like “petroleum.” The passing of the Clean Water Act in 1972 made it illegal to dump pollutants into waterways without a permit and those government regulations brought the river back from the brink.
Shad were long sought for their roe, like sturgeon. Their fillets are notoriously bony, though delicious if handled by a master deboner. Many of the nation’s founding fathers, and the Leni-Lenape that were on the river long before them, enjoyed shad, roasted on wooden planks.
In 2019, some on the island would rather joke about shad than eat them.
“You can plank 'em, and you cook the plank and throw away the fish,” one volunteer said.
Female shad, known as roe, are sold for $6 at the Lewis Fishery while bucks are $4. In the Lambertville area, Meserve’s biggest customers are Indian and Pakistani immigrants who get a phone call if there are fish in the net. All transactions are done on the island, in a fishing shack filled with black-and-white photos, where fish scales are stuck to the walls like ancient fossils.
This year, the heavier-than-normal rains produced in a warming climate, not the pollution sources of old, affected the fishery.
On this spring Saturday, the first haul of the season, the net came in empty and for the next two months, heavy rains made the river in Lambertville difficult to navigate and fish. Meserve, in an email he sends out to followers of the fishery, said only five of 27 hauls came back with shad.
“It wasn’t the way we wanted to end the season but that is the end of it,” he said in his final email just before June.
One by one, Joe Cermele’s fake, rubber frogs landed with a thud in a murky, top-secret waterway not far from the Delaware River in South Jersey. He aimed for what appeared to be two alligator tails, entwined and writhing in the water under a scorching July sky.
They were fish, two northern snakeheads, one of the watershed’s newest and most voracious predators. On this afternoon, they were occupied by more primal urges than hunger, and even Cermele, a man whose entire life is dedicated to fishing, couldn’t entice them.
“Nah, they’re mating. They won’t bite,” he said.
Snakeheads don’t belong here. Native to Asia, they began showing up in the United States decades ago, partly for aquariums but also for the fresh fish market. Though they have greenish, mottled skin, sharp, needlelike teeth, and heads that resemble — well, you know — snakeheads are considered a delicacy by some. They spread through Maryland, Delaware, and up into the Delaware River watershed easily, surviving in low, seemingly stagnant water that appears to be choked off by vegetation.
Snakeheads have been called “Frankenfish” in headlines, with claims that they wiggle, out of water, from pond to pond, devouring more desirable fish. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s web page for snakeheads recommends that anglers who catch snakeheads not release them back into the water.
Cermele, the fishing editor for both Field & Stream and Outdoor Life magazines, has traveled the world seeking everything from delicate trout to ocean behemoths the size of refrigerators. He prefaces his feelings for snakeheads with responsible words. He knows they don’t belong here, that they were supposed to devastate the ecosystem. But he hasn’t seen that destruction and Cermele has grown passionate about the species. They’re not going anywhere. They’re scrappy, like Philadelphians.
“The way I look at them is that they’re impressive and unique as a game fish,” he said. “They track top-water lures and hit with such force it makes your heart skip a beat. You also have to put in your time and hunt them. For me, simply finding them in the Delaware and its tributaries is a big part of the challenge.”
A few hours of fishing on that July day resulted only in a largemouth bass, a chain pickerel, and peeping on mating snakeheads. Cermele, undeterred, returned in August, to land one for the camera.
Then he released the snakehead, back to his secret waterway, into the same watershed shared by trout, shad, and countless others, where many say they don’t belong.
Editor’s Note: “From the Source: Stories of the Delaware River” is produced with support from the National Geographic Society, the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, and the William Penn Foundation. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors. See earlier stories at inquirer.com/riverstories.
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