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2005 was not kind to the mighty Delaware

Friday, December 23, 2005
By J.B. Kasper

To say this outdoors year is reminiscent of a roller coaster ride would be an understatement.

A cold wet winter, floods in April, a drought during the summer, record rains in October, a record warm November and a quick trip to the freezer in December, the year 2005 had so many twists and turns that we might need to see a chiropractor to get over it.

One of the hardest hit waters this past year was the Delaware River. After two straight years of high water, thanks to some of the rainiest years on record, the one thing the Delaware did not need was more rain.

The September flood of 2004, coupled with the oil spill in the lower tidal river, were bad enough, and cost the river a lot of fish. Some biologists estimate the river lost as much as 40 percent of its fish due to the September flood. The April flood, which was the worst in the past 50 years, really put a dent in the already stressed fish populations, especially the smallmouth.

Smallies have had three bad spawns in a row and the survival rate of the young of the year (fish born each season) has been very poor for several reasons. I did get some reports of decent numbers of young of the year smallmouth in several sections of the river. However, how many survive will be the key to the fishing in the next couple of years.

Another reason the smallmouth and other fish populations took such a hit in the river for the past three years is the distinct lack of vegetation in the upper non-tidal river. The problems with the river's vegetation started in the late 1990s when heavy flows scraped the river's bottom clean of vegetation in many places. While the vegetation started to make a comeback several times, high water conditions and the cooler-than-normal water temperatures they caused for several years have not allowed the vegetation to return to normal.

The vegetation is the river's nursery for the young of the year and, as a result, they have no place to hide from predators.

Smallmouth fishing in the Delaware was subpar for the third straight year. While the smallies that were caught this past season were of better size, the numbers were well below the 10-year norm. Simply put, the smallmouth population is in trouble, and unless we have a couple of years with normal water conditions with good spawns and a return of the river's vegetation, the outlook is not good.

The river's shad population has been on the back slide for the past 10 years and the 2005 season was one of the poorest in the last 30 years. It's true the April flood more than likely had an effect on the shad population. However, the fishery has been in big trouble since the late 1990s and the first couple of years of the new century, when ocean intercept netting killed off huge numbers of fish before they had a chance to spawn.

The failure of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the Fish & Wildlife Service and Atlantic coast states such as New Jersey to protect the fishery when it was at record levels in the early 1990s are to blame for the decline in the fishery. Young of the year shad are one of the main forage fish in the river and one of the reasons the river's fish populations were in such good shape in the 1980s and '90s. However, while the numbers of striped b [no swearing please] were increasing, the numbers of shad were on the decline. Consequently, the b [no swearing please] are feeding on a shrinking forage base.

The striped b [no swearing please] fishery in the Delaware also experienced a subpar season. The Trenton area has been on the decline for the last several years, and it is closely tied to the decline in the herring fishery which started several years back. Couple the decline in the forage base (herring and shad) with the Thanksgiving weekend oil spill on the lower river and the April flood, and the spring striper run was really out of synch.

On a normal year, thousands of small 6- to 15-inch stripers summer over in the lower tidal river, feeding on the alewives, gizzard shad and other forage fish. The April flood pushed the spawning time table back for these baitfish, which were not born until after the stripers moved up river.

The striped b [no swearing please] in the Trenton area and in the lower river kept on moving up river until they found forage to feed on. There was a bright spot on the Delaware this year: the resurgence in the river's walleye population. The Division of Fish & Wildlife has been stocking walleyes in the upper portions of the river (Phillipsburg north) for the past several years, and in the last couple of years these fish are starting to show up in catches up and down the river.

The September and April floods moved a lot of walleyes down river and redistributed them. They spread out the walleye all the way down into the tidal river. Some nice walleye came from the river south of Trenton this past year, as well as in the stretch between Trenton and Phillipsburg, where the fish were not stocked. This proves the viability of increasing the stocking of the river from Phillipsburg down, something the state should seriously consider in light of the decrease in the other fish populations. NOTE:

You can reach us with your fishing or hunting reports, comments or questions by e-mail at [email protected] or [email protected]; or by mail at J.B. Kasper, c/o The Times, 500 Perry St., Trenton, NJ 08605.

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The upper river didnt fare too well either..The drought caused temps in the 80s below Lordville and we experienced some fish kills. The East Branch also had some high temps but didnt get the fish kills..The West branch did fine and a large number of fish migrated to the West Branch..But the entire system (Upper D) seems to be in good shape now. We will see how this will effect the hatches and fishing this coming spring...
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