By Vic Attardo
Special to The Mercury

The Palmerton Dam looked safe enough for passage, but Lehigh River guide Paul Davidson wasn’t taking any chances – and he was obeying the law.
Along with fellow angler Dave Frey, Davidson glided his three-man pontoon raft to the side of the dam where we exited and escorted the boat over the corner of the obstruction.
Then we all got back in and Davidson continued rowing to the next Lehigh River honey hole.
The run below the Palmerton Dam and the curve of the river is one of the hottest on the middle Lehigh. Last year I caught a 23-inch brown from this 200-yard rush while fishing with Frey and another friend. This time, with Davidson maneuvering the boat down the right sideline, I had high expectations.
We were throwing stickbaits and spoons on this bright afternoon. The morning had produced fish on the fly rod, and later in the evening flies would work again, but for the shank of the day, we had to stay deep.
This was one of the first trips Davidson (610) 379-5469 had taken down the Lehigh in his newly acquired 16-foot pontoon boat. He’s been plying the river for many years in an aluminum-hulled drift boat but believes the Lehigh River will be more fishable in a low-riding pontoon, particularly during the river’s summer low flows.
Fully loaded with a full complement of anglers and a rower, the craft only drafts three inches under its gray balloons. On the other hand, the heavy drift boat drafts about 12 inches.
On this day the Lehigh was already on the low side, as far as boating was concerned. The morning release from the Francis E. Walter Dam was only 811 c.f.s. According to Davidson, the Army Corps of Engineers has guaranteed a minimum release of 500 c.f.s. during the summer. If the figure is maintained it would be good news for anglers, as last summer the Lehigh suffered through release of only 200 c.f.s., enough to damage aquatic life and the fishery, say Lehigh River enthusiasts.
The pontoon boat glided over the exposed rocks like its hull was made of butter, but what I really enjoyed was the great vantage point the front seat gave me for fishing. All that was in front of me was a short, diamond-plate footrest and a standing waist-brace, complete with a striping basket. Absent was the complete existence of a framed hull. As we went through the river’s white curls, water splashed up on the plate – the main reason you wear waders when on a pontoon drift.
But what I really came to enjoy was the odd way Davidson needed to release our Lehigh trout, which were adding up despite the sunny conditions. After leaning over the sides of one of the pontoon balloons and netting a fish, he would bring the net between his legs, turn it over and dump the fish back down through his feet. In the Lehigh’s clear water, a trout would slap its tail under the surface, then make its way down to the bottom. Releasing a fish between your feet made me laugh and I felt like I was riding in one of those Caribbean glass-bottomed boats that lets you see everything, including the mermaids.
Yet as we entered the Palmerton run, all this was already behind us. I could even see the renewed concentration in Frey’s face as Davidson dropped anchor and we came to a stop in a perfect spot. With sidearm angles, we both casted Rebel stickbaits out to the heavier part of the flow. On my second cast, I felt a strong tug and saw a big rainbow leap through the air and throw my hook.
The Lehigh River has such strong fish in the Palmerton area thanks, in part, to the work of the Lehigh River Stocking Association. The volunteer group has been planting browns, rainbows, brookies and even a hybrid steelhead in the river for many years, and their work has paid off. Over the last four Lehigh floats, stretched out over as many seasons, I’ve caught a multitude of fish over 13 inches and more than a dozen 15 inches and better, culminating with the Palmerton 23-inch prize last year.
While this lost rainbow was more in the range of 17 or 18 inches, I realized the stretch of the river had come through again – only I hadn’t followed through.
But the Lehigh was still giving prizes.
After Davidson lifted the anchor and dropped us down another 30 feet, Frey connected with a nice brown he brought to the raft and the guide released through his feet. This slot still wasn’t over.
Recovered from my earlier loss, I set the hook hard when another trout struck on. Again it was a rainbow, about 15 inches, and this one I managed to slide in Davidson’s net.
Then another 20 or 30 feet down the run, Frey connected with a long brown. This trout dug hard and long and my friend had his work cut out for him getting it in. Finally he managed to whip it tired and skate the 18-inch brown into the net. This fish stood for pictures before it was released.
By the time we were through the Palmerton run, Frey and I had caught four trout. As slipped down to a slow, deep rarely productive pool, I thought we were finished on this trip, with the best part of the Lehigh River. But in a little while, Davidson led us to another run where, in the evening, we tantalized the trout with dry caddis and the trout tortured us refusing our Sulphurs and March Browns during a heavy hatch. Such is the Lehigh River in a pontoon boat.

By Vic Attardo

If you’re interested in catching fat 15-and 16-inch rainbows, now is the time to head to the Lehigh River.
Driftboat guide Paul Davidson (610-379-5469) says there should be a multitude of hatches on the brawling Carbon County, Pa., flow until mid-June and the rainbow will be rising.
“We’ll get Light Cahills size 14, blue-winged olives size 16 and, later in June, Isonychias, size 14,” he says. “Also there should be prolific stone-fly hatches throughout the summer, brown, black and golden stoneflies. During nonhatch times, trout will hit streamers.”
The river’s also good for hardware and bait anglers. Indeed, Davidson says that anglers who drift the river must be versatile.
He feels assured of continued good fishing because some 14,000 rainbows were added to the flow by the Lehigh River Stocking Association, one of the major forces for improving this once coal-black stream.

River drawing attention:
A lot is happening with the Lehigh, as evidenced by an important meeting scheduled for May 29 with Sen Arlen Specter, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the Philadelphia head of the Army Corp of Engineers, Dean Drunkenmiller of the Lehigh Coldwater Fisheries Alliance and other prominent politicians and local conservationists.
The meeting was set for the new boat ramp at Kittaninny, just south of Bowmanstown and included a float trip on the river. Local organizations are pressing for sustainable cold-water releases from the Francis E. Walter Dam.
Before this momentous meeting, I had the pleasure of fishing the river with Davidson, who has guided on the Lehigh for eight years. During that time on the water, Davidson has seen some positive changes.
“The water quality has definitely improved over my time,” he says. “One major factor is the building of a limestone pit on a feeder stream above Jim Thorpe, at Nesquehoning Creek.”
Indeed, the water quality and temperature has been good enough to sustain a spring stocked trout fishery, but the many anglers along the river would like to see releases that help the trout during summer.
Another improvement was the removal of the Palmerton damn. On this trip from Bowmanstown to Walnutport, a distance of 6 miles, we floated over the nearly invisible remains of this old obstruction. The only thing discernible was a bit of the former plunge pool and one grounded pillar. Just downstream Davidson and I hooked a number of the hefty rainbows that are now free to come and go along this section of the river.

From flies to hardware:
When we started in the morning, I hooked two rainbows on caddis pupa flies. But as the morning wore on, fly fishing success decreased. This was not only a matter of timing but of structure and current. The Lehigh is a powerful, often deep flow. Even with a sink-tip line it can be difficult to fish in heavy location.
When Davidson was faced with deep, swift water, he brought out other artillery, including lures and bait. We worked a number of diving stickballs which produced good fish and when I tied on a ¼-ounce gold-and-orange spoon, I landed my largest rainbow of the entire day.
The Bowmanstown-to-Walnutport leg of the trip now includes the new Kittaninny boat ramp on Riverview Road. The road, just after the Bowmanstown bridge, also provides access for wading anglers. Another parking area at the end of the road provides opportunities at a good riffle and run off the western shore.

More float plans:
Davidson has two other areas of the Lehigh River he drifts. The first is from the town of Jim Thorpe downstream to Lehighton, a distance 4 miles, and the second is from Lehighton to Bowmanstown, a distance of 4 ½ miles. Still, it was the drift over the Palmerton holes and the ledges north of Walnutport that Davidson likes best. The ledges extend for ½ mile or so and consist of a series of horizontal rock bars structured across the river from bank to bank. As I found on this trip, the big rainbows like to lie up in front of the ledges in what appears to be smooth water. Near one curling ledge I ripped into a rainbow that seemed like it wanted to take up a new residence downstream before I put the brakes to its charge. What a fight!

By Vic Attardo ( ON THE OUTDOORS )

This rainbow must have been a fan of track and field, specifically the long jump.
When Paul Davidson hooked the trout in a fast run of the Lehigh River, instead of taking off downstream like 99 out of 100 rainbows will do, this one came up-stream. And as it came towards Davidson’s driftboat, it made a series of horizontal leaps over the surface that were all of four or five feet long from point of departure to point of landing.
But before Davidson could retrieve enough line to catch up to the streaming, screaming fish, it was long jumping by the side of the boat where, like a track star, it must have dug its heals into the bottom because the line caught around a rock and the rainbow athlete got off.
For a few seconds, Davidson and I stood in the 16-foot long high-hulled driftboat in mild shock. It had been a big fish.
I don’t know who spoke first but one of us said “Did you see that?” Then another said, “My gosh, that was incredible.”
“Holy Cannoli,” Davidson said, and I’m sure it was him who said that because though I think cannolis are really good and a great one might be worthy of sainthood, that’s not a phrase I use. “Holy Cannoli,” Davidson said again.
Despite losing that particular fish, it was one of those days you pray for on the Lehigh River. Guide Davidson (610-379-5469) and I smoke them. Changing some pronouns on Julius Caesar – who I doubt invented cannoli – “We came, we saw, we conquered.”
Together the guide and I landed between 15 and 18 fat healthy trout, the best number I think we’ve ever landed together on the Lehigh. Also we had strikes from, or slightly hooked, or fought and lost, near again that many. The action was terrific so Davidson got to say, “Holy Cannoli” a lot.
And that was something in itself because when we started the day, Davidson was skeptical we’d do anything at all. He had just had a lousy outing two days before, and the morning was a cloudless, warm one with all the makings of a burnt cannoli shell without its delicious cheese filling.
But I wasn’t skeptical at all because I recognized this weather as the third day of a stable pattern with a front scheduled to blow in by evening. I’ve seen these third-day patterns before in bass, trout, stripper, crappie and even sea robin fishing, and I know the last day can be good. Also I knew that on the third day, despite all otherwise logic, the best fishing will take place in the middle of the afternoon. In the evening, the fish will most likely turn off because they’ve probably had their fill of cannolis, but that is hours away.
And guess what? That’s what happened. We had a terrific bite starting about 11 o’clock continuing to about 4:30, and just when all the fishing books say we should have enjoyed an evening of the freshest, richest pastry, the baker went home refusing to make anything else. But we didn’t care, we also had our fill.
Still, you should know that you can’t have a Holy Cannoli day without proper ingredients, and on this day it was a mixture of flies and lures.
On the fly rod, we used double rigs. Mine consisted of a yellow and brown Wolly Bugger – and excellent Lehigh River color – with either a Flashback Pheasant Tail or a green, copper wire beaded caddis pupa. Davidson also used a flashy Wooly Bugger and a caddis pupa.
For lures, I threw a yellow Crickhopper for one or two fish and we both tossed a bunch of Rebel stickbaits. Davidson used a two-and-a-quarter inch rainbow-pattern Tracdown Minnow while I went with a four-and-a-half inch purple/chartreuse Holographic Minnow, another bait I’ve discovered to be a Lehigh River killer.
In my estimation, stickbaits are the unsung tool for big-water trout fishing. While I most enjoy using the fly rod, when I get into water over seven-feet deep with a current that turns fly line into overcooked spaghetti, I reach for the spinning outfit and a big stick.
The Lehigh, with a temperature of 57 F. in the morning and 60 degrees by noon, was so clear you could see the good-luck pennies on the bottom. Under these conditions I had a lot of confidence in the flashy wobbling of the Holographic Minnow, but I still had to figure out a trick before I really started hooking fish.
As we drifted downstream in late morning, I saw two or three trout charge at the lure, even swim with it, but I couldn’t connect. Disappointing.
The one rainbow followed the bait across the Lehigh all the way to the side of the boat. I could see it as clear as day and was surprised the fish didn’t notice us and take off. But this ‘bow was so in love with the bait that it came right on, swiping and trying to catch the fake meal but being unsuccessful. With the bait and the hot bow right at the boat, I suddenly stopped the retrieve and the Rebel dropped back two or three feet in the current whereupon the trout was able to grab it and the fight was on.
Davidson saw the whole show as well.
“Holy Cannoli,” he said.
After that, we realized that if we spotted a trout flash at our stickbaits, but without a connection, we’d stop the retrieve, allowing the bait to momentary sink in the current, thus giving the trout its best grabbing chance.
This tactic worked. With the still-stick tactic, ‘bows and browns were able to bite some part of the bait. If we were lucky enough, and the fish was unlucky enough, it would get the hook, and the fight was on.
Of course, that initial success didn’t mean the trout was landed because, after all, this was the Lehigh and the river doesn’t give up its cannolis for free.

By Vic Attardo

After a week of rain and strong flows, the Lehigh River had cleared. Paul Davidson eased his drift boat off the shoal in Bowmanstown and rowed us into the strong current above the bridge. At this spot, it took a deep presentation to raise trout from their rocky haunts.
I had two fly rods rigged and ready to go. A 5-eight had a five-foot, fast sinking-tip splice on the end of a floating line followed by a short three-foot, 5X fluorocarbon tippet. The tippet carried a dual-fly rig of a heavy size 12 (Mustad 9672) beadhead Beaverkrat and a dropper of a size 16 (3906-B) Flashback Sulphur Nymph. The second rod was my cannon, a 6-weight with a 12-foot, 4x leader and a fluorocarbon tippet ending in a size 6 streamer, Tar’s Heavy Metal Minnow.
As Davidson dropped the anchor from his heigh-peaked drifter, we settled into a fast slot on the morning-shade side of the river. Being close to cover, I chose the 5-eight.
Making a short tuck cast to my left, I let the dual flies plummet towards the bottom, then continued to flip out line with rolling mends designed to keep the weighted nymphs gliding tight along the boulder floor. As the line was downstream about 30-feet, I felt a tap—but no connection. I gathered up line and performed the same cast and drift a second time.
The tug was solid. I lifted the rod tip into a hungry rainbow. It wasn’t a big fish, but it leaped out of the water several times.
I worked the fish through the heavy current and brought it to the weaker side, where Davidson scooped the fish out of the water. I was a gleaming little rainbow of about 12-inches, so Davidson popped the dropper sulphur out of its mouth and lowered the net. The trout swam off.
“You’ve done that before here,” Davidson prided me.
“Sometimes I think you own this spot.”
“It’s where you anchor,” I said.
Indeed, where the drift boat guide drops his anchor above a heavy run, how he maneuvers through a current cut, what rods the angler is prepared to use and how the presentation is made are all as important to catching the Lehigh River’s vigorous rainbows and browns as any fly selection.
During the early-season, the best producers are nymphs and streamers. The 5-weight Fenwich I used from the first ‘bow does double duty as my evening dry fly rod or to present an attractor dry in the afternoon. The 6-eight can be rigged with either a dual nymph or an oversize nymph or streamer.
I use my 5-weight for the dual smaller nymphs, because I like a thinner fly line when working heavy currents. While there’s only a few tenths difference between the diameter. I add a sink-tip splice on my 5-weight. I don’t grease the first few feet of the floating line—I may even rub it with mud.
Another critical element to the 5-weight set-up in strong currents is the user of a yarn strike indicator. When anchored, I let the dual flies swing downstream on a long straight line. I think an indicator just gets in the way, holding the flies off the bottom. When Davidson is gliding along with the current and he wants me to punch the sink-tip along the shore, I attach the yarn indicator to the leader in a spot about one and a half times the depth of the water. Hopefully, the driftboat and the flies are moving at the same speed and the indicator is nearly parallel to the boat. When it stalls or stops, I raise the rod tip.
A sink tip of some kind is a necessity when working the brawny currents and though I’ll carry a fly reel with a full-sink line, I don’t use it much. It is too much prep casting.
A line and rod capable of working a large weighted streamer is another plus on a drift boat trip. Often as Davidson heads into the top of a riffle, I’ll lay out the streamer on the 6-weight just to get a big fly over the first lip of the run following the shallow riffle. I hang the fly straight downstream of the boat, bouncing the rod tip with slight jiggles to give the presentation some life.
When Davidson shoals out in the water only 3- or 4-feet deep, I take off the sink-tip addition to the 5-weight and work a floating line with a 10- to 12-foot leader and fluoro tippet.
The cast to use in most of these situations is a reach cast. As the forward cast is sailing out, life your rod arm upstream creating a large aerial mend. This will slow a streamer’s arcing swing. With tandem flies and a strike indicator, a reach cast adds drift time to the presentation and slows the dead-drifting nymphs.
Another good practice when using a streamer or a classic-winged wet fly is to tie the fly with a Riffle Hitch. This is particularly true in the shallow, slower areas. The lasso-head knot of a Riffle Hitch gives the fly to the surface. I take advantage of this by using Tar’s Heavy Metal Minnow—a metallic, chenille Wooly Bugger—making it appear like a fleeing minnow.
In the evening, I’ll use the Riffle Hitch on Tar’s Sleepless Night—a classic wet fly design made with a crow, goose or starling wing and peacock body. Without a Riffle Hitch, I’ll often use a large black leech made with a rabbit strip wing. With this pattern, I’ll employ the 6-weight line, because the rabbit gets so waterlogged. The 6-weight line isn’t a negative in slower water.

By Vic Attardo ( ON THE OUTDOORS )

Up ahead is the scarred surface of Blue Mountain – a monument of man’s malfeasance to his environment and his pitiful attempts to reverse earlier wrongs – while out in front is a deep run of the Lehigh River where I have never failed, in many floats to hook a big trout.
I look forward to this water at Palmerton like a kid looks forward to a toy shop visit. Every time I’ve gone through, something exciting has happened. It’s here that I’ve landed and lost, more large Lehigh River trout than at any single spot along this tortured but terrific river.
On this day, I’m again floating with Paul Davidson, to my mind the most knowledgeable guide on the Lehigh. This is Davidson’s eighth year on the river and he never fails to produce a quality float, even when the fishing is tough.
Of course, Davidson knows how much I like this stretch of water below the now-defunct Palmerton dam.
When we embarked in his highpeaked driftboat at Bowmanstown, I made appoint of telling him, probably for the third or fourth time since we scheduled the trip, that I wanted to work this hole slowly and carefully. I didn’t really care how many fish I hooked above and below the deep run-though the positive numbers grew as the float progressed – I really wanted to concentrate on this Palmerton place.
Here is where I’d caught several browns 20 inches and larger, where rainbows had jumped seemingly as high as the mountain top, and also where I had fought, but never tamed, the powerful Kamloop salmon hybrids that a local hatchery once stocked. I’d even watched osprey steal fish as long as rolling pins when diving into this hole.
Now after ten minutes at the Palmerton hole, Davidson having carefully maneuvering us into a side eddy, I was monumentally disappointed that no trout had struck.
We had anchored and worked at least twenty-five yards of the run and I was throwing a five-inch stickbait – a hot producer of big trout – with nothing for my effort.
After a time Davidson raised the center anchor and we drifted another ten yards before he lowered the conical weight into the rocks for another tight hold. Without a strike, I was beginning to think of phrases such as “you can’t go home again,” and “I’ve lost my mojo,” when, nearly without hope, I felt a hard lash against the lure and I swept the rod to set the hook.
From the strength of the pull, I knew it was a good trout. The line spun off the reel and cut through the water with harsh speed, but in a few ticks of the clock the fish was gone.
My letdown was palpable.
We discussed the loss with the tone of a wake.
Though I went through the motions of continuing to cast and even tied on a gold spoon – another good lure for the Lehigh’s deep water – I had given up hope.
For a while I was more intent on moaning and watching Davidson use his spinning outfit when suddenly his rod arced and, almost immediately, so did mine.
Three good trout in a short distance at the same hole? Impossible but true.
Due to the heavy, ripping current of the run, Davidson unfortunately soon lost his fish but somehow my connection held. The fat, pink rainbow leapt high, straight rocket shots that had it spinning in their air like a cotton candy wheel gone berserk. Then, after interminable minutes of cautious reeling, Davidson netted the 15-inch fish. This place, this river, had produced again.
Bamboozled and bedraggled, the once coal-black Lehigh River fortunately continues to improve in water quality and as a fishery.
“In my eight years, the water quality has come a long way for the better,” Davidson told me as we enjoyed a shore lunch on “Dave’s Island” – named among friends for Dave Fry, a guide who no longer works the river.
“The river still has a long way to go and we really need to improve the summer flows, but it’s a good river now and deserves our help.”
There is news regarding the Lehigh River. An important meeting with conservationists and bigwigs is scheduled for May 29 and because its organizers want to show off the real Lehigh, the meeting is a float trip.