Bassin' the Nanticoke River
By Ken Penrod

The Nanticoke is so “fishey” and so loaded with habitat so a low water tide-frame
is best.

This tidal river gets mixed reviews from the many fishermen that pursue largemouth bass in the region. She “grades-out” from awful to awesome, depending upon whom you ask, and often the same angler will use both terms from time to time.

The Nanticoke River is a beautiful tidal tributary on the Delmarva Peninsula with a Delaware origin and flows southwesterly thru vast marsh and wetlands. Part of what makes fishing difficult on this system is the vast amount of cover in the form of spatterdock, fallen trees, boat docks, sea walls and in the upper reaches, submersed aquatic vegetation.

Captain John Smith first called this river ”Kuskarawaok,” and it was he who named one of  the local Indian tribes the “Nantiquakes.” We know it as the Nanticoke River, a 63-mile tributary to the Chesapeake Bay. The major tributary is Marshyhope Creek (MD), about 38-miles long, and another tributary to keep in mind is Broad Creek (DE).

Maryland owns much of the river but Delaware owns the river beginning about two miles upriver of Sharpstown (Route 313 Bridge.) Anglers must posses a Chesapeake Bay Sportfishing License and if you intend to fish the Delaware portion—you will need a Delaware Fishing License (new in 2008.) By the way, you can obtain these fishing licenses on-line. Just “Google” the state and add “fishing license.”

The tidal current is “swift” with about three-feet of difference between high and low tide. The Nanticoke has channel markers up to Seaford, DE, and the Marshyhope has none. Fishing success is pretty dependant upon “tide,” so it’s a good idea to choose a day that has a low tide within your planned fishing hours. Low water is more productive than high water. You can obtain tide information from my website, www.penrodsguides.com, and many of the newer GPS/sonar units contain tide data within the mapping cartography, especially the Lowrance HDS products. You may also go to www.saltwatertides.com and select the proper date and water.

There are several good boat launch facilities: Federalsburg, in Federalsburg, Maryland; Seaford Public Launch, in Seaford, Delaware; Sharpstown Launch in Sharpstown, Maryland.

It’s impossible to cover all the potential bass-holding areas within such a vast river system—so I’ve settled on three areas; Middle Marshyhope, Seaford area and Middleford Branch.

I use Gator Rods (www.gatorrods.com) and Shimano or Daiwa reels—and I’ll carry both spinning and baitcasting models. I like a rather long baitcasting rod, usually 6-foot, six-inch to 7-foot—and 6-foot spinning rods. One baitcasting reel will have 60-pound test braid (for frogs, buzzbaits and brush,) and several with 15-pound test monofilament (crankbaits, weighted plastics and spinnerbaits.) My spinning rods will have 10-pound test mono on the reels (Case Magic Stik, tubes and drop-shot.)

All anglers have their own favored lures but Captain Brian Barnes suggests
that you heed his advice.

My summertime lure suggestions are: four and six-inch Case Magic Stiks (green-pumpkin/gold and purple;) Big Mouth spinnerbaits (Penrod Special) and buzzbaits (3/8th ounce, white or black skirt;) Rapala DT6 crankbaits (Hot Mustard;) Rapala Rattlin’Rap (blue/silver;) four-inch Mizmo tubes (green pumpkin and Penrod Purple) and Case Sweet-P’s (purple and Green Pumpkin/gold.)

Middleford Branch

I suggest that you launch from the Seaford, Delaware, public launch which is located from Route 20 to Shipley Street and follow signs to the launch. Non residents must have a launch permit. You will need a Delaware Fishing License.

Motor upriver (to the left), past the old railroad bridge, to the drawbridge. The attendant will lift the bridge when he sees you. It’s OK to sound your horn. Not very far upriver, she splits—you want to take the left branch, the one many refer to as the Middleford Branch. The other leg, actually Deep Creek, which it isn’t, is referred to as the Concord Branch. There are no aids to navigation but you can safely run this water on plane as long as you pay attention. I suggest that you stay on plane until the river narrows. There are two “No Wake” areas and one of them “sneaks-up” on you. You will have passed some very fishy-looking habitat—but it’s the “narrows” that provides the best fishing.

The Nanticoke is not a world class fishery but once you unlock her intricacies—
you may think it is.

According to Life Outdoors Unlimited guide, Captain Brian Barnes, this is his go-to area for high water success. Brian is our Nanticoke expert and can be reached at 302-745-4668. He is also the owner of Big Mouth Lure Company. The river is narrow enough to fish cover on either side of the boat and the shores are tree lined with abundant overhanging bushes and trees. There is something to cast-to every few feet—and casting accuracy is crucial. You need to be proficient with the “skipping” technique to get your offering under and into the ambush lairs. We use spinning tackle for this and even the best will snag underwater wood or snag brush and branches. You will also encounter boat docks, sea walls, beaver huts and submersed aquatic vegetation that I believe to be elodea.

During the summer months we find that wacky rig, Case Magic Stiks are deadly. You may choose to pitch or flip jigs, worms, tubes or Sweet P’s. You can spend the entire day here, often fishing back and forth within a few hundred yards, once you have located a group of bass.

The “Narrows” cannot support many boats. I suggest that you keep your outboard motor trimmed up, your trolling motor pointed into the current and your sonar turned off when fishing.

Seaford Area

You can spend the entire day in this sector also so using the Seaford Public Launch just makes sense. You will need Delaware Fishing License. For the sake of this article, I will set the parameters for the “Seaford Area” as that section of the river between Broad Creek and the railroad bridge. It’s “busy” here on weekends, and there is substantial, commercial use of this waterway so beware the tug boats and barges.

To fish the upper reaches of the Nanticoke complex—the “bridge-master” must cooperate.

In Seaford, there is just so much cover to fish in the form of big docks, bridge structure, dolphins and pilings, channel drops and spatterdock. I will not be very specific because it all looks productive—and can be.

On the “red” side of the river (right side going upriver,) look for the red channel markers that are close to the shore/vegetation. Those areas are especially productive during low tide as bass and bait retreat to those drops when the vegetation is drained.

Downriver find green channel marker “65” and turn right into a tributary called Walker’s Gut. The water will be very low during low tide so I suggest that you fish this area during mid to high tide. The “gut” will split, and you can fish both. The leg to the right leads to Walker’s Boat Storage and Repair. There is a tree across the left leg several hundred yards inbound that will probably halt your way.

Downriver you will come upon the Woodland Ferry and you must be cautious here. This is a “No Wake” zone at all times. The ferry (Tina Fallon) is attached to a cable as it is underway. Do not try to go through this area until the ferry is docked and the operator had lowered the cable. There are yellow caution lights attached to the wood bulkheads. If the yellow lights are flashing, wait. This is a very dangerous hazard and should not be taken lightly. By the way, those bulkheads offer very good fishing opportunities but please never interfere with the ferry operation.

Downstream of the ferry, on the red-side, you will find three “T” shaped boat docks where you should spend some time and red channel marker “59” is a good stop. There is a hull of an old boat there—and just dowriver, a short distance you will encounter some unseen ballast from that old boat.

Green channel marker “51” marks the entrance into Broad Creek, a fine fishery also, but that’s another story. By the way, the spatterdock on the red side of the river, downstream of the Broad Creek entrance is certainly worthy of some time.

Now you can bet that I have missed, intentionally and not intentionally, many very good fish-holding areas in this sector—but you have the better ones for now. The spatterdock is always worth some time and may be your best bet during high water. I didn’t go into specifics as to the lures I recommend but every lure I have mentioned—and depicted via photograph, can be used with benefit here. The Rapala DT6 is especially potent on those channel drops. During high water, when fishing success is often poor, note those areas where you did catch a fish or two and be sure to return when “prime-time” comes around.

Middle Marshyhope Creek

The Federalsburg Launch, sometimes referred to as the VFW Launch has been improved a few years ago. It can accommodate 10-15 vehicles and boat trailers and there are no launching issues during low water. This sector is under Maryland jurisdiction so a Chesapeake Bay Sportfishing License is required. By the way, there is no reciprocity between Maryland and Delaware.

It’s about 12 miles from the launch to the Nanticoke (to the right)—and it all looks good. There are many miles of opportunity to the left. Remember that this creek had no aids to navigation, and this article deals with water and habitat downcreek.

You don’t have to start your outboard after you launch if you choose, because there are more fallen trees on both sides of the river, for miles, than you can possibly fish—and everything looks so fishy. There are tidal guts, tidal coves, great spatterdock fields and even a gravel pit pond (entrance has bulkheads) that is a good spawning area.

I want to spend much time between the bridges though. The first bridge is referred to as the Herlock Bridge (Route 392,) and the second bridge is referred to as the Brookville Bridge (Route 14.) There is about four miles between them. I love this area. Both sides of the creek alternate between marsh grass and spatterdock.

Downriver of the first bridge, look to the left side and find a wood latticed duck blind site. You will want to spend time here, and don’t just concentrate your efforts on the spatterdock because there are substantial submersed stumps about 10-feet off the vegetation line. This is a good weighted-plastic opportunity—but it’s very rewarding when a crankbait is employed.

Further downcreek, look for a long wooden seawall on the left side, with a fairly large brown colored house on shore. That’s simply a landmark. Go to the other side of the creek and find a tidal gut. You will want to fish the entrance of that tidal gut, but upriver, just a short distance (100-yards), find a massive beaver hut. This cover extends into six or seven feet of water and is often a day-saver.

That’s it. I’m out of space. I could write an entire book on the river and not cover it thoroughly, but I’ve hit some high-notes in this essay that should reward you. You actually have three day-trips within this writing that I consider to be the cream of the crop. To those that say that theNanticoke is a tough fishery—I say yes. For those that say the Nanticoke River is an awesome fishery, I say yes. Still, there can be no doubt that this river and some of her tributaries are a wonderful creation and a tidal treasure. Like any water in the country, to be successful, you have to pay your dues. Just remember; there are no magic lures, just magic places, and you have to “find” those places.