What’s more valuable? Catching one or two fish exactly how you want, or hammering a shitload the way you don’t? Sitting at the bar, most anglers will tell you it’s the former. On the water, I’ve seen that conviction wear down faster than Glass Joe in Mike Tyson’s Punch Out. Situation dictates that choice. Your mood dictates that choice. How badly you want a hero shot, versus another “not the biggest but look at those colors” post on the Gram (sadly), dictates how many people structure a fishing day. Regardless of what happens, you have to start somewhere, and you often start how you planned. So, I was starting with a black Boogle Bug.
Per the token local in a lawn chair at the edge of the boat ramp, I was going to have a bad day. As he packed up his Plano, after making 20 casts at best, he assured me none of the smallmouths in the Susquehanna River were eating. They hadn’t been for weeks, at least not within firing range of this ramp, and at least not on a wacky-rigged Senko. If you counted the discarded Senkos and Yum Dingers in the parking lot of this Liverpool, Pennsylvania, public ramp, one could theorize that maybe the bass were just seeing too many Senkos and Yum Dingers. I could shake up the menu by throwing flies, but I couldn’t fix the brutally low and ultra-clear water. It had, after all, been one of the driest summers the East Coast had seen in years.
Public boat ramps sometimes develop a certain decor in the low water of late summer.
The Susquehanna is roughly three hours west of where I live, which makes it borderline day trip-able at my age. I prefer a visit when it ends at one of the old musty bars in the area, and finally at a local mom-and-pop motel, but I wouldn’t have that luxury today. This was a cannonball run that started at 5 a.m. so I could meet my good friend, Nick Raftas, promptly at 8. But it was already a quarter to 9 and he hadn’t shown up. This is nothing new. A professional guide and owner of Wild East Outfitters, Raftas somehow manages to be on time for his clients, but when he’s fishing with me for fun, he never has his shit together. At 9:07, he finally whips in with his driftboat in tow. It’s already 85 degrees and the forecast said there were 10 more to go.
Raftas is one of the few guides who strictly fly fishes on the lower Susquehanna and one of its main tributaries, the Juniata. In this area, close to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s state capital, the river is a mile wide in places. When the water is low, traversing it means rowing back and forth all day, navigating a slalom of boulder fields, bony ledges that run from bank to bank, and expansive flats that are inches deep. Simply riding the current from point A to B is impossible, and a four-mile float can last 10 hours if you factor in near constant zig-zagging, with posting up to fish in certain areas, and almost zero flow. Throw in a little upriver wind—which is the direction it’s always blowing when I’m here—and it makes for a long day.
Of course, you don’t care how long it is when the Susquehanna shows you what made it famous—insane numbers of smallmouths, more per square mile than any other river in the Northeast. Depending on who you talk to, and how old they are, you’ll hear that the Susquehanna is garbage compared to 30 or 40 years ago, or that it’s fishing better than it has in a long time. My overall experience has been the latter, with fish in summer sipping foam bugs off the surface from sunrise to dark. Compared to smallmouth fisheries closer to home, a bad day here usually stomps a good day in my backyard. But something is different today. We’re 45 minutes into our float, and not one bass has come up to slurp that black Boogle Bug.
Any fish may be worthy of a photo when the fishing really sucks.
Raftas periodically drops the oars and fires out a Murdich Minnow, his running line catching everything from coffee cups to spare rods to fly boxes to coolers, all strewn around the rower’s seat. Every once in a while he connects, though only with little fish so far.
“Dude, if you just put on a Murdich or a Clouser and grind all day, you’ll hit a bunch of fish,” he says. “This is what we’ve had to do a lot lately.”
But that’s not how I want to catch them. I want them tuned into the endless waves of damsel and dragonflies zipping around and touching down. Conditions aside, there are so many bass in this river that the law of averages dictates at least a couple dinks should be willing to rise to the black Boogle. They weren’t. Nor the frog pattern Boogle, a handful of poppers I tied, or the Mr. Wigglies, which were hand selected and given to me by some Wisconsin smallmouth aces. If watching a bronzeback suck a topwater fly underwater is one of the most exciting things in fly fishing, watching topwater flies drift for hours and not get sucked down has to be one of the most boring. Suddenly, it’s early afternoon. The day—the one day I have on Susquehanna—is wasting away. What do I do?
The obvious answer is switch to the one obnoxiously neon orange Sneaky Pete in my box. The choice makes absolutely no sense, save for the fact that it’s about the only surface pattern I haven’t thrown. Everyone has a few Hail Mary weirdo flies in their box for exactly these desperate situations. I had only used this bug once because I made the tail too long, causing it to foul every few casts. It liked to land upside down a lot, too. I was telling Raftas just how shitty this fly was when I looked up and it was gone, the remnants of a slight boil dissipating behind an exposed shale ledge.
At 17 inches, I wouldn’t call the bass a Susquehanna trophy, but it was bigger than the 15 or so Raftas had pinned subsurface. It also led to that silly thing fly fishers do, insisting persistence pays off, you never lost hope, you finally found the pattern they wanted, and the light switch for the action you dreamt about just flicking on, big time.
Except none of that was true.
One good fish can make a day. It can also be very deceptive.
That was the last bass on the Sneaky Pete. No switch flipped. Just before dark, the Susquehanna’s renowned white fly hatch came off with a bang, but the Susquehanna smallmouths weren’t rising for them. The river was simply off.
Because we stayed so late and had to run our own shuttle, I walked through my door at 1 a.m., sunburned and exhausted. Halfway through the drive I stopped debating what went wrong. Moon phase? Water temperature? Too clear? Barometric pressure? In the end none of it matters, especially when you only have one day to fish any given location. I accepted, years ago, that I have no control over conditions or fish, but I always have control of what I get out of a trip. Some would call me stubborn, leaving fish on the table by refusing to tie on that minnow. I would argue I got what I came for, even if it wasn’t as much as I’d hoped for. There is no right or wrong answer, there is only figuring out what turns you on when everything is off. Because, sometimes just getting a little turned on is the most you’re going to get.