Loyal readers of this blog will likely remember a post I did way back in September 2009, entitled “Kelly’s Excellent Canoe Adventure”. Kelly was a coworker who owned an old aluminum Grumman canoe and he happened to live just a short portage from the Susquehanna River in Owego. That trip was a good one for two reasons: Kelly paddled me around while I fished, a luxury to any fisherman, and 2) the fishing was very good. But since that enjoyable trip, most of my fly fishing has been afoot – wading the muddy and rocky shoals, riffles, and pools. While I’ve certainly caught a good number of smallmouth bass over the last years on the hoof, I’ve always wondered – what’s it like in the back country – could there be places where the bass are bigger and less visited by feather-throwing types?
I set the goal to get out and float the river again the following year after my first Susquehanna float. But the trip somehow eluded me. I changed jobs in 2011, lamented high water for two years and a lack of time in others. So back when the big river was still locked in ice, I developed more resolve towards this goal. And with the river flowing low and clear and the weather splendid, I found one recent weekend to be the perfect opportunity. My daughter and son were home from work and college and could assist in doing shuttle service to make sure I had the reliable kayka-conveying Subaru Outback in place for me at the boat launch in Owego. All I had to do was gear up and get in the water at the NY DEC fishing access in Apalachin.
The trip would take me down-river past a favorite honey-hole and beyond to an area along the Hiawatha Links Golf Course where google satellite imagery showed me some very bassy looking water. I had never fished this area. The call was too great to ignore and somewhat pathetic Salmon River reports just added to the appeal.
Come one Friday evening I hauled my kayak – an Old Town Loon – from its pond-side lair. I was able to get it on the roof rack and tie it down single-handed. The next morning I was off to the access, with a stop thrown in for a Sausage Egg McMuffin and hash brown. Us river rats have to eat, don’t you know!
The river was fogged in as expected with the air temps in the mid-40’s. I had my kayak ready to go at the access and met another angler getting ready to launch his river boat to fish the long pool in front of us. We talked fishing and shared stories, one of mine being the infamous meet-up with a musky covered in this blog some time ago.
I launched my kayak and fished the tail of the pool, then slid down the riffle following the tailout. In just a few minutes I pulled ashore at one of my favorite pools on the river. Most recently, bass fishing has not been as good as it normally is, but I had to at least wet a line just in case. Between wet wading and enduring the chilly morning air temps and fog, I was close to shivering after about 20 minutes and without any action, decided to get back in my kayak and enter into the unknown waters beyond.
As I paddled downriver, the fog began to burn off, the air temps warmed, and the colors of fall came out. With a little bit of sun poking through, I noticed the northern bank of the river was still dark with shade. A downfall piqued my interest, so I tied on an olive soft hackle bugger that I tie with a little added schmaltz (gold flash and some long rubber legs) and that has served me well this year.
I cast upstream of the downfall and as I drifted past, stripped my fly down and across its edge. I only needed to do this twice before setting the hook on a nice fish. It immediately bolted downstream, jumped high and mighty, and I was all smallie smiles…
The north shore of the river hosted a number of such places – areas where debris piled up during floods, downfalls, eddies – and all of them were shaded from the strong morning sun.
I missed a few strikes and even spooked some bass, witnessing the telltale “puff of river bottom” as I glided down the river about 20 feet off the shoreline.
I passed a few river braids on my voyage that were inviting but fishless…
And then I came to a wide riffle and a river bend where the water slowed and the bottom disappeared. A river braid re-entered the river just above the the bend, but what looked very fishy was the line of thick weeds that formed on a bar at the transition point. I fished the edge of these weeds and was soon rewarded with a take and another nice bass…
I continued to paddle, drift and fish as I passed through the bend. In some ways it was difficult fishing as there was so much good water to explore but only so much time to fish and make the long paddle down to Owego. There was also the fall colors and a rich selection of wildlife on display, including blue herons, bitterns, mink, osprey…
After fishing the big bend, I came upon a stretch of river that was a lot more like the St Lawrence River than what I’m used to on the Susquehanna. The northern shore was rocky and in places large boulders jutted from the river. As I paddled closer, the bottom came into view, strewn with large rocks in places. Depths varied – in some places the waters were shallow – in others the bottom would fall away. After recon of a 50 yard stretch, I paddled back to the head of this stretch, rigged one of my own crayfish flies, and started casting. It didn’t take long to catch a few nice smallmouth bass, with smaller ones mixed in as well. As I suspected, this was great holding water for smallies. But it was holding water for other predators, which I soon learned.
I hooked a small bass that, as most bass do, went airborne and then bulldogged down in the 6 foot depths beneath my kayak. As this bass ran around, I saw a golden brown flash come out of nowhere and snatch my fish. My line tightened immediately, my rod bent over double and what had to be a big musky slowly towed me up-river.
I quickly realized that if I was to land this fish, I better get to the other side of the river where the slope to shore was gradual and made for easy wading. I used my free hand to slowly paddle across and downriver as the musky swam upriver. I gradually made my way to shallow water and, keeping rod high and steady pressure on the fish, beached the kayak and struggled to my feet. I then got parallel to the fish, put sideways pressure on it, and tried my best to work the fish in to me, knowing it was probably not hooked.
I could only hope the musky would hold on long enough for me to get close and grab it (carefully) under its gills. But as in my first encounter with such a fish, it was not to be. I could see the beginnings of the sink tip section of my fly line when the fish had finally had enough and released the fish. Remarkably, this bass looked virtually untouched, save one or two puncture marks. I could only surmise that the musky had fully engulfed the bass in its mouth for the bass to escape major tooth wounds. I actually released the bass and it swam away. Also amazing was the fact that my 1X tippet held up to a mouth of teeth known for line-parting effectiveness.
After leaving two great fish to fight another day, I took a moment to soak it all in, trembling a bit from a great battle. The musky had twice taken me down to my backing and bucked my fly rod with massive head shakes for over 20 minutes.
I decided then that it was time to call it quits. Sometimes it’s good to end on a high note, stopping at the end of a crescendo. This would certainly be one of those days even though I never landed “the fish of a thousand casts”. But also, as afternoon advanced into evening, it was still a long way to Owego. Effortless, so effortless, that long paddle home seemed…