I’m on the rocky labyrinth of the middle Susquehanna on a cold March morning to solve a problem, with help from an ace local guide. I grew up on this kind of river, fishing for smallmouth bass. But years away, spent on very different bodies of water going after very different fish, have left me—and my gear—out of sync.
Central New York’s consistently inconsistent weather has led me south in search of giant smallmouth bass. I hold on tight and in disbelief as river guide, Joe Raymond, navigates the rocks and rapids. Using maneuvers that more closely resemble drift racing, Raymond successfully pilots his “Rockzilla” boat through a maze of obstructions. When the engine on his custom jet boat stops, I make my first cast of the year.
The Susquehanna feels like home. I grew up fishing the Cheat River in West Virginia every summer. Although the steep rocky hillsides of southern Pennsylvania are no match for The Mountain State, the bruising Keystone bronze backs can certainly claim pound-for-pound champ status. These fish are fighters.
Over the next eight hours I would experience some of the best fishing of my life. As we target these stout small jaws, Raymond fills me in about the fishery and how to be successful here. He said starting out with the right equipment is a key component for success; I couldn’t agree more.
When I moved north last summer I was excited to chase these beautiful fish again. As it turned out, the learning curve was pretty steep. In the 10 years since I left home, my style of fishing changed dramatically. I’ve become a power-fishing aficionado. Last fall, I was flat out ill equipped to catch these finicky fish. It led to several heart breaking breakoffs and disappointment.
I knew, coming into this season, I had to retool. Between the crystal clear water in the Finger Lakes Region and the excellent eyesight of smallmouth bass, my strategy for this year changed dramatically.
I’m a big fan of the Envy Black and Omen lineups from 13 Fishing, but I was really looking for a rod that was specifically tailored for finesse applications. I had definitely underappreciated the need for light line. A friend had suggested that I take a look at the Muse Gold spinning rods. Honestly I hadn’t given them much consideration because they were designed to be the perfect walleye rod, which I’m told they are.
Trusting my buddy’s advice, I picked up two of the rods and headed to Duncannon, Pennsylvania to test them out. There’s nothing like heading to a top fishery to put your gear to the test to determine if your investment was worth it.
What I found was the same qualities making the Muse rod an exceptional walleye rod also make it the perfect rod for the finesse applications I needed. Zonal action technology divides the rod into three distinct zones: lower, mid, and tip. Each zone is designed with unique performance characteristics.
So you might be asking yourself, ‘so what, why is that important?’
I want my finesse rods to have specific characteristics. I want a lightweight rod with a sensitive tip to detect when a bass has picked up my bait, but didn’t yank the rod out of my hand. Next, I want a rod with some flex, so when I set the hook on light-wire hooks and light fluorocarbon line, it doesn’t send a snap inducing shock down the line or yank the bait from the fish’s mouth. Finally I want a rod that has enough backbone for a solid hookset and to stay in control when a big bass surges at the boat.
During this particular outing I used two rods for very different bait presentations. First, I employed a 6’9” medium power rod for a finesse swimbait setup. My second setup was the 7’2” medium light model, for finesse jigs. Both rods were paired with a 2500 series reel and 8lb fluorocarbon line.
The weather conditions were not exactly ideal, so the bite on this particular day was incredibly faint. A warm front had arrived with bright blue skies, driving up barometric pressure. It was the perfect test for my new rods. The bass picked up my lure so lightly that I usually only noticed the rod gradually loading up and getting heavier. The Muse Gold proved to have the sensitivity I was looking for. The fish never felt me on the other end of the line. The only bass I missed was due to an overzealous swing, after watching a behemoth eat my jig.
Typical river smallmouth baits and tactics will get you headed in the right direction on the Susquehanna. Raymond uses natural colors like green pumpkin in clear water and bright colors like chartreuse in stained water. Targeting current breaks and eddies; he recommends tube baits, spinnerbaits, jigs and stickbaits like YUM Dingers.
If you decide to give the Susquehanna a try, lodging can be found along the 464 miles of river. On our trip we fished a small stretch of the river just north of Harrisburg. I stayed at the Stardust Motel in Duncannon, and found it to be adequate for a one-night stay. What it may have lacked in amenities, it made up for in price, coming in under $50. Be sure to bring anything you need or want with you. For nearby food Raymond suggested Goodies for breakfast and Sorrento Pizza for dinner.
It’s worth noting that bass season is closed during the spawn, May 1 through June 17. More information about fishing regulations can be found on the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission website. According to Raymond the spring and fall are the best seasons to land big bass, but the middle section of the river is fishable most of the year. If you don’t have a jet boat, the river is accessible by kayak and foot, but the current can be swift at times so caution and common sense should both be used.
Having over 20 years experience on the river, Joe Raymond became a fulltime guide four years ago, though he suspends his service during the closed bass season. His personal best smallmouth on the river is 5-pounds, 10-ounces, but fishermen claim that 6-pounders swim there. If you’re interested in landing the fish of a lifetime pick up a MUSE GOLD rod and give Joe a call. For more information visit www.susquehannasmallmouthguides.com.