Whip Finish


Ralph Long - June 02, 2012

Wading out into the morning's water my body took a moment to adjust against the chill as the water came up over my shorts. The Susquehanna waters, though warm in general during mid-summer, was still chilled this early in the day. I was wet wading in this section, which is my normal mode for this stretch, mainly for my own safety. The water is shallow most of the way across, but there are slots of deep water formed around decades of bridge pilings. And while I don't like to swim in changing currents on big water, I like it even less while wearing waders. Easing out carefully I was targeting a chute that swept over some formally displaced rocks and plunged down into a pool formed by the previous bridge. The old green metal bridge that I had grown up with as a youth was now replaced by the concrete bridge presently looming 50yds downstream. Years gone by were enjoyed drifting Mepps and Colorado spinners as a boy around the old bridge abutments, catching white bass and smallies. Now I was repeating the process with a fly rod in hand where that old bridge once stood.

In position now, I chose a homegrown Dahlberg-style pattern tied with a natural caribou head and a dark brown deer hair collar, followed by a black and brown barred bunny strip. I tie it with a lead wrap around the shank under spun hair to take the fly straight down in fast water. The pattern has produced often when dredging was the angling of the day. My first couple casts were unproductive as I worked the top of the chute, so I took a careful step downstream in order to catch the head of the pool. My next cast made it through the chute, then just as it seemed to swirl into the pool the line went tight with a jolt. With a solid strip-&-lift strike I was solidly set in a decent fish. A few short runs into the pool however and I was able to swing the fish out of the current and into the flat behind me where I was able to admire and release a 14 inch smallmouth. Not a bad start for the day I thought to myself. It felt like a homecoming was happening and I had discovered a jewel left for the finding. Yet in reality I knew that was not so, since while inquiring about this section locally I was insured that there were still plenty of fish throughout the area around the bridge. For me though, it was a homecoming and I would enjoy it that way regardless.

The next 2 casts in succession produced near clones of the first fish, and I was truly enjoying the morning. Certainly there were bigger fish staged somewhere in this pool? I eased down a bit further in order to sweep the pool and in an instant I was armpit deep with my mind scrambling for action. Then suddenly as my feet reached for something to hold on to it was there, a ledge. Just as abruptly as I was in too deep, I was once again standing in waist deep water, with nerves a bit shaken but undeterred. Doing a quick check on my wet but still intact gear, I turned back toward the pool. In order to fish the pool with the correct drift now, I would need to double-haul for a bit more distance before and reach the far side of the chute. With a little help from the extra technique I was able to reach my spot, when without warning the line went straight as an arrow, and then that fast it was gone. My heart jumped at the missed strike and a chance at an imagined huge fish and I quickly stripped in my sweeping line headed downstream as I calmed myself down. But a dozen casts later I realized that I had most likely missed my opportunity.

Switching gears I turned to methodically dredging the pool, losing 3 flies in the process yet no fish to speak of. With fish already brought to hand I wasn't disappointed with the fishing, just a little surprised on my missed assessment of the pool. Turning to wade away from the pool, I gave a last half-hearted cast back at the location of the missed fish, more as a parting shot than a real cast. Now that I was downstream the fly made more of a dead-drift back towards me, and I hurried to keep up with the gathering slack line. On my third strip the fish hit. This time shocking my elbow with weight and instantly bore for the submerged jumble of old concrete sections on the far side of the pool. The fish felt heavy and I fumbled successfully to put it on the reel. The fish thankfully did not take me downstream where I would not be able to follow due to the waters depth. Instead, it fought to surge its way back upstream and through the chute. A mistake in my mind, but thankfully so since it quickly began to tire as a result. Shortly thereafter I was lipping a heavy-bellied Smallmouth of 19 inch in length. I lifted the fish out of the water to admire it, and was rewarded by a single beep of a horn from a lone SUV passing by on the new bridge below. Looking up I raised my rod in triumph with a smile, popped the fly out of his jaw, and watched as it flipped and was gone back to its swirling sanctuary.

I stood for a while with the rod held under my arm and looked out over the river. Thirty-some years ago I had fished these waters in which I had caught so many fish. I would stop back then and look up through the grated bridge surface, watching and listening to the passing vehicles overhead. Now standing in nearly the same location, when I looked up a saw nothing but blue sky, and the sounds of passing cars were muted and a bit downstream. Gone now was the old rusty metal bridge with the flaking green paint, and the giant concrete pilings were nothing more than crumbled additions to the rivers bottom. Yet the waters had remained the same.

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