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Part Two hundred-fifteen

The Last 15 Minutes

Jason Tinling

By Jason Tinling, Lancaster, PA


"How was the fishing,?" came the sleepy inquiry.

"Great," was the standard reply. I'd have to have some kind of horrific, near-death experience to not have a great time being out fishing.

"How was the catching?," was the second question. She's learned that the two answers aren't necessarily the same, and can often be on opposite ends of the spectrum.

"Pretty mediocre...until the last 15 minutes." She could hear the broad smile that infected my voice.

"That good, huh?"

"Even better."

The Conestoga River is the perfect example of why I've fallen in love with Pennsylvania. The alarm turns the radio on, the sound cutting through the soft light of Sunday morning. In 10 minutes, I'll be sitting on the tailgate of my truck, slipping on my wading boots and stringing up my 4 wt. In another 5 minutes, I'll be knee deep in the mild water, casting nymphs at feeding carp, or swinging small streamers through the currents, looking for bass and sunfish. There's nothing like this in my hometown.

I fished here yesterday morning, too. A couple of hours of relaxation and fishing, and not a bad bit of fishing at that. Plenty of olive backed smallies, iridescent red-breasted sunfish, aggressive rock bass, and even a solitary yellow perch. I even managed 3 or 4 smallmouth bass in the 10 -12" range, pretty good for this water. Some late morning experimentation with a yellow gurgler raised a few larger fish, one hooking up, but it abandoned the fly in clump of weeds, leveraging itself off of the barbless hook.

This morning, however, things had changed. The sky was overcast, and a cooling breeze riffled its way across the water. Hoping to take advantage of the previous day's successes, I rigged up with a black Sneaky Pete, hoping to once again tempt some larger fish to the surface. As I drifted and twitched the topwater presentation over the numerous weedbeds, and through the currented runs, it became clearer and clearer that the fish were not interested. The Cat's Whisker that had been producing so well for me the past couple of trips had finally succumbed to the abuses of small, rough teeth, and slashing strikes.

I flipped through the too many boxes that bulge the pockets of my vest and settled on a Cypert's Mylar Minnow, in similar colors to the Whiskers. I began to work downstream of the access point that I use, just below the public pool in County Park. This stretch of the river is generally a couple of feet deep, with rock bottom and long, trailing clumps of weeds. The current cuts some deeper, faster runs, down to 4 feet. The standard performance for the past couple of trips here is to twitch the fly past larger rocks, or swing it in the currents. Bass from 4 - 10" would hone in on the fly, smacking it quickly and then diving back towards the bottom. In slower waters, the sunfish would leap upon the intruder, inhaling and expelling it, seemingly in the same motion.

The changing weather had pushed this pattern by the wayside, and the few fish that I managed, were brought up by bouncing the bottom through a school of nymphing fish, when I could differentiate the bass from the suckers picking algae from the rock bottom and flashing in the light. I waded down to a stretch of sunfish water, and turned back, working the small minnow pattern upstream, managing a few small fish.

I keep tormenting myself with the carp in this area. They are extremely cunning fish, and I've yet to hook, much less and one. They feed only for the briefest of periods, dipping down to the rocky bottom, and then back up to filter the mouthful. The only prolonged feeding they seem to do is headfirst in the weeds, making presentation of a fly virtually impossible. They seem to know every log, rock and weed in the river, as even standing perfectly still, they'll never get more than a couple yards away from me before bolting to the depths in a cloud of silt.

Across the shore, from a high branch, a royal blue kingfisher is trying to show me how it's supposed to be done. With resounding splashes, he barrels into the water, popping to the surface, than flitting back to his perch, often with some small morsel in his beak.

I continue upstream, and ponder my next steps. There's some flat water across the river, and the long shale ledges make some deeper pools that often hold better fish. Near to me is the rapidly flowing current, cutting a deeper track into the bottom. I see a couple of flashes in the tail end of the run, and flip the fly upstream of them, letting the current pull and tumble it into the depths. I manage a couple of 6" bass, before the action slows again. I see a large rock hanging in the slow water on the opposite side of this narrow run. I flip the pattern out over the rock, and two bronze shapes streak toward it. In a fit of competitive hunger, the larger of the two fish pounces upon the pseudo-minnow, and I lift the rod in a short, firm stroke. The fish turns against the pressure, diving into the current, and stripping line through my fingers. The end of the run dumps out into a pool of scattered weed beds, and the fish heads straight for the first one. I lift the rod high and to the side, the pressure of the rod and 4# tippet straining against the fish to lay it on its side, just shy of the weedy mass. The fish rockets off toward the shallows, turning back again as it begins to break the surface of the water. In an acrobatic leap, the bass clears the water, flipping and shaking, a blur of bronze, olive, and creamy underbelly. A couple more bulldogging runs, and the fish slides to hand. I ease the small barbless hook out of the corner of its jaw and hold it up against my rod. Tail at the butt cap, nose to the start of the ID writing I put on the rod this last winter. Thirteen inches, give or take, a fat fish that's probably in excess of a pound and a half. My cry of elation echoes back and forth through the valley of trees surrounding me, no doubt terrifying someone walking their dog through the park. I slide the fish back into the water, and I'm back to working that same run.

More casts over the rock fail to produce, so I go back to plumbing the depths of the run. Three drifts later, the line hangs up, and the fly line begins to turn a tight loop in the moving water as it pivots around the stuck fly. If you're not on the bottom, you're not where the fish are, the saying goes. I lift sharply, hoping that the fly is only caught on a small piece of stone and can be moved easily. The rod bends, but with the slight give that suggests fish. The response is immediate, and the fly line collected in loops at my feet slips out through my fingers. The fish drives along the surface, and looks to be a near match for the last one. It heads cross-river, its sights set on the clump of weeds waving in the gentler current. I lift the rod and lay it over, but this fish is determined. The line is tight in my hands, and I know I've got to give, because the line soon will, and the fish isn't in any mood to. The fish goes headlong into the weeds, but they're sparse enough that I can work him back out of them. The fish comes back across and down current, line peeling off the reel to the song of the drag. This fish is heading for any clump of weeds it can find, and I know it's only a matter of time until the pressure of the fish, weeds and my pulling, will rupture the tippet. In my mind's eye, the 4# test suddenly seems like a gossamer strand, threatened by each pull and touch.

I wade out quickly to the middle of the river, the water rushing up toward my hips with each step. As I get to the center of river, I'm now in a position to pull away from the weeds, regardless of which clump the fish buries in next. As if in countermove, the fish streaks downstream, a blistering pace that has the line rolling off the spool at a rapid clip. The farther the fish gets downstream, the less control I have, so I head down the middle of the river, swirling weeds clutching at my legs as I try to make up line. The fish sounds, and wrestles against the pressure at the bottom of the river. Finally, it slides up to the surface, and a high lift of the rod brings the fish to my hands. In a last, desperate, act the fish surges away as I reach for the leader, splashing me with water. I lift the rod again, and lip the gorgeous bronze fish. A quick unhook and then comparison against the rod. Past the top decorative trim wrap near the reel seat. Pushing 15" and easily a couple of pounds.

I hold the fish, head into the current. A couple of waves of the tail as the cool water rushes over its gills and then off. My hands are trembling with an overload of adrenaline. I look back the 30 yards upstream to the run. I laugh silently at myself and head in towards the shore. I've gotten my reward for my earlier perseverance; to go back again would just be greedy. ~ Jason

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