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Fishing The Susquhanna Flats  

Weekend Warrior Series by John Budish

Fishing The Susquehanna Flats

The Call

My weekend started a couple days early, specifically, around 7:00 AM on Thursday morning. I got a phone call from Gene Quigley of Shore Catch Guide Service. It seemed he had a fishing trip to the Susquehanna flats all planned out, but his partner for the trip got sick the night before and cancelled that morning. Gene remembered I had shown an interest in fishing there at the last meeting of the Atlantic Saltwater Flyrodders, so he gave me a call.

My decision to go was pretty easy. The previous week the company where I worked as a consultant decided to cut about 75 percent of their contracted employees. I was one of the lucky ones; I got to leave. I'm not going to miss the commute that ended three miles short of the Delaware River, but I will miss a couple of the people I worked with there. All I needed to do was call my consulting firm (who carries me through times like these) and tell them I was going to be out of state and not available to come into the office. That's pretty easy to do when no one gets there until 8:00. I left a message and called Gene back.


I had to put together some stout fishing tackle awfully quick. I had an 8 foot St Croix Tidemaster, rated extra heavy, that I had considered selling over the winter. I'm glad I didn't. I slapped my Ahab 8A on it, grabbed my 10 wt fly rod, and my favorite baitcasting combo.

I got to Gene's a little after 8:00. It didn't take too long to throw my tackle into his truck. He already had the boat on the trailer and the trailer attached to the truck. We made good time to Maryland, swapping stories and fishing tactics along the way. On the ride down, Gene got a phone call from Bill Dawson. Bill is local to the Susquehanna flats area, and is also a rep for Sage fly rods. He had planned to take a client out fishing, but the client backed out because of the fog. Bill was joining us in Gene's boat. It would be nice to have some local knowledge.

Local Color

As we got into town, we had one stop to make before the marina. We needed something for lunch, the only thing we didn't bring with us. There was a small, strange department store near the marina, called a Save-A-Lot. Looked good enough for us, so we went in. The store was different than what I'm used to in New Jersey. This store had "no frills" shelving, and most products were just left in boxes on the shelves. Name brands, as we know them up here, were virtually non-existent. We picked up some meat, cheese, bread, and mustard for sandwiches.

As we went to pay for it, the cashier just scanned the stuff and then placed it in a pile on the little treadmill that moves the product for her. We gave her the money, she gave us the change, and we all stared blankly at each other. Gene asked for a bag, to which the cashier replied that bags cost 10 cent each, but the boxes by the door were free. Since she already rang us up, we grabbed a box.

After loading the food into the cooler, we made the one block hop to the marina. I was surprised to see it was filled with sailboats. All sailboats. Gene assured me we could use the ramp, and we wouldn't be run out of town as power boaters.

'It might be annoying now, but it will make a good story'

Bill arrived a few minutes after we did, and we set about splashing Gene's boat, a 21 foot Parker Center console. Launching the boat was easy, and although Gene asked me to guide him down the ramp, he didn't need it. I secured it to the floating dock with the bowline, and Bill jumped aboard. As Gene went to park the truck, Bill lowered the motor. It moved maybe two inches before quitting.

Gene came back and we started looking for whatever electrical problem killed the trim & tilt. Actually, whatever the problem was, it killed all power to the motor and gauges. My father and I had a similar problem with a circuit breaker mounted on the transom by the batteries, but in this case, that wasn't the culprit. We eventually found a 20 amp fuse under the motor cowling that had blown. Luckily, the ships store had 20 amp fuses (I guess sailboats use them too), and Gene bought some replacements. We toyed around with the trim and tilt, and promptly blew another fuse. After replacing that one, we couldn't get the fuse to blow again, and assumed all was right with the motor. Just in case, Gene purchased another two packs of fuses.

On the water, but where...

Under Bill's guidance, we motored slowly out of the marina, and into the fog. The fog cut visibility down to about a quarter mile in the better spots, lots less at other times. Bill's handheld GPS had our destination marked, and we all kept a sharp eye out for other boats and floating debris.

There was no shortage of floating debris. Lots of wood, ranging in size from twigs to telephone poles, was floating on the flats. Coupled with the overcast skies and fog, it made for an eerie ride.

We got to our destination and started tossing plugs, looking to locate where the bass may be feeding. Bill said the ideal way to find fish was to cruise around with an electric trolling motor, casting surface plugs or shallow swimmers until a fish reveals itself. After we found a few, we planned to throw flies at them. A gas motor would spook the fish, and, lacking an electric motor or push pole, we tried setting up a drift.

We didn't drift very far in the still conditions, and, while drifting, managed to blow another fuse. Bill suggested going in and transferring our gear to his boat. No only did he not have an electrical problem, he had the trolling motor we would find so useful.

After swapping boats we ran back to the flats, luckily a short ride away, and set up a search pattern. In the fog and unfamiliar waters, I had no clue where we were, nor did I even know which direction we were heading in. I just took station on the bow and began casting a bright orange Habs popper, at Bill's suggestion. Gene started off with a wooden swimmer, wile Bill cast a hook less popper.

A large explosion went off in the distance, way out in the fog. Something big had just blown up, or been fired, or both. Gene and I were both startled, but Bill went about his business like this was an everyday occurrence. It was just Annapolis, he said.

It took about an hour before we saw any life, and Gene found it. He had since switched to a 6 inch MegaBait plug in yellow, and, not far from the boat, something took it. A few minutes later, Gene had a 14 pound striper in the jaws of his boga grip. After a quick picture, it was released.

I was still working the Habs popper, and I was trying every retrieve I knew. Fast, slow, twitching, just barely swimming on the surface, and even walking the dog with it. Nothing even blinked at it. I figured if I couldn't get a fish to strike out of hunger, I could annoy them enough with that plug that they would want to kill it. Unfortunately, that didn't work. Bill wasn't having much luck with his popper either. We all switched around lures, trying to find the magic combo. Rat-L-Traps, Mr. Bunker's, crystal minnows, and bass assassins were thrown. Nothing was touched. Bill had a new spot to try.

Still Looking

Even with the fog lifting, I still had no clue where I was. We ran between two islands, one of which Bill called The Battery. Now, with the sounds of cannon fire coming from Annapolis, I wasn't sure we should be fishing near something called a battery, but I trusted Bill's judgment.

While running between the islands, we spooked a good sized fish. We set up on the flats with high hopes. Not only had we seen a splash, but there was an osprey hunting in the same area. Again, we spent an hour beating up the water looking for fish.

Bill had a few more spots to try, and a few more tricks up his sleeve. We headed to some deeper water where some smaller fish should be holding. The first spot, near some really cool cliffs was fishless. The next was a bit different.

We set up a hundred yards off of a shoreline, again, I was totally clueless as to where. There was a current pulling along the shoreline and a nice rip by a point of land. I put on an albino shad bass assassin, and mentioned to Gene that I had a good feeling about that lure. As we drifted through the rip, I felt a bump.

Shaking Off The Winter Rust

On the other side of the point of land was a shallow cove. Bill motored us a little into the cove, where there was a line of wooden debris near the shoreline. A few casts here and I had another bump. I mentioned it to Gene, who was using a fly rod, and as I do, he says he thinks his line, with the heavy sink tip, is stuck on the bottom. The line starts moving off to the right. He's stuck all right, but to a fish. As he's landing his striper, I get a good bump, and set up on my first fish of the season. I get it to the boat and it's maybe 24 inches, but has some nice stripes running down it's side. I unhook it and gently release it.

What followed that was pure pandemonium. Gene caught another fish on the fly, Bill got one on the yellow jig he was using, and I kept scoring fish after fish on the bass assassin. After I released my fifth, I heard Gene say "That's it. What do you have on?". I told him, and he switched to a bass assassin. On his first cast, he hooks up, and Bill switches over.

By now the sun is going down, and we are getting into them pretty good. Double headers were common, and there were a few times where all three of us had a fish on. They ranged anywhere from 26" and fat, to a feisty little 12" fish that took a 9" bass assassin. I'd like to meet up with him again, when he's a little bigger.

So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish

We left them biting with just enough light to get back to the dock without running in the dark. We pulled Gene's boat (after replacing another fuse) and bid our farewells to Bill. His local knowledge and perseverance got us into some fish on what would have otherwise been a bust of a trip.

After getting back into New Jersey, we dropped Gene's boat off at the mechanic to get his electrical problem fixed. As it is with all electrical problems, it's probably a small short and a simple fix, but the hard part is finding it. Gene decided he'd leave that up to someone with more experience and better tools.

After moving my stuff from Gene's truck back to mine, I got home around 12:15. I found out the next morning that the one and only traffic light in Seaside Park changed from its winter blinking pattern to full service. I don't remember what color light I drove through the night previous. I was tired, but a good kind of tired that can only come from a good day on the water.

Thanks Gene, that was a great trip, and I appreciate you giving me the call.

Until next week...

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