Down in southern Lancaster County, where the river stutters through a few dams, there are a couple of rocks that have petroglyphs carved onto them.
These carvings are anywhere from 400-1000 years old. There are Thunderbirds, serpents that mark the four equinoxes, swirls, various animals, human figures, and etchings that mark the Pleiades. It's a pretty incredible experience to pour water over dry rock and have these ancient symbols of language appear.
I have a new poem, "Dead Bodies of the Susquehanna," in the latest issue of The Wayfarer. You can order your copy here - The Wayfarer, Autumn/Winter 2018
Thanks for reading!
Here's the tell - I still get swarmed by mosquitoes when I sit out on my porch at night. It's September.
It's been raining since the end of July. There have only been a few days without rain, even fewer with dry air. It feels as if this area is slowly turning into a tropical floodplain. The Susquehanna has stayed high all summer. No zostera. No hyacinths. Only a handful of bass brought to hand. Wading has been difficult, so I've been floating it with the kayak. Each time there are different eddies and currents. The river changes with every flood. It's bulging. The canopy and water are growing closer.
The one upside to all this rain is that, once the sediment settles, the trout streams around here are fishing well. There's a spring creek a few minutes from my house that normally runs pretty low by this time of year. Developments keep being built and the water table gets sucked dry. I fished it for a few hours this evening and was pleasantly surprised at how high the water was. The recent floods have pushed a ton of sediment downstream, leaving some nice, long deep channels. The water was that perfect chalky limestone color. The trout chased the woolly bugger with abandon.
There's a stretch I love to fish that is lined with quite a few old Osage Orange trees. They aren't too common around this area, especially this size. Their bark is unique - strained, thick, topographic, deep grooves that wind their way up and down the tree. Their canopies are large and filter the light in this shallow ravine. They seemed to survive the last few floods. Still standing. Whereas some gigantic sycamore have fallen. They line the banks and as the dirt is dragged downstream, their cedar red roots create great notches to stand in to cast. These, along with the catalpa that line the river by my house, are my favorite stretches of trees in the county. In the fall when I walk this stretch I'll find dozens of their burled lime-green hedge apples.
"Yeah, it's pretty good. I've got about 15 and I've been here since 6."
I was laying in bed listening to the owl when I got the text. 6:20. I promised myself one morning this week of not waking up to an alarm but woke up early anyway. Pushing the skunking I took last time I tried for shad out of my mind, I roll out of bed, throw on some clothes, and head out towards the Conowingo Dam.
Google Maps said it'd take an hour and three minutes, I get there in 50. I usually use my 8 wt. for the river, but I've been taking out my Winston 6 wt. I inherited from my neighbor as of late. It's a fantastically responsive rod and fishing it feels like fishing. Sometimes, with my 8 wt., I feel like I'm just chucking heavy hooks full of feathers through the air and muscling fish back in. It's great for my kayak, but this season, when I'm wading warm waters, I'm taking the Winston.
Rob gave me a flashy little fly with a pink bead head to use and on my second cast, I finally land my first Hickory Shad. Using a sinking leader helped get the fly down to where the shad where. Sling it out, let it drift down the current and swing it. Slow strips - strip, strip, pause, set. This is how it went for the first few hours. 15 minutes of catching shad on every other cast, then, a lull. But you keep casting, because you don't know when that next bite will start again.
They released water late in the morning. Sirens sound, red lights flash and within minutes my boots are sunk and water is up to my knees. I put on a few split shot to get down. Roll cast out, let it swing, and with the first strip my line stopped. Caught on a rock. No, it's moving, but it's not like any other shad I caught that day. It stays low like a catfish and doesn't shoot straight upstream but out and back and then takes me on the reel as it breaks downstream back towards the bay. I slide my rod down, side pressure and turn it, slowly working it back towards me. Finally, a flicker of light in the murky water. An American Shad. 3 pounds? I've never seen scales so iridescent, flushed purple and blue by thousands of miles of salt water hitting the freshwater of the Susquehanna. It's beautiful. Heavy with muscle, a forked tail of a rudder, enough to finish out its journey.
The lines of thinking I latched onto this week:
Rolled hay. I ended up research the planting, growing, and harvesting process of hay. All because every day on my way to and from work, I drive past a few fields with large rolls of hay held together by twine. They have been left there to age, much like split wood, over the winter. Now, with the recent rains, they are soaked and beginning to sag.
Bloated river. The river has been up over its bank all week. The highest all winter. Dark, quick, splotched with migrating buffleheads and Canadian geese. It dropped for a day, or two. But now is rising once again. A quick crest, dip and now another climb up the floodplain.
Birds. The woods have been quiet and they sky sparse. Within the last few days with a few days pushing into the 60's, the sky is beginning to fill with birds, the woods have a brighter voice.
It only took until the 5th day of the new year for the river to freeze. Though the deep channel that curves around the York side is still clear, it's calm and crinkles in the wind. Only a matter of another few hours of these deep chills for it to close up. The banks on this side have a deep ice to them that's beginning to crater outwards with the slow downstream pressure of freezing water. Wind creases itself across the ice like white flies skittering in flits and tantrums.
Walks with Whitman have grown shorter. Today we made it down a game trail and found a piece of shelter someone built in the past few months. A duck blind tucked into a little hill built with driftwood and discarded lumber. If the ground were level it'd be a great spot for a nap. We don't stop too long these days.
The river freezes into streams before going completely still. As the days get progressively colder and the water slows down, you're able to see the currents make their way through limestone. The freeze hits the water along the banks first immediately extending its reach into the eddies and flats. Some of the water, when its shallow over rock falls, will cling to the tops and reach itself over, leaving a current between itself and the rock, insulating it from the cold it seems.
We're leaving for Wyoming on Friday.
That means I won't see the river for a few weeks.
By the time we get back, it'll be in its Summer space.
Low, warm water. High grasses. Maybe some hibiscus.
I wanted to get out in it one last morning before we left.
The water's still high and muddy.
The bass seem to be settled below rapids or along the shallow water along the banks.
This one inhaled my slider and immediately took flight.
He was in only a foot of water, right along the bank.
He fought hard down stream.
Jumped a few more times and after a long fight, I finally landed him.
My personal best smallmouth bass - 21",
I was lucky enough to have a good friend along to snap some photos.
This river has some beautiful water and some beautiful fish.
Get out and enjoy it.
Check out the newest issue of The Drake Magazine (Summer, 2017), for my latest essay on fly fishing, Shank's Tavern, the Susquehanna River, and my close friend Steve.
"freely drifting, I prowl the woods and streams
Summer is here.
Nettles are in full throttle.
I walk through them when I'm looking up, paying no mind to my steps,
tramping towards the next fence or bend in the stream, trying to avoid another groundhog hole.
It's never intentional. Sometimes necessary.
Cold water soothes the sting, but long after my legs are still mottled with the red scratches of their thin hairs.
Though, just the other day, I thought I was in the middle of a field of nettles,
mixed in with high grass, but soon realized it was mint. The breeze filled with the cracked leaves
and I rubbed some on my fingertips and on the fly I was casting.
Another day, last week, I found myself walking
the banks of Penns, watching for the air
to fill with bugs.
It was morning, which I tend to enjoy fishing
more than the evening. There's an anticipation
that can last an entire day in the morning.
The evening offers a quick spike
in the denouement of the day. It's subtle and reassuring
but there's always a solemnity in it for me.
Looking up, I realize my shoulder just passed through a cobweb full of Green Drakes.
They got caught as they were leaving their branches to drop eggs into the water late last night.
Some of their wings still twitched.
I promised Whitman a long walk today.
We explored a couple of ponds
set back from the trail
between a copse of trees and a cornfield.
There, he could bark at the ducks
and I could throw a popper for bass.
Check out the latest issue of Susquehanna Life Magazine for my essay on the Susquehanna River, "Bringing a River into Focus".
We set off around 8:30 a.m.
The clouds were coming in from the west over Brunner Island.
The kayaks, smooth.
The water, muddy.
The sun couldn't make it out of the east,
let alone onto our shoulders.
"You're gonna have wet asses"
Steve's uncle politely mentioned as we pushed off.
"Eh," we shrugged. We've been getting advice from his uncles for years
and they're usually right and we usually ignore them.
Just a few weeks ago, they had to tow Steve's boat back upstream
after the engine died,
after they carved a wooden plug so we wouldn't sink.
Luckily, we were able to paddle hard enough to run into some trees
leaning out into the river and tie off so we didn't get washed downstream.
Just a few minutes later and a about a hundred yards downstream, just past the first bend,
it started to rain.
There was a break in the clouds down past Shocks Mill Bridge
so we paddled. Didn't fish much.
Past the Conoy
Past the White Cliffs,
Through the Haldeman Riffles
skirting Ely and Pole Islands aiming for a big slow eddy where we pulled ashore.
There, under a thick grove of river birch and maple,
we had a morning snack and shot the shit for an hour
until the rain passed through.
We watched the water.
You can tell a lot about a person by their favorite Dylan record. If they don't have one, well, I'm not sure you even want to fish with them. I met Justin when I was taking my dog Whitman for a walk and Justin was walking back to his car after an evening of fly fishing on the river. I saw him with a fly rod so I struck up a conversation about the river and the fishing. We quickly discovered that we had a lot of common ground - he teaches writing at the college level, I teach high school English, he likes good music, I do to, and most importantly, we both like to fly fish. We quickly exchanged numbers and set a time to head out to the river in the near future.
He just moved into the area, so I took him to a spot on the Susquehanna that I recently discovered. This is my first season fly fishing for bass and I'm now in full bronze mode. These past few weeks have been terribly hot and humid - horrible weather for trout fishing. In past summers, I would have sulked and been agitated not being able to head out on the water. Realizing that I can have an incredible angling experience right outside of my house has been a gigantic blessing. Instead of driving all over the place looking for spring creeks and limestoners, I've been getting on my bike, riding up the rail-trail along the river, and drifting a crayfish pattern for beautiful bass.
Talk turned to music once we were on the water and Dylan came up. I asked him what his favorite Dylan record was. "Time Out of Mind", he said. "Seriously? Mine too!". Yeah, I know, it's just a record, and really, who cares? But if you don't know that record or why it's one of Dylan's best, then that part of this anecdote will never make sense. Some day I'll do an entire post about the genius of that record. Either way, it's great to meet someone that understands the magnificence of that record. That record is everything that Dylan was meant to do as an artist. It quickly became obvious that we shared a lot of the same interests and that our lives had struck the same chords at some point or another. We hit it off and quickly started catching some really nice bass.
I've lived most of my life within a few miles of this river and only now, in my 33rd rotation around the sun, have I spent a lot of time on it. Enough time to learn its rhythms and seasons. Rightfully so, the Susquehanna gets a lot of bad press. Ask any angler and they'll immediately start talking about how great the bass population USED to be. Ask any concerned citizen and they'll correctly tell you that the river should be listed as impaired and needs a lot of love in order to get it to a healthy, livable, sustainable standard. I agree with all of it. I love this river and it needs our help. However, we often easily get consumed by the negatives and the "what needs to happen..." mentality which can filter our view of the river and keep us from realizing the beauty that is right in front of us. If we don't see the beauty that we have, we'll never be willing to protect the beauty that may be.
Over the past month and half, I've caught a ton of beautiful, healthy looking bass. Only one had a sore on it. I've also caught bass ranging from 8"-16". Justin recently landed a 20" and an 18". It's great to see the bass population seemingly doing well. They've been nailing dark poppers, crayfish patterns, and Clouser minnows; the deadly three when it comes to bass flies for me. If they are healthy and doing well, it also shows that the river has a lot of great things going on. If we don't acknowledge the vibrant ecosystem of the Susquehanna, we'll never care enough to keep it healthy and work to make it better. We aren't only catching really nice bass, but we're seeing a ton of egrets, herons, and bald eagles. Just the other day we stopped fishing to watch two bald eagles circle over use for a few minutes. Their nest must have been close.
It has been a blast discovering this river. For my entire life it's always been in the periphery, but now it's coming into focus and I'm loving what I see. Get out there and enjoy the water.
If we don't acknowledge the vibrant ecosystem of the Susquehanna, we'll never care enough to keep it healthy and work to make it better.
I stumbled upon the name "Raftman's Path" walking the river trail that traverses through the little town I live in. It was named during the days when lumber was a huge commodity in this area. The Susquehanna River was an industrial thoroughfare - bearing down loads of lumber from the northern reaches of Pennsylvania towards the Chesapeake. Marietta was a stopping point, a place for the lumber either to go to the mills lining its banks or shoot further downstream through pig iron smoke. Raftmen would guide the lumber down to the mouth of the Susquehanna into the Chesapeake - an estuary of salt, water, lumber, ore, eel and shad. When their job was done, they would walk the raftman's path back through the Susquehanna Riverlands of Lancaster County towards their homes. The path is now wooded and meanders through some of the only "wild" places left in the county.