Thursday, July 20, 2017

Lehigh River Smallmouth Bass, Crappie, Musky

I didn't know Pennsylvania's Lehigh River flows to the south of Interstate 78. Cramped for time, I snatched directions off the web and set out on an equally distracted ride west, finding myself in the middle of some neighborhood at least 10 miles west of Easton, not any sort of river or stream nearby. Not surprised--because I know web directions and GPS units alike shouldn't be trusted--I headed to U.S. Highway 22 for Easton. I use a flip phone and have no interest in upgrading. Nor did I bother with a map and I didn't need any. I own no GPS. I figured I could have continued north on 512 to cross the river, but it didn't feel right to turn north, instead of south back to U.S. 22. Committed to 10 eastward miles, a highway halfway to Easton tempted me to go north, though I wasn't really sure if this effort would result in what I wanted, but if the Lehigh flowed northward of 78, surely this fast paced four-lane highway 33 would cross it. I passed Stockertown (felt humor over the name) and wound up beyond the Wind Gap 12 miles north of where I began. Big mountains with only wind getting between. So I turned back to highway 22, drove on into Easton, and within some minutes, rode along the Lehigh River.

I must have driven three or four miles before finding a pullover. Here the river flowed slowly, as it had this entire length. Not promising. I walked the edge with my black Lab, shot a couple of photos for good measure, rounded up Sadie, and drove on. A mile or two later, I found Riverside Park and some riffling water. Down by the river, we began to head upstream as here and there I fished a paddletail swimbait, focusing especially on edges between swift current and slow water, also plumbing relative depths of eddying current, but the flow in either case was not very deep.

As we walked and waded the river's edge, alternately using a trail up on the bank when things got tricky, I wondered about the sound of roaring water upstream. All this time, I didn't feel well. In fact, very shortly after I began fishing, the second or third cast, I wondered if I was going to quit. But I had told myself before we set out--by writing in a notebook I keep in my car--that those of us who achieve glory in life invariably get tested by the opposite. I concluded: "That man who does not submit is a fool." (Who does not submit to the tests he cannot escape, except by suicide...but what would happen then?) Now only minutes later, I had forgotten about the words I had written. I was left to the mercy of my habits, and since I guess for the most part they're good habits, I bore down to gather my strength and went onward.

A big dam eventually came into view. Aha. That sound of roaring water. We got up on the bank and found a paved trail leading that way. After at least a half mile's walk in total, I cut off the pavement onto a trail leading down to the river and saw good-looking water for fishing, having--I felt--arrived upon destiny, feeling that uplift of mood telling me life will be worthwhile--normal--after all.

My third or fourth cast, I hooked a small bass that got off, and almost at my feet as the cast completed, a long narrow shadow came up behind the paddletail in the shadow-enclosed water. Sure this fish was a little musky, I got a better view as I pitched the lure back it's way, and when I saw it strike, I was even more certain the fish was a little muskellunge of about 16 inches. I missed that strike, but kept working the swimbait by its indifferent nose, until after a minute or two, it leisurely descended out of sight. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission stocks the river with muskies a little smaller, which attain great lengths of 50 inches or more. They're not common, but in the river.

I snagged and broke a paddletail off, repeatedly cast and retrieved another higher in the water column to no avail, so again I let the lure drop, risking its loss by working slow and deep. Something added weight to the line and I reared back, felt sluggish weight, and then I felt a fish throbbing and--suddenly--brisk, line-straining resistance. Those tell-tale bulldog jabs. (A smallmouth bass lets you know it exists.) This one wasn't big at 12 1/2 inches. The drag on my reel had yielded, but such is the nature of an average bronzeback. I measured the fish be sure: I had paid $26.50 for the day's licensing, and my wife likes smallmouth bass for dinner. When Old Bay seasoning is added liberally. And by the way, the fish was absolutely delicious!

Maybe a half or more later, I caught the crappie. Best I can judge, most of this species--black crappie, I think--are above the dam in the implied slow water above that dam I estimated at 13 feet high. I never had a look. I released this fish, unsure if it was quite keeper size, not knowing the rule on this type. I fished somewhat into dusk, losing a total of four of my paddletails to submerged rocks, the entire remainder of my package of the smaller size, and I refused to tie on one of the larger I prefer for stripers in the New Jersey Meadowlands. They're more expensive, but especially, more useful to me for that Meadowlands reason. I cast an X-Rap and thoroughly enjoyed keeping level control of the plug while imparting frantic rhythms. Nothing ever hit it. That water must be eight feet deep or so out there below the falls. An X-Rap won't get down more than four. Above all else, I had become much more of my own self again, which daily drains at labor on the job steal from me six days a week. I had become free. Freedom is never a given. It is betterment that must be fought for. And though my half-mile effort up the river really wasn't much, it was infinitely better than had I given up.

Life in our society today with its cramped and uncertain economy, its loss of purpose and values, is a sickening and fearful demise that seems to test us all. America is the freest, noblest nation which has ever existed, and I just heard these words paraphrased by my friend Santiago from Paraguay, while I sat and enjoyed a beer with him minutes before I continued writing this post. We are the pinnacle of glory. At our best. When I saw white water flowing over that dam from a distance, I didn't feel elated, but I did feel a hint of relief. I recognized possibility, though I did not yet feel it. The catch wasn't much, compared to other outings. And yet, until the hook grabbed on that third or fourth cast, I felt as if the river would remain naked to me like an unclean vagabond. The destiny I felt upon arriving upon the spot at the dam, I felt this would be limited to getting some good photographs. But we never know until we have completed a full effort.

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