By Mike Flanagan
Well, I started my summer off right. Ever since I heard of it last September, I had been wanting to do the three day Kayak Fishing Boot Camp with guide Juan Veruete. Late this winter I was fortunate enough to hook the last spot in this year’s boot camp. The original plan was to camp out on a river island for the middle night, but the island camping got canceled because the river was up pretty good and moving fast. Juan decided it would be better if we stayed at the base camp (in cabins) each night. +1 on that, in my opinion. I’m getting too old and creaky for sleeping on rock islands, which I have been told are the kind Juan favors. In deference to Juan’s request all I’ll say about location is that we fished the Susquehanna River between Sunbury and Harrisburg.
Sunday, arrived at base camp at 0900 and we were on the water by 1000 for three hours of instruction on paddling technique, positioning our boats, and maintaining position. I had this same instruction last year with Juan, so I was pretty comfortable with what we were doing. I was the only one there who was not in a Wilderness Systems Ride kayak. (three Ride 135’s and one Ride 115X). By the end of the period they were calling my boat the “Smokin’ Moken” because even with at least 100 pounds more weight I was able to keep up and maneuver as well as any of them, except Juan o f course. (That’s me in the middle, and two of these guys weighed less than half of what I do.) After lunch we had six hours of classes on different baits, different rods, boat positioning, and how to read the water. BBQ’d chicken and potato salad for supper, very nice.
Monday, up at 0500 and on the water by 0600. No action on the topwater baits. But then the water was fast and looked liked coffee with creamer. Visibility was maybe 18″-24″. We switched to throwing spinnerbaits; some dark, some white, some large, some small. With five rods in the water we were trying to narrow down a productive bait pattern. Conventional wisdom said large, dark baits would work best in this dark, murky water. Surprise! The smaller, compact white spinnerbait (1/4 oz) was working the trick. My greatest achievement of this trip will always remain the time I successfully paddled against the current, up a chute, and parked my kayak behind a stone ledge (in it’s eddy) so I could fish the pillow in front of the rock. No fish from that rock though. Several miles downstream I was picking apart the water behind another rock ledge when I hooked into a really nice fish that measured out at 18.75″! Now that is a fish! I managed a couple of more in the 15-16″ range, but they weren’t worth measuring after that one. We weren’t off the water until 1500 that day.
Tuesday, a different stretch of the river. It had rained overnight and the water was just as pushy and chocolatey as before. Up at 0500 and on the water by 0630 this time. We worked the topwaters and spinnerbaits again in a big pool Juan knew of. Limited success with a few small fish, around 12-15″, in the group. None for me. They did not like that spoinnerbait. The ones we caught were on soft plastic crawdads, around 3″ long, dragged on the bottom. We had a strategy meeting on shore and tied on some new baits then hit it again. I was not willing to forsake that white spinnerbait though ( a larger 1/2 oz one that day) I had spotted this grass island just above a larger island and headed that way. I hooked a leg over a downed tree to hold my position so I could work that island properly. The water here was REALLY pushing. I worked it across from high left, down under, and then from high right with the spinnerbait. No joy. I threw the craw and let him drift down the chute between the islands. Hook up! Only 15 inches, but still a nicer fish than I usually catch, and the skunk was off the boat. Several pools later we were drifting and dragging through the pool, then paddling back to the top and doing it again. On about my fourth trip through the pool I hooked up on that 1/2 oz spinnerbait again. This time it turned out to be an 18.25″ smallie.
I hooked two more in the 13-15 range that afternoon before the sun had completely taken the paddle out of me. Juan was laughing at us because we weren’t even interested in measuring anything that didn’t appear to be 18′ or bigger. He said we were getting jaded already. I suppose he’s right. After a couple of 18+ fish you sort of don’t think a 15 or 16 is all that big anymore. But there were bigger fish out there. Tony caught the biggest smallie at 20.5″. Andrew brought in another citation smallie, a shade over 20. And the last member of the crew, Steve, pulled in a 19.5″ smallie. Tony was on fire Tuesday with a couple over 18″, in his six or seven fish. And Andrew had a muskie steal his bait right next to the boat as he was cranking it in. Folks, there are some serious fish in that river!
The last mile or so of fishing for me was simply targeting boulders and ledges as I drifted by them with that spinnerbait. I didn’t have the energy to paddle against that fast moving current anymore, and I knew we still had to traverse about a mile of river to get to the other side and the take-out point. I won’t say it wasn’t a tough mile, but that ferrying technique Juan teaches allowed me to cross without being swept downstream, which would have been ugly! It was almost 1630 before we got off the river that day.
All things considered, Boot Camp 2014 was a resounding success, despite far from ideal water conditions. If you have an interest in learning to WORK for your fish instead of simply drift fishing, I cannot recommend Juan Veruete highly enough. But be forewarned, his fishing style, while very successful, is a lot of work and paddling. Better hurry though, last I heard he was already fully booked for July and almost full for August.
Tight lines (I finally understand that salutation)