This Month with a Susquehanna River Guide

By Lance Dunham

Ya’ know, during the course of the fishing day many subjects come up for conversation… some of which stay on the boat, if you know what I mean.  I was asked a common question by a gent.: how many years have I been a professional guide?  Well, that one is simple.  It’s been 33 years.  But then I was asked, “Have you ever figured out how many casts with a fishing rod you’ve made over those years?”  I guess I’ve never really thought about it but we did that day. There are so many variables that how could you tell for sure. So we clocked the average time per cast with a jig, the slowest of presentations, times the hours in the average charter, times the average number of charters in the year in a decreasing number for the early years, and finally the number of years chartering. It was a good thing that the modern I phones have calculators in them because this was starting to blow my mind, I’d rather just fish! But the gent was determined to come up with some kind of an answer! We went on fishing or at least his buddy and I did sort of going on to the next random subject of the day when all the sudden the gent yells out Two Million Six Hundred and Forty Thousand! What! That can’t be! Well the fella showed me how he came about that number and I can’t say it wasn’t an unreasonable number, but I do have to say, it gave me a very tired feeling, ya know, like it was nap time! No wonder my right arm always hurts a mite and I ask the wife pack to pack the bottle of “Aleve” in my lunch pail every day, and maybe that’s why I got to have that little minor surgery on my arm this winter. Will that slow me down? Nope! I can shoot with my left arm and I can cast that way too! Odds are I won’t last another 30 years but I do expect to fish and guide another 20.

This November the river locally became quite clear because of the lack of rain and it became traditionally cold with the water temperature going down into the high 30’s. The fishing gets tougher and the fishermen much fewer. The easy fishing of October is gone, the fish are no longer chasing your lures with reckless abandon. The fish are becoming very lethargic and this is where finesse fishing begins. First off you’ve got to find the fish; for the most part they are not where you left them last month. They have or are moving towards their “winter holes”. A winter hole is traditionally a deeper spot with slower current and a rocky bottom in each section of the river. The deeper spot could be as shallow as 6ft or 20ft depending on the section. The fish still have to eat in the winter so the food source has to be there but they just don’t eat as much. Patience is the key for cold water fishing. Dress very warm so you can concentrate and bring a hot, non-alcoholic beverage. Save the good stuff for when you get off the water and you’re at home. For this time of year, in smaller boats under 16ft it’s now the law to wear a PFD (personal floatation device) while on the water but it’s not a bad idea for all boats. It only takes a very few minutes in 30 some degree water for your muscles to stiffen up so badly that you can’t save yourself.

Back to fishing, boat control is also crucial to cold water fishing success. If I can I put my MinnKota Talons down to anchor the boat in one spot I’ll do so. If it’s too deep I use my electric trolling motor to slow down the drift of the boat. I want to fish as slow as I possibly can without getting stuck on the bottom. If I have to go retrieve a stuck lure I’ll move down river a bit after I get it back because the boat has spooked those fish I just went over. A good high graphite rod will also help in detecting that ever so light of a tick on the lure that a lethargic fish does or that ever faint, slightly heavier feeling you get like hooking on a wet leaf when a bass just sucks in a jig and holds it. St Croix Rage Rods, G Lumis, and the rods that I have on my boat and make my living with, “All Pro Rods,” will all help you increase your hook ups. As for lures, when the water is so cold those fish don’t want to chase fast moving lures like a crank bait, they want something easy to catch like a jig moving slow. The water will also be clear so I’ve found that a smaller-sized jig works great. There are many jigs that work in cold water. Traditionally a hair jig will always work because even when the jig is just sitting still the hair will still be moving with the river current giving it that living effect. Some of my favorite hair jigs include the bear hair jig, marabou jig, or the Mrs. Simpson jig from JJ’s Jigs in Towanda, Pa. There are also some plastic jigs that I will use now because of the action they will produce with little movement on my part. They need to be smaller in size 3” to 3 ½” and a slim design seems to help. A couple of the Rage Tail lures by Strike King work well with the Rage Baby Craw being one of my favorites; I pull off a claw to give it a slimmer look. The new Rage Cut-R Worm works but I cut it in half to make a finesse worm. I also put my plastics on the Moaner Predator jig hook, it stands up so the tails flutter easy in the current. The Keitech 3 ½” ribbed worm works well again because of the flimsy paddle tail, as does the 4” Strike King KVD Swim-N-Shiner. Now I’ve made up my own dream cold water plastic lure by putting the Rage Cut-R-Tail and melting/wielding it on to both the KVD Shiner and the Keitech worm and it makes a wicked action plastic finesse lure. It works great, but it’s not a very cost effective thing for a fisherman to do. Maybe someone out there in the plastic lure business could make it for us Northern small mouth and walleye anglers. Steve Parks (creator of Rage Tails), are ya listening? Your patented Rage tail on a slim short 3 ½” worm or minnow? I quiver in delight at the thought of it, and it takes a lot to make me quiver these days.

Your fishing line may make the difference in the cold clear water. As many of you folks know, I use 10 lb Stren Magnathin line on my spinning reels and 16 lb Stren Magnathin on my baitcaster reels. Stren is not a sponsor but it works well so I always use it. I did notice that in clear water the fish were shying away from my 16lb line so I attached a 3ft, 8lb or 10lb fluorocarbon leader to make it invisible in the water and it increased my fish strikes.

The wildlife along the river is very abundant now with the ducks and flyway geese filling the air. I watched a mink the other day along the rocky shoreline checking out every rock along the way, diving into the cold water and eventually catching a 6” to 8” fish. It would run up the bank a ways before starting to eat it so it wouldn’t flop back into the river. And the adult eagles with their white heads and tails are still here watching everything that goes on with the river. I got a nice photo of two adults sitting so close to each other in a tree that they seem to be touching to keep warm.

Well that’s all for this month, please remember to practice catch and release for the future of our sport, boat safely, and I’ll see you “On The Water.” For further reports, photos, and charter information, please visit my website at or on Facebook.