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First Smallie of the Year

Jason Tinling

By Jason Tinling, Lancaster, PA


Lunchtime = fishing time as the summer begins to roll around. I had been down on the river yesterday, but the water had been really stained. Still, I figured I'd drop in and see what things looked like.

I pulled the car up onto the grass and took a look over the water. A little clearer than yesterday, but still stained. What the heck. I got the gear out of the trunk and rigged up a minnow pattern that I've been playing with. A few casts at the upper pool below the dam got one short strike from a 12" smallie. When I couldn't raise the fish for a second strike, I headed downstream.

This time of year is always a mixed blessing for fishing this section of the Conestoga. If the water is clear, the fish are getting on the spawn, the big fish move in closer and you get a shot at some good fish. On the down side, the bank is overgrown with brush and trees and it's often difficult to get to the water and virtually impossible to cast. There are beaten down sections of bank where access is easier, and as a result, they're also the most heavily pressured area.

The structure of the west bank here is interesting. The middle and east bank of the river are pretty consistent for depth, uniform rock size, and fairly flat. The west bank has a ridge of rocks that rises up from the middle of the river, drops quickly into a trough about 5 feet offshore, and then climbs up the bank. When the water is stained, the larger bass will often sneak out of the deeper middle water to settle in the shoreline channel and ambush panfish and minnows. I pitched and roll cast the minnow out into the current, letting it sink and swing, trying to get down near the bottom to compensate for the 6-12" of visibility.

Out in the center of the river, fish rose splashily to chase down the light blue damsels that glided over the surface. No way to roll a cast out that far with surrounding foliage. I moved down to another small gap in the brush, throwing short 10' roll casts out over the undulating weeds. I'd let the minnow drift down behind the weedline, twitching it back up to the surface against the flow of the current. Another splashy rise in the middle of the river distracted me as I rolled another messy cast out over the water. Instead of a flitting damselfly, a small minnow flew out of the water, a sizable bass in hot pursuit. Everywhere the minnow re-entered the water, a good sized boil would swirl up and the silvery fish would launch out of the water again.

After 3 or 4 swirls, the action stopped, one of the fish getting the better of the other. I'm guessing it wasn't the minnow that came out on the winning end. Well, if the fish are willing to come up and chase bait that aggressively, I decided that maybe it was time to alter my fishing approach. The minnow had just swung past the end of the weeds, and I gave it a couple of quick, dancing strips as I watched for more evidence of fish feeding outside my casting range. I stripped the minnow again, and the erratic dance of the fly was interrupted by a swirling flash of green and bronze. I let the line slip quickly from my fingers after I strip set the hook, sensing from the solid resistance of the hookset that this was a good fish.

The line slid away quickly, and the fish was on the reel. As soon as the drag engaged the fish bolted, peeling off 30 feet of line before launching, body shaking, into the air.

Oh yeah, good fish. Good fish! I worked the rod with a gentle touch. Not much room to either side of me to work the angles, so I had to keep the rod tip high, working the drag and palming the spool to keep pressure on the fish. The fish gave two more jumps, twisting and turning in the air. She burrowed deep into a strand of weeds, as I tried to lean back and pull her up short. I was glad for the 8# tippet as I kept constant pressure on the line and felt the fish slide free. She rolled up along the shore and after a couple more lunges toward deep water, came to hand. I lifted the fish out of the water just enough to slip the hook free when I noticed a length of heavy mono sticking out of the fish' mouth. The mono disappeared down into the gullet, so I took my nippers and cut the line as deeply down as I could reach.

A quick measure against the rod butt showed the fish ran about 17-18", which is fairly large for this section of the river, with a fat, pre-spawn belly. Probably close to 3 pounds, she'll be a solid two pounder after the spawn. I held her in the water, running her into the current, and then holding lightly on the lip. After a couple of minutes she wrested loose of my hold and shot off for the safety of the depths.

Didn't get another hit the rest of the hour, and it didn't bother me in the least. ~ Jason

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