Bucket List: Susquehanna River

by Chris McCotter

Flowing some 444 miles from it’s starting point at Otsego Lake in the mountains of New York to where it meets the Chesapeake Bay at Havre de Grace, Maryland, the Susquehanna River is mostly a Pennsylvania resident. It meanders, gurgles, surges, rushes and at times, is pent up behind dams along the way, but it remains one of the best smallmouth bass fisheries in the country and certainly on many bucket lists.

This longest river on the east coast is where I found myself on a calm, early November day that dawned foggy and 39 degrees but ended 74 and sunny.

I was the guest of Interstate Batteries distributor Rich Mummey and Reel River Adventures guide Ken Varilek.  This was a trip we had planned for 2020 but had to push to this year due to scheduling conflicts.

Ken guides from a RiverPro 186 LoPro powered by a 200 hp inboard Mercury jetdrive and held in place by a Minn Kota Terrova iPilot trolling motor. This was pretty much the perfect rig to fish this shallow, rocky river and Ken showed great prowess with his technology.

Rich and I have been fishing together for a number of years – mostly on Lake Anna for bass, striper, wiper and crappie. He’s a Pennsylvania native that had used Ken’s services in the past and knew that I had always wanted to fish the famed river and was kind enough to plan the entire expedition.

Our base camp was the posh Manor on Front Street (Harrisburg) – essentially a renovated mansion we had to ourselves for the evening. We sipped blackberry Bird Dog whiskey in an elegant wood paneled drawing room before and after dinner the night before and traded stories about fishing trips past.

We hit the rack by 10 pm to be well rested for the early morning meeting time. We met Ken at the Liverpool ramp at 6:30 am where I watched in fascination as he launched the center console river rig and fired up the jet. These are very specialized craft with a screened intake on the bottom of the hull, raised rock-deflecting strakes and cutting board material further attached to the most common rock-strike surfaces. The back deck is 99” wide with a seat mounted on top of the engine compartment and a singled center-mounted Minn Kota Talon. The front deck has ample room, too for casting and holds the iPilot 36v trolling motor. It was a nimble and stable fishing platform.

The river was just below 10’ at the Sunbury gauge and dropping slowly after some significant rain. This makes for good fishing conditions and interestingly encountered all types of water clarity in the four or so miles we fished around the ramp – clear, muddy and slightly silty.

 The sun had not yet crested the mountains when the first fish of that chilly, damp morning went to our guide. Ken deftly casted a Fitt Premium Lures Chilly Willy to some slack water behind a grassy island and had a 16” fish never let it hit the bottom. Varilek has a shoulder injury so he fished sparingly during our day – just enough to show us where to cast and how to work the lures. 

The second fish of the day went to Rich, who while casting on the opposite side of the boat as the grassy island we were on at the time, had a 18.5” river smallie aggressively engulf his swimbait.

I was happy to take photos, and I watched as the sun approached the top of the mountain on the east side of the river. I also kept casting the Chilly Willy and popping it free from the constant rock snags.

Ken uses high quality tackle. There was a mixture of Temple Fork spinning rods and Daiwa reels (Tantula and Fuego) spooled with 10-pound test braid attached to 12-pound fluorocarbon leaders.

Our terminal tackle for the day was fairly simple. For the Chillee Willees we used 5/32 ounce half heads (like used for Ned rigs). For the swimbaits we were using 1/8-ounce ball head jigs. We used either Netbait swimbaits or four-inch Keitech Easy Shiner swimbaits in a discontinued violet color.

We grinded through our first seven fish with no real pattern that morning, riding up to a couple of tributaries of the river seeking out concentrations of fish in over-wintering holes. The water was 46-47 degrees, so it was almost time to find schools of smallmouth, but we were starting to think the fish were in transition areas instead.

After a quick check-in with Reel River Adventures owner and head guide, Chris Gorsuch, Ken had an “Ah-ha!” moment and realized we were close to the pattern. We needed to re-focus our casting around submerged “islands” of river weeds where the bass appeared to be holding according to his boss.

Gorsuch, a retired electrical engineer, is one of the most sought-after guides on the Susquehanna River. His clients catch over 100 20” smallmouth every year. He knows the Suskey very well. His encyclopedic knowledge comes from an engineer’s mindset of solving problems, years of fishing the river and noting the minute, but critical clues of fish behavior and seasonal movements.

   By around 11:30 am, we had dialed in the pattern and were starting to stack some numbers and big fish. I had switched over to the swimbait after catching a few fish on the Chillee Willee and really focused on retrieving the paddletail across current seams near these sunken islands, and the fish rewarded me.

In quick succession I hooked and landed fish of 15, 16, 17, 18 and right at 19 inches. As I was reeling in my swimbait a fish bigger than all of them sharked my lure, nibbled the tail and darted back to the river bottom. I’ve caught big St. Lawrence River smallmouth, even had a six pounder come the boat. This was a big, dark river hawg, but it didn’t surface again.

Where we fished that day was never more than 4’ deep and many times I could look down as we motored and see the bottom in less than a foot. We saw few anglers (it was a Tuesday) and the day remained calm as the fog burned off and the sun created a 70+ degree afternoon.

We had a hard stop at 1 pm so we could get home for evening meetings in Virginia. I truly believe we would have caught 50 fish had we stayed a few more hours.

All told, we boated around 25 smallmouth up to 19 inches, enjoying the fall foliage and incredible mountain vistas as we fished.

Fishing the famed Susquehanna River has been on my bucket list for years. Catching a trophy class Susquehanna smallmouth was a bonus. I highly recommend you do this exact trip – stay at the Manor On Front, eat at Cork & Bottle, get subs for lunch at Mother’s Deli and fish with Reel River Adventures and check this bucket list box.

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