I was with Juan Veruete and Jeff Little, veteran fishing guides. We were an hour north of Baltimore, near Harrisburg, on the nearly mile wide-river that is the biggest source of fresh water in the Chesapeake Bay.
The temperature of the air and water was in the 30’s –- cold enough to kill a kayaker who fell in 10 days earlier.
Out on the rocky river, the stars faded as the sky brightened to red in the east. Winds whipped up small waves, which reflected the light as the sun rose over leafless trees.
For nearly 10 hours, we paddled, exposed, in the biting wind, atop flat plastic floats the size of surfboards. To protect ourselves from hypothermia, we wore waterproof dry suits and layers of fleece.
We cast our rods with our right hands, as we maneuvered with our left in a tricky game of fighting to stay pointed into the wind. At one point, my feet turning numb, I asked Juan why he fishes in such conditions. He said he’s been fishing since he was five years old –- and can’t keep himself off the river, even in winter.
“It’s almost like a drug, it’s like an adrenaline junky kind of thing, you know? Except that this is good for you,” Juan said, laughing. “You come out, you get on the river, throw some baits, and you catch some huge smallmouth bass. It’s a lot of fun.”
Recently, however, fishing for smallmouth bass has become much harder on the Susquehanna –- for everyone, year round. Catch rates of smallmouth bass have fallen by 80 percent over the last 20 years as a mysterious disease has killed off many young fish, according to scientists with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. A commission briefing to the state legislature suggests a possible link to phosphorus fertilizers or other pollutants, which could be creating low-oxygen conditions that stress young fish and impair their immune systems, making them more susceptible to bacteria that occur naturally in the water and soil. In truth, however, the cause of the infections remains far from certain.