My Susquehanna Kayak Fishing Safari

Adventure is 460 river miles and a 44-inch musky

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By Mauricio Martinez

There are certain parts of every story that are selectively edited or skirted around, told in half-truths. They are usually those pieces that girlfriends, wives and mothers would rather not hear. I remember learning this lesson well several years ago as my father and I snuck back into the house soaking wet and cold after flipping our canoe on a cold evening in late November. As we opened the door and tiptoed up the steps my father looked at me and said “Your mom doesn’t have to know.” There are other half-truths we tell as well to justify our nasty fishing addictions. “That new bass setup was on sale.” The truth is, everything in the shop was on sale; I didn’t lie. “They cut me a break on my new kayak because I paid cash.” Or my most recent, “I’ll be saving money by taking two weeks camping, roughing it.”

Recently, a good friend and I undertook kayaking 460 miles together–the entire Susquehanna River, from its headwaters in Cooperstown, New York to Havre De Grace at the top of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. Before setting off on this trip, I quickly scrawled down a note:

“Adventure has been defined in many ways. Looking forward to the task I have charged myself with, I say that adventure is what is happening when a journey forces answers to questions you never asked. Perhaps I am naive in this; adventure has also been described as everything going wrong—I hope things don’t go wrong.”

I knew we were doomed right from the beginning. An hour into our drive we blew a tire; the entire inside sidewall was just gone. As I pulled my jeep to the side of the highway it lurched back and forth and I was forced to laugh. The first four lug nuts came off easy. The last one was stripped. A call to AAA and two hours later we were on the road again, limping along at 50 mph on a donut. It rained almost every day and nothing stayed dry. By the end of the two weeks our sleeping bags had fermented into a special kind of vintage. Boats were flipped going through rough water, and if it wasn’t tied down it didn’t swim. A word to the wise–keep your sinkers in their own case, they sink. High winds and thunderstorms threatened to smite us, and on one occasion lightning struck the ground close enough to momentarily deafen us and make our hair stand on end.

“Your traveling companion has contracted dysentery” became more than just an iconic line from the old Oregon Trail game. The adventure was in limbo and we were almost forced to quit early when my traveling companion came down with a high fever and close to uncontrollable diarrhea. Fortunately, we were close enough to a town that I could get him medicine, water and Gatorade. After resting for a full day his condition had improved to the point that we felt we could cautiously proceed. For some reason the last action film I watched forgot to mention the joy of hives, rashes, bee stings, poison ivy and that fun itch that can only be developed from wearing wet shorts for 13 days.

Another word to the wise: Even if the end is in sight don’t get lazy. It was 3:30 in the morning on our last night when I woke up with a sinking feeling in my stomach. My premonition forced me out of my warm sleeping bag and into the pouring rain and inky night. I turned on my headlamp and looked down to where our boats were pulled up on shore. The water level had risen close to a foot and our boats were gone. I waded waist deep into the water and looked back and forth. There they were, about 15 yards out and 20 yards downshore. My baby bobbed up in down in the waves, scared and alone with no captain. I quickly put on my life jacket and swam out to my companion’s Old Town and pushed it to shore and then continued after my Big Game II. It was only after I retrieved and secured the boats that I realized how lucky we were. It is one thing to be up a creek without a paddle; it’s an entirely different thing to be up the creek with just your paddle.

A small percentage of people understand the compulsion to seek out fish in every riffle and hole of viable water. We addicts, some of us, are driven to pursue aquatic life for an adrenalin kick out of any water, viable or not. If you are considering undertaking an epic journey of any significant size, consider your company and their motivations carefully. My friend loves touring; he doesn’t fish and has little interest in it. I felt like a kid in a candy store, being dragged through 460 miles of tempting treats by an impatient mother.

Despite this, as an outdoorsman, it is near impossible not to appreciate the inspiring views along the way, miles of rolling mountains and worn cliff faces. The river even boasts an interesting look into our country’s past. There is a site referred to as The Petroglyphs, a boulder in the middle of the river that is marked by the Native Americans who once lived in the region. The Petroglyphs sit in the looming shadow of Holtwood Dam. After having paddled 400 miles, this holy place served as a powerful reminder of the responsibilities that we as outdoorsman have to protect our nation’s natural resources.

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I became a pro at the rapid cast and quick troll that was necessary to keep up with my companion’s rapid pace as we averaged a little over 36 miles daily. In his defense there was a timeline. The unfortunate reality of a timeline is this; at times “one more cast” was actually one more. More devastating still, sometimes there wasn’t a “one more cast” to be had. Regardless, in the rich water of the Susquehanna River it is hard to fail.  The entire river is loaded with big smallmouth bass, walleye and trophy musky.

Few things are more energizing at the end of a hard day on the water than hooking and landing a big musky in a small boat. By this point we had paddled just under 200 miles and had self-portaged seven dams. It had been raining off and on steadily for the past two days, the river was rising, and I knew big predators would be pushed into small slack water to escape the current and feed. I was working a silver 5-inch Rapala Jointed Minnow on 8-pound test when the line went tight. As I set the hook I watched the water explode in front of me as the big predator broke the surface of the water for the first time. I was happy to be in my kayak as she made several strong runs, pulling me and my Big Game II through the water. It always seems that if you have two rods rigged up, you’re going to get that big strike on light line. With my rod bent and drag screaming, there wasn’t time to consider losing this fish. After 20 minutes of an intense, heart-pounding fight, I was looking at a mouthful of teeth and 42 inches of muscle. I carefully scooped her into my lap, we snapped a few photos, and I carefully revived her.

As I rocked the fish back and forth I looked back at the setting sun and then downriver into the next day’s adventure, I couldn’t help but think, “This is how it is supposed to be.”

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