From the moment we reach the bank of the Susquehanna River, the memories begin to flow by like the mud-tinged green water.
Time blurs back to scenes of the 1950s.
In my mind, a burr-headed, 8-year-old boy and his father stand on twin rocks jutting into the Sandusky River in north-central Ohio and drop lines from bamboo poles. They haul in baby bullheads barely six inches long to the delight of the boy and the disappointment of the father hoping for a family fish fry that evening.
Then, the same boy is 10, wearing the same butch haircut and standing next to the same river learning to cast into deeper water from a favorite uncle. Just minutes into the lesson, the boy hooks what seems to be a monster fish only to have it spit the lure as the uncle yells incomprehensible commands.
There are no fish caught that day, and the boy thinks the uncle blames him and the lost fish for their bad luck.
Now, a half-century later, the boy locked within the gray-haired man still feels the excitement of the water moving and gurgling before him and his own son.
The trip actually comes a decade too late. My son, Samuel, already is preparing for his sophomore year at Franklin & Marshall College. There is no chance for the office-bound father to teach his wide-eyed little boy about the joy of nature and fishing.
Instead, we turn to Rod Bates.
Bates, who responds to the same thrill on the water, understands our mission.
Samuel and I smile self-consciously at the T-shirts Rod hands us amid introductions at the Fort Hunter launch site. The shirts bear the legend: "Koinonia Guide Service: Specializing in creating family memories on the Susquehanna River."
We want to share something special, a few hours together enjoying the water and practicing a skill passed down from father to son on this river since before John Harris set up his wilderness outpost just downstream.
Bates learned fishing from his own father and still enjoys taking fathers and sons, as well as mothers and daughters, out for a day of fishing.
He juggles his work in construction with a variety of programs sponsored by the Bass Pro Shops at the Harrisburg Mall. A member of Bass Pro Shops’ staff, Rod helps with seminars, promotions and community programs like Teen Anglers.
Between such responsibilities, he provides his guide service several times a week.
Bates’ catch-and-release style of fishing pleases me. This trip is not about catching dinner or mounting trophies. Rod explains Koinonia is a Greek word for fellowship. It is an apt title for our expedition.
Our guide introduces us to his new boat, a shallow-draft aluminum jet boat he had custom made by Tom Snyder of Millersburg and includes Plano Tackle Systems for stowing gear. The craft is perfect for the narrow channels and water usually less than its 3.9-foot average depth reported for this day.
Starting at 6 a.m., we zoom upriver for several miles to within sight of the bridge at Sherman’s Creek. Samuel later admits watching Bates zip his boat around rocks and obstacles at speeds of nearly 30 mph is as entertaining as the fishing.
Yet the view of wild birds and plant life related to the river takes a backseat to the electricity when Bates cuts his motor and points out carp leaping in a feeding frenzy.
Our guide provides all the gear we need — Bass Pro Shops 6/0 medium action rods and Pro Qualifier 1500 series reels using 8-pound test Silver Thread line and a series of lures. He even brought drinks, snacks and some delicious smoked salmon from his last Alaskan adventure.
In order to get lines in the water, Bates gives us a quick lesson and sets Samuel and me to the task of coaxing out the smallmouth bass we seek.
Bates shows the patience I wish my uncle would have possessed for novice fishermen. Now the teacher, Rod quietly corrects our poor technique. Strangers an hour earlier, we soon are trading stories about the river and kids heading off to college.
Usually, our guide quietly steps back and easily flips his lure out several dozen yards while allowing Samuel and me to enjoy our joint experience. We try in vain to match Bates’ distance on his casts and ability to keep a Booyah Buzz Bait or Xcalibur Zell Pop skimming along the surface on his retrieves.
Bates admits he expects us to lose a few lures to snags, and we do. More often, he trades rods with us and works the snag free while we continue to fish. Even when a new rod breaks when caught under a cleat in the excitement of netting a fish, he shrugs off the accident.
Within the first hour, Bates has attracted several strikes at his line and quickly hands off the rod to Samuel or me to reel in the fish.
Some fishermen don’t appreciate the shared catch, but we don’t mind at all. My son and I chatter happily about the conquest while our guide grabs a video camera to digitally capture our victories.
We work in water from less than eight inches to more than eight feet deep during the next six hours of drifting downstream with the current. While I take an occasional break, Samuel maintains a steady rhythm as he works off the stern.
Our only interruption is a 20-minute rescue mission as Bates tows a boat with a dead motor back to shore. It was interesting to watch the Good Samaritan wrestling with his desire to keep the attention of his trip on Samuel and me.
For our morning’s effort, we bring 16 fish into the boat for a picture or video before easing them back into the water. Most are smallmouth, although we also land a number of fall fish.
I earn two solid strikes at my Bass Pro Shops Micro Spin lure but manage to lose both fish short of the boat.
Samuel, who seems to have his best luck with a Cabin Creek Tube lure, snares three fish on his own and neatly brings each on board. That includes a crafty smallmouth that darts into some grass and momentarily has Samuel convinced he hit a snag.
The winner for the day is a heavy, 15-inch smallmouth bass hooked by Rod and landed by Samuel.
We manage to lose the fish overboard without a picture during the drama of the broken rod. However, we already have a photo of a 13½-inch smallmouth just to prove to family and friends that we are serious threats to the fish community.
Later, as we motor back to the launch point, I glance at Samuel. His eyes are closed, but there is a satisfied expression on his face.
Remembering how tired I was after several hours of fishing as a youngster, I recognize the same fatigue in my aging muscles today. It is a good feeling, a fatigue earned from the endeavor.
I find myself hoping my own father had taken a moment on our ride home 50 years ago to see the same expression on my face.
I know it was there.
©The PATRIOT 2006