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Z-Man goes to the Susquehanna River

Z-Man goes to the Susquehanna River

Daniel Nussbaum of Ladson, South Carolina, is the president of Z-Man Fishing Products, and he has been a member of the Finesse News Network since 2011.

On Oct 1, 2013, we published a Midwest finesse column that Nussbaum wrote about his maiden outings on Aug. 26, 27, and 28, 2013, at the Lake of the Woods, Ontario, Canada. He fished with Drew Reese of Rantoul, Kansas, and several of Reese's friends. Reese resides on the shores of the Lake of the Woods from the middle of May to the middle of September. Reese is one of the pioneers of Midwest finesse fishing, a Finesse News Network member, and occasional contributor to Midwest Finesse columns. The title of this column is "Z-Man Goes to Canada."

Then on Sept. 5, 2016, we published a column that Nussbaum wrote about his return to the Lake of the Woods on Aug. 26, 27, and 28, 2016. The title of that column is "Z-Man Goes to Canada Again."

After the International Convention of Allied Sportfishing Trades show on July 11-14, 2017, at Orlando, Florida, Nussbaum went smallmouth bass fishing in Pennsylvania, and he wrote a report about it.

And here is an edited version of his report:

Immediately following the ICAST show in July, I experienced for the first time in my life the incredible smallmouth bass fishery that is the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Joining me on the trip were Gareth Williams, Declan Williams and Justin Willmer. This threesome is from Brisbane, Australia. Gareth is the owner of TT Lures, and Declan is his son. Justin works for TT Lures, which is Z-Man's distributor in Australia and the leading jighead manufacturer in that part of the world. Each year around ICAST, they join me for a few days of fishing and strategizing about growing our business together. After saltwater fishing in Louisiana the last two summers, I opted to introduce them to smallmouth bass this time around.

We enlisted the help of Joe Raymond of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and proprietor of Susquehanna Smallmouth Guides to show us what the area had to offer. Joe joined the Z-Man pro staff a couple of years ago, and he uses our ElaZtech plastic baits and ChatterBait bladed jigs virtually every day from spring through fall. Joe and the other guides he works with all run aluminum boats powered by either inboard or outboard jet-drive engines, which allows them to traverse the shallow, rocky waters of the Susquehanna River and Juniata River. We arranged to fish out of two of their boats.

While Joe employs a variety of baits and techniques, Midwest finesse tactics are playing an increasingly important role in his fishing, particularly when the water is shallow and clear and the smallmouth bass can be finicky. In the last year or so, he has essentially substituted Z-Man's Finesse TRD and Finesse ShroomZ jig for the small tube baits that are a Susquehanna River staple. One of our goals on this trip was to put our new NedlockZ HD jigheads, which are being manufactured at TT Lures' factory in Fiji, through their paces. And, selfishly, I also wanted to show the Australians how effective Midwest finesse techniques can be in hopes that they could find some applications for our ElaZtech finesse baits in their market. While they have done an outstanding job of establishing Z-Man as the top soft-plastic brand in Australia, they currently do not stock any of our finesse baits, and that is because finesse fishing simply is not as popular there.

Upon arriving in Harrisburg, we learned that the river was running higher than it normally does during the summer months, and it was predicted to rise considerably during our two days of pursuing smallmouth bass. High-river levels often result in muddy water that can make fishing tough, but we were also told that smallmouth bass can feed voraciously when the water is rising. So, we were not sure exactly what to expect. But things started to look up for us when Justin and Declan caught seven smallmouth bass from the bank the evening before our first fishing day.

On day one, Joe took Gareth and me well upstream from Harrisburg, and we began working along shallow-water edges of grassy islands with ChatterBaits, swimbaits, and topwater plugs. Joe opined that the rising water would have the bass pushed up into the grass, and while we quickly caught a few smallmouth bass, we soon shifted our attention away from the grass and towards the moving water in the middle of the river after we saw several smallmouth bass foraging on baitfish. Because of the high water, we could not see many of the rocks and boulders that are strewn upon the bed of the river, but we found smallmouth bass tucked in the riffles and current seams behind these rocks -- as well as chasing baitfish in open water.

Between the muddy water and spread out fish, we stuck with power-fishing tactics for most of the day. The most productive bait was a four-inch DieZel MinnowZ in the darker Green Pumpkin or Purple Demon colors pinned to a 1/6-ounce HeadlockZ HD jighead with a 4/0 hook. When slowly bounced across the gravel bottom, Joe thinks that this combination, along with a dark-color scheme, mimics the crayfish that are prime forage for river bass. In addition, I caught a number of smallmouth bass on a ¼-ounce Original ChatterBait with a three-inch MinnowZ trailer in slightly deeper and muddier sections of the river. Gareth alternated between the swimbait/jighead combo and a small TT Lures spinnerbait with equal success.

In hindsight, finesse techniques probably would have worked equally well, though honestly, we were having too much fun catching smallmouth bass after smallmouth bass to switch baits very much. As we worked our way upriver, we caught fish at each stop -- mostly smaller fish, but a few in the 17- to 19-inch range. Even though Susquehanna smallmouth bass are not huge, they are certainly strong and energetic enough to provide a challenging fight in the swiftly moving water. (Joe said that river currents average around 3.5 mph).


Towards the end of the day, I pulled the new TRD HogZ and NedlockZ out of my bag to show them to Joe, who was extremely impressed and wanted to put them to the test immediately. He ran us back downriver towards our launch point and positioned the boat adjacent to small pools below faster runs and small rapids. We immediately connected with multiple fish on the TRD HogZ, leaving no doubt in our minds that it would be an effective tool for river fishing.

The back and belly of a Susquehanna River crayfish compared to the color of the back and belly of a Z-Man's Drew's craw TRD HogZ

Back at the ramp, we met up with Justin, Declan, and their guide and learned that they also experienced excellent action, and they primarily used swimbaits and spinnerbaits. They kept track of their catch by using a counter, and it indicated that they caught 119 smallmouth bass. Gareth and I did not keep track, but I am certain that we caught close to 150 smallmouth bass. To say that we were impressed with the fishing on the Susquehanna would be a huge understatement.

On day two, Joe, Gareth, and I fished further downriver towards Harrisburg and found the conditions to be quite different. The water had risen considerably overnight; most of the river boulders were now submerged, and the water was even further into the grass and even flowing around the trees on some islands. Curious about how many smallmouth bass we had caught the previous day, I started off counting the number of smallmouth bass we were catching. After the first half-hour, I reported to Joe and Gareth that we had already caught 19 smallmouth bass, which surprised them. As the catching continued, though, I quickly lost track of our fish count.

Based on our success the first day, we started off alternating between the same moving baits we had used the day before. We primarily targeted shorelines of large mid-river islands, and the most fruitful locales were in the still-water areas adjacent to rips and current seams formed when the brisk river water pushed into the front sides of the islands. We bounced around from one spot to the next in search of big smallmouth bass, but aside from one big smallmouth bass that ate a spinnerbait and quickly spit the hook on a jump, we just found more and more small specimens at each stop.

As we fished, I picked Joe's brain about his favorite baits on the Susquehanna River, and I asked him for suggestions to enhance Z-Man's product line. At one point, I asked him what he thought about our TRD TubeZ, and he mentioned that he had seen them, but he did not have plans to use them. He said that while he liked the size of the bait, he preferred to rig his tubes with an internal jig rather than an external one that we use on the TRD TubeZ, and he also noted that everyone in the area fishes with tubes, and he likes to do things differently from everyone else.

A few minutes later when we were motoring to a new spot, a pack of TRD TubeZs happened to drop out of my bag, and I decided to rig one on a 1/10 ounce NedlockZ jighead. As soon as Joe put the trolling motor down, I hooked up immediately with a nice smallmouth bass on the TRD TubeZ. After releasing that fish, the next cast produced a 20-inch smallmouth bass -- the largest of the trip. And after I tangled with a few more smallmouth bass during the next few minutes, I connected with a 19-inch smallmouth bass, but throughout this fury with the TRD TubeZ, Gareth and Joe came up empty on spinnerbaits and swimbaits. Ultimately, they switched over to finesse baits (Finesse TRD and TRD HogZ), but did not start consistently catching the smallmouth bass until they switched to the TRD TubeZ. We had cracked the code and ended up catching about 30 more smallmouth bass in that spot on the TRD TubeZ, and as the day wore on, we caught scores more on it. Gareth and I ended up catching even more fish than we had the day before thanks to the switch to finesse baits. Needless to say, I think Joe will start mixing the TRD TubeZ into his repertoire.

At the end of the day, we once again learned that Justin and Declan had a similar experience to ours, with finesse ruling the day on their boat, too. After a slow bite in the morning on swimbaits and spinnerbaits, they switched to Finesse TRD on heavier 1/5 ounce NedlockZ jigheads and hit pay dirt While Gareth and I let the current sweep our finesse baits through deeper pockets and dragged them slowly along the bottom, Declan and Justin found success in the main-river current aggressively bouncing the heavier heads off the bottom.

In addition to the effectiveness of the TRD HogZ and TRD TubeZ, we discovered the effectiveness of the NedlockZ jigheads for this style fishing. After being schooled on Midwest finesse fishing from anglers like Drew Reese of Rantoul, Kansas, and Clyde Holscher of Topeka, Kansas, who fish primarily lakes and reservoirs, I have always been a huge proponent of the light wire hooks found on our Finesse ShroomZ jigheads. I am still a firm believer that the lighter hooks enhance the action of small ElaZtech baits, and when matched with appropriate tackle and drag settings, these small hooks are certainly capable of catching large fish.

However, the swift current of the Susquehanna presents a challenge when using light wire hooks and tangling with strong smallmouth bass, which often swims downstream from the boat when hooked. For instance, if we tangle with a big smallmouth bass, it would not be feasible to turn and fight the fish towards the boat with light tackle and drag settings. The small, but heavy duty, hooks on the NedlockZ made it possible to horse the fish back upstream to the boat with a tighter drag. I can also see these jigheads paying dividends for anglers who fish around docks, laydowns, and other structure that would require heavier tackle.

We consevatively estimated that we caught more than 500 smallmouth bass in two days. While that is incredible fishing by anyone's standards, catch rates like these are out of the ordinary on the Susquehanna.

To say that we were extremely impressed with the Susquehanna River fishery would be a huge understatement. It seems to be a perfect example of how proper management can allow a fishery to blossom. Unlike most other rivers and lakes, the portion of the Susquehanna that we fished is catch-and-release-only. Moreover, 98 miles of the Susquehanna River, from Sunbury downstream to the Holtwood Dam, and 31.7 miles of the Juniata River, from Port Royal downstream to the mouth, are closed to largemouth bass and smallmouth bass fishing from May 1 through June 16.

In essence, it is a vast river that is graced with prime habitat and forage. One of our hosts light-heartedly talked about its vastness by saying it is "a mile wide and a foot deep," which is not too far from the truth. And we witnessed a significant amount of fishing pressure from other boaters and kayakers, but the smallmouth bass population appears to be very healthy.

Regardless of your preferred style of fishing, the Susquehanna River is certainly a place anyone passionate about smallmouth bass fishing should experience.


(1) Here is the link to Nussbaum's 2013 "Z-Man Goes to Canada" column:

(2) Here is the link to Nussbaum's 2016 "Z-Man Goes to Canada Again column:

(3) Here is a link to Joe Raymond's guide service:

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