Hudson River Smallmouth by Mark Usyk
I spent quite a bit of time fishing the Hudson River in various places throughout New York State while I worked on the road doing the cell tower gig. I’ve fished it where it’s nothing more than a small creek in the high peaks region near Mt. Marcy and the fish you find are the wild Adirondack Brook Trout that average around 6”. I had the opportunity many times, while working anywhere between Gore Mt. and Lake George to fish several sections where it’s a wide, rock strewn but still wadeable full size Adirondack river of crystal clear water holding Brown Trout and Smallmouth Bass, and below the Dam in Glens Falls where the river is no longer good for wading but holds much bigger fish and is a very dark, deeper, faster moving water. And finally I’ve fished it as it passes through the city of Albany, a huge, horribly polluted river. Bordered with signs warning you not to eat your catch, I caught mostly Cat Fish and had a huge Northern Pike brake an old spinning rod as it shot from beneath the dock I was fishing from and violently smash the Cat Fish on the end of my line. I can tell you that it did finally free the Cat Fish as I was pulling in the line hand over hand and had it next to the dock, and that the poor Cat Fish, bleeding and most likely returning to the bottom after I released it to die, knew what it felt like to get hit by a train…with teeth. I should add that I did look down on the river while working up on a couple towers down near NYC, but as diehard of a fisherman as I am, after seeing how disgusting the river was miles north in Albany, I just couldn’t bring myself to try and brave the city traffic to try and find some access to the mighty Hudson where I would find even worse polluted water and garbage littering the banks no matter where I went. I still question whether I should have just so I could say I had fished it nearly from it’s beginning to it’s end, but it’s not something I spend much time dwelling on. I’ve seen the better parts.
My most fond memory of the river took place in Glens Falls, about a mile below the dam. Myself and my co-worker, one of my on the road fishing partners Matt, decided one afternoon that we should drive south from the hotel instead of north to look for a fishing spot on the Hudson. The satellite map on my phone showed the dam down river, and I figured below that somewhere would be as good a place as any to try. Once we got there we found that we couldn’t get anywhere near the bottom of the dam, so we began to cruise the neighborhood south of it to try to find some access to the river. After asking a guy sitting out in front of his house if there was a place to get to it, he pointed to the shoulder of the road and told us park there, take the trail and follow it. It would bring us right to the river. It wasn’t the greatest neighborhood, but then again it wasn’t my truck either. We grabbed our fishing gear, locked up the company truck, and left it to a fate unknown as we trotted off through the woods.
At the river we found huge car sized boulders to stand on and a deep and dark current rushing past them that would most likely mean two things. Number one you would need something with a little weight to get it down to the fish in such a fast current, and number two, if you slipped and fell in you’d be clawing yourself up a bank a mile down river. No problem. We were here, this is what we had in front of us, and we were going to fish. Matt was cleaning up in a small piece of slack water just below the boulders we were fishing from, the Smallmouth Bass hammering his jigs cast from his spinning reel it seemed about every other cast. None of them were big, you know the eight to twelve inchers that couldn’t handle the strong currents out farther, but it was catching, all we really cared about on the road.
I wasn’t having any luck with the small black bunny leach streamer I was using. I saw a couple fish dart up at the streamer but nothing seemed to want to eat it, and I was having a difficult time making a cast out very far with all the trees right at our backs. I was only just starting to get decent at casting the fly rod, but if I didn’t have a clearing behind me, I couldn’t manage a whole lot of line out in front of me yet. I could tell Matt was feeling a little guilty for hauling in so many fish over the past half hour while I was looking the old skunk in the eye, because he kept asking me if I wanted to use some of his jigs. He seemed confused when I would turn him down, telling him I was good, no thanks. Catching or not, I was finally getting to the point where I was comfortable enough with a fly rod that I was starting to feel what I feel today when I cast… Content. Peace. Happy. Even when I wasn’t catching anything, even when I would get the occasional wind knot or hang up in a bush behind me, I wasn’t getting frustrated anymore. I guess you could say “I had arrived.”
Up river about three hundred yards it looked like the water was much slower on our side, and that I might actually be able to wade out a little bit and get away from the trees. We trudged through mud and ferns and found the spot to be pretty much what I had thought. I waded out about knee deep and felt satisfied that I had the room I needed, but after several casts I realized that out in the main current wasn’t where I wanted to hunt for fish anyhow. Downstream from me a good sixty feet in the calm water on our side was a downed tree. The first thing I did was change flies. I still don’t know why I clipped off the Black Bunny Leach and tied on a large Hellgrammite pattern but I did. Then I casted out about forty feet, then let it swing back in and once it was above the downed tree I began to feed more line down river.
I can still see it unfold in my head like it happened yesterday. About the time the fly was even with the tree and about ten feet out from it I stopped feeding line, let it sit there for a minute, and then started to strip it back up to me slowly. I had only stripped twice, the hellgrammite came to the top and made a small wake and as I stopped to get it back down deeper I saw another wake, this one from the tree. It shot out into the current and I knew it had the fly in it’s mouth before I ever felt it through the line and the 5wt rod. I just knew. In my mind I saw the fish, even though I didn’t know what kind it was yet, I saw it inhale the fly some sixty feet downstream and under the dark water.
The line went taught, I made my first strip set on a fish, the rod pointed straight at it like someone pointing a finger in challenge at an opponent, and the battle was on. I lifted the rod and as I tried to reel in line the drag slipped and the fish took it instead, heading straight out into the main current. I wasn’t smart enough to think fast yet about how I might horse the fish too much and have a break off of the light tippet, so we’ll chalk it up to luck that as I reared back on the rod the fish turned and came back to the slack water where we started the fight. This was the first fish for me on the fly rod that actually put up a fight, and I’m sure the smile on my face showed it. I’ll never forget the bend of the rod as I finally, five minutes later had the fish almost close enough to land, and looking up at the bend of the rod and then out at the fish just beyond my reach realizing why it was that fly fishermen carried nets. Figuring out how to stretch my rod arm up and back behind me and to reach out with my empty hand for the furious Smallmouth Bass must have looked quite comical to Matt. I also know that at that point, I realized that most likely as far as game fish went in our neck of the woods, the Smallmouth would become my favorite to battle in the years to come. Matt grabbed a couple great shots while it all unfolded and they are some of my favorite to this day. It wasn’t the biggest Smallmouth I ever caught, but it was my first real fight on a fly rod, something you never forget.