Juniata River Channel Cats on Buggers

Yesterday I decided to do some warm water fly fishing for smallmouth bass on the Juniata River. A majority of my smallmouth bass fishing experience on the Juniata has been in the parts of the river that flow from Newport, south to the Duncannon junction with the Susquehanna River. I wanted to explore some new water further north. I downloaded the Juniata River Water Trail Map that the PA Fish & Boat Commission released and found an access point at Mifflintown. On Google Maps it looked like there was some good structure in this part of the river so I figured I’d give wet wading a shot. I arrived at the Central Juniata Park around 3:00pm. This is a great access point right off of Rt. 35 on the western side of the river. When I arrived I rigged up my 9’-7wt Winston Nexus that I use for bass fishing. When fishing for smallmouth in rivers I use a sinking line with a 9’-3X leader straight to the fly. While I have experimented with numerous flies for bass, my number one producing fly is the Woolly Bugger (“bugger”). Black buggers are the perfect color for imitating hellgrammites, leeches, and even crayfish; however, I regularly catch bass on olive, yellow, and brown as well. After I was set-up I headed down to the river.

When I got to the water, I was greeted by a parade of kayaks. This sport has exploded over the past 20 years. In the early ‘90s when I’d wade fish the Juniata, I’d rarely see kayakers. Now on a sunny summer day, they come out in droves. Many kayakers are out there like me, trying to catch fish and enjoy the outdoors, but there are always a few that ruin the reputation for the rest. I’ve had kayakers float right over pods of rising fish 20 feet in front of me, I’ve had them anchor adjacent to me and cast towards me, I’ve had them almost hit me, and I’ve had them be respectful and go behind me on my non-casting side. All I will say to those who kayak is this, read up on stream etiquette and try and respect the fishermen you encounter on the river. Everyone has a right to be on the water but no one has a right to be disrespectful. That goes for fly fishermen too. Be sure to thank the kayaker who takes the time to properly go around you.

I headed out into the first riffle and started stripping my bugger. I quickly hooked up with a 10” smallmouth. Then I heard noises coming from down river. Two kayakers came paddling upriver. Based on the chorus of “F” bombs and shouting, it sounded like an older and younger brother. The younger brother was having a hard time paddling up through the rapids and when he got in front of me, he lost control and flipped his kayak in the fast water. His kayak quickly started filling with water. His paddle floated down river, his tackle box and rod fell into the river and sunk to the bottom. He was screaming at his brother to help him and it was to no avail. There wasn’t much I could do from where I was standing, but he appeared to be out of danger in the shallow summer river. I couldn’t help but wonder if this kid had ever once ridden a kayak prior to that day. All the commotion in the riffle above and below me shook up the fishing and I decided I needed to find an area where the water traffic was less.

I looked at the water trail map again and found a section downriver that looked like it might make for a take out point for people putting in at Mifflintown. I figured if I found the take out point and walked south, I’d deal with less kayak traffic. I drove to this next access point and when I arrived, I hopped into the river and began wading. The Juniata was very wide and shallow in this section. There was also a lot of green vegetation on the river bottom. On Google Maps I’d see an island downriver and I decided to head there. Once I arrived I was disappointed to see that on the left side of the island the water was very low. I saw very few fish as I moved through the vegetation on the bottom. I walked the left side of the island and figured maybe the other side might hold a deeper channel. When I got around to the other side, the water was deeper, but there was little to no structure for bass. I figured this part of the river was not a smallmouth haven as I’d hoped.

 One of the big channel catfish I caught on a Woolly Bugger.

One of the big channel catfish I caught on a Woolly Bugger.

I started walking along the far side of the island under the overhanging trees, and noticed a lot of large sunken tires. They appeared to be old car tires, perhaps left over from an old farm junk yard as there are many farms that line the Juniata. Some tires were almost entirely buried in the gravel and others sat on top.  While wading past one of these tires, something caught my eye. It was a fish’s pectoral fin. I looked closer and realized there was a huge catfish inside this tire. I waded up to another tire five feet way and there was another fin and another big catfish. Had I stumbled onto a daytime hiding spot for big Juniata catties? I remembered reading that sometimes channel catfish will spawn in old tires, but upon closer inspection, I didn’t see any eggs or fish fry. There were just big catfish hiding in the rim of these tires. I decided I’d see what would happen if I dropped my Woolly Bugger in one of these tires and twitched it. I had on a black #8 Woolly Bugger with crystal flash tied in. I dropped my line into the first tire opening and twitched my fly. I couldn’t believe it but the big head of a channel cat came out from the tire rim and inhaled my bugger. I lifted my rod and as soon as I felt tension, this big catfish shot out of that tire like a cannonball. I fought this fish for a few minutes until I was able to get him into shallow water to remove the bugger and snap a picture. After landing the first fish, I went back to the second tire and tried the same thing with the same result .The catfish aggressively took my bugger and again shot out of the tire. I fought and landed this fish as well.

 One ugly fish, but they make for a great fight on a fly rod.

One ugly fish, but they make for a great fight on a fly rod.

I walked further up the island and found more tires. I found another large cat and tried the bugger trick and it again struck my fly and took me for a ride downriver. This whole experience was kind of crazy. I’d never caught a catfish on a Woolly Bugger before (actually have caught them on dry flies during the white fly hatch) and the entire experience turned a bad day of smallmouth fishing into a great day of fishing.