I first met Dennis McIlnay in 2002, shortly after his book, "Juniata, River of Sorrows" was published. He had sent me an advance copy of the text, and after reading a chapter or two, I became an instant fan. I called him later that same day to order an autographed copy of the finished book as soon as it came off the press.
"Juniata, River of Sorrows" chronicles McIlnay's journey during the summer of 2001 as he fished the entire 100 miles of the Juniata River from Huntingdon to its junction with the Susquehanna at Duncannon. The author made the trip over 15 separate days that summer from mid-June until early September, devoting a chapter in the book to each leg of the trek.
Between each chapter about the fishing, however, McIlnay includes a chapter about the early history of the Juniata Valley. McIlnay's well-researched accounts of the people and events that occurred along the river are a fascinating look at life there in the 1600s and 1700s. All too often, encounters between those early settlers and the Indians tended to be bloody affairs for both sides.
But one of the things I found most appealing about the book was McIlnay's insightful attention to detail, whether he was describing an historical event or just a pleasant afternoon casting for bass with a friend. One of my favorite such examples is: "At the junction of the Aughwick [Creek] and the Juniata stands the biggest sycamore tree I have ever seen, as big around as a car." That magnificent tree has been on of my favorite Juniata landmarks since my first visit to the river as a child. When I read McIlnay's appreciation for it, I knew I had found a kindred spirit.
Because of our mutual love for the Juniata River and the smallmouth fishing there, Dennis and I had often promised each other we would spend a day on the river fishing together. But eight summers had come and gone without our fulfilling that promise until we finally made it happen a couple of weeks ago.
We opted to fish a stretch of river I had never fished before, between Lewistown and McVeytown. Launching his boat at the newly refurbished Granville access, our strategy was to motor upriver about two miles and then fish our way back to the ramp, which we figured would take the better part of the day.
It was a pleasant summer morning for a boat ride as we rode up the river. I perched myself on the bow and scanned the river for any clues that might help with the fishing later on. The first thing I noticed was how dense the weed growth was in most places compared to where I usually fish much further upstream. I hoped the several types of soft-plastic lures I had rigged and ready would be able to coax some bass out of their hiding places in that lush vegetation.
My fishing partner had a different strategy in mind. He used a topwater lure to tease the bass to the surface. His favorite lure for that purpose is the venerable Tiny Torpedo and his own handmade versions of that popular surface bait.
Finally, we reached a shallow rock ledge, which was as far as we intended to go upriver. I dropped a soft-plastic stickbait in a run below the ledge and caught a small bass on my first cast. Some anglers consider it a bad omen to catch a fish on the first cast of the day. I'm not one of them.
We continued downriver a short distance at a time, then anchoring fish any likely looking spots. I managed to tempt a few more bass at the edges of the weed lines while Dennis had only a couple of fish swirl at his topwater lure without taking it. I offered him some of the baits that had been working for me, but he declined.
Topwater fans are like that. They would rather catch one fish on the surface than 10 fish any other way. I'm not one of those folks either. I'll take substance over style any day. But this day was not a fishing contest by any means. Just two friends enjoying a beautiful day on a beautiful river.
A sort time later, a fat 14-inch smallmouth inhaled his topwater, followed two more bass in short order. After that I knew there was no chance he would fish anything else but his surface bait, and we both caught bass steadily the rest of the afternoon.
Just before the end of our trip, we started talking shop, and I learned Dennis has written another book that is due to be released in September titled the "Wreck of the Red Arrow," which is the story of the infamous train wreck that occurred in 1947. I'm sure many of the railroad and history buffs in our area will be interested in reading this one. You can find more information on that and McIlnay's Juniata book at www.SevenOaksPress.com.