Dawn was just starting to sneak up on New York's Keuka Lake as I stood on the large dock at the Snug Harbor Inn, waiting for my fishing guide. I had just spent the night there, a three-tiered Victorian restaurant and inn built in 1890. Hoping to capture some fishing mojo, I had a wonderful salmon dinner the night prior on the balcony overlooking Keuka.
As my guide eased up to the dock, he asked if I had been waiting long.
Twenty-five years, I thought, because that's how long it had been since I last fished for bass in the state where I was born. But Eddie Marks was right on time, and I was excited to get started.
It was 55 degrees; chilly for July on the Finger Lakes in western New York. Snug Harbor, in Hammondsport, is at the bottom of Y-shaped Keuka Lake.
Eddie — well known and respected in the community — landed a fish quickly on a Smithwick Rattlin' Rogue. First a smallmouth, then a chain pickerel, then a smallmouth ... and then another.
I was getting anxious. While I appreciated Eddie putting us on fish, I wanted to share in the action. A variety of topwater baits and shallow running crankbaits failed me to that point.
But then I did something I should have done from the start. I took a deep breath. I waited a moment, and then I slowed down.
Fishing a Senko rigged wacky style, I started getting a few bites. Then, at 6:50, I stuck one of them. "Finally!" I said as I reeled in my catch, which looked nothing like any member of the black bass family.
"Looks like you got yourself a rock bass," Eddie confirmed. He was diplomatic, adding that if we were fishing for rock bass, we'd find largemouths and smallmouths, too.
Twenty minutes later, I landed my first smallmouth bass in a quarter century. Suddenly, I'm back to my childhood, and I recall the smallmouth's amazing pull. The Zebco push button outfit has been replaced by a Shimano Symetre, but there is a comfort in returning to my fishing roots. The smallmouth swims downward, sounding as it comes closer to the boat. After a minute or two, I lip it into the boat.
"I think a 1-pound smallmouth fights as hard as a 4-pound largemouth," I said. "At least that one did."
The fishing and morning air continued to heat up. The docks, shorelines and rock walls along the lower west side of Keuka delivered continuous action. At one point my rod tip jittered and my line moved sideways. I set the hook and watched the bass climb to the surface, breaching and shaking its head.
It was good to see my old friend the largemouth. These days I fish with my two daughters, searching for largemouth bass lurking under the lily pads in the lake of my central Florida neighborhood. Ironically, my girls are successful without the live bait their father required in years past. They're pretty good with a Texas rigged Junebug worm.
But on Keuka at that moment, Eddie was a little disappointed. He wanted me to feel the pull of a 3- or 4-pound smallmouth and offered to go to the north end of the lake — a gambit that might or might not produce. I wanted that big bite, now more than ever, but I was against changing spots. I've heard the pros say time and time again, "Don't leave fish to try to find fish."
I had what turned out to be my last bass of the morning just after 10 a.m. After switching baits for the next 90 minutes, the only thing left in the tacklebox was the white flag. I'm glad we didn't make the long run. We had quantity, just not a lot of size. After a handshake and well wishes, Eddie dropped me back off at the Snug Harbor dock so I could continue my local tour.
After the fishing
The region is anchored by the city of Corning, the namesake, of course, of Corning Inc. While most know its popular Correlle and Pyrex cookware, the company is also a leading manufacturer of LCD glass and fiber optics. For visitors, the Corning Museum of Glass includes interactive displays on the history, science, technology and the art of glass.
But in every community there are individuals who are defined by their art. In the city of Bath, up on a winding dirt road, Alan and Rosemary Bennett have taken their love of fishing, the sea and aquatic life and turned it — and their garage — into an eclectic clay production business.
Rosemary points out "her children," hundreds of different clay fishes in various stages of completion along the tables, each the length of her garage. Bright colors and intricate fin patterns jump off the fish, each individual creature having its own personality.
The Bennett's open their studio at night for a special demonstration. Using a Japanese technique called Raku, they pull a red-hot clay fish out of the kiln and smother it with sawdust. The result: An intense fire flashing lights up the night sky. The clay fish takes on a combined crackle pattern and glossy glaze of blacks and grays, still with its original vibrant color as its base.
Though the water and arts are major components to local tourism, the biggest draw is the vibrant and world-renowned wineries that dot the Finger Lakes landscape. Row after row of grapes line the steep, fertile hillsides of the wineries. One of the most popular is Bully Hill Vineyards.
Started by Walter S. Taylor in 1958, the winery pioneered the change from Native American grapes to French-American hybrids. Walter also included the ingredients on each bottle (an uncommon practice) and designed beautiful labels.
Outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy Bully Hill's American Riesling, not only because of its apple and nectarine flavors, but its label features a leaping largemouth bass. With shipping and distributors in many states, this is one New York-based bass you don't have to wait 25 years to catch.
For more information:
Steuben County Conference & Visitors Bureau
Toll free: 866-946-3386
Eddie Marks Fishing Guide
607-733-4664 or 607-868-4124