Legendary Fishing Guide is Driven off His River and into a Fight

Bob Clouser works intently under a bright light at his desk, using thread to carefully tie black eyeballs, chartreuse-dyed deer hair, and a golden tail to a hook gripped in a vice.

Bob Clouser, fly fishing guru, shows off his Clouser minnow fly in his workshop located in Middletown, Pennsylvania. Photo by Tom Pelton/CBF Staff
Bob Clouser, fly fishing guru, shows off his Clouser minnow fly in his workshop located in Middletown, Pennsylvania. Photo by Tom Pelton/CBF Staff

The 71-year-old is the Leonardo da Vinci of fishing flies. Inside the tiny shop attached to his home in Middletown, Pennsylvania, he completes his masterpiece. Clouser creates the famous Clouser minnow flies which are snapped up by anglers around the world.

A legendary fishing guide on the Susquehanna River, Clouser always dreamed of passing on his bustling business to his son, Bob Jr. But about five years ago, the father-and-son team abandoned their fishing guide work after a massive die-off of smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna River, the Chesapeake Bay's largest tributary.

The elder Clouser still sells thousands of flies over the Internet. But he said it is tragic that water pollution has forced him to leave the Susquehanna and his home state to enjoy fishing—which he now does mostly in Michigan, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Tennessee.

His tone grows wistful and occasionally angry as he describes the transformation of his beloved river and the decline of its bass populations over the last decade.

"When I was a kid, the water sparkled clear. There were layers and layers of blue damselflies across that river, dancing all day long," Clouser recalled, surrounded in his workshop by spools of colorful thread, B boxes of deer and fox tails, hooks, weights, and walls plastered with photos of grinning customers holding fish.

"Back then, you could look down in 10 feet of water and see all colors of rocks," Clouser said. "Today, it looks like an Army blanket down there, because the bottom is polluted with so much algae. There are hardly any damselflies. And the water has a still, dead look."

The cause of the decline in smallmouth bass is as murky as the Susquehanna River. Harry Campbell, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said that researchers have determined that bass are dying more often from infections with a naturally occurring bacteria called Columnarus. This might be happening because their immune systems have been weakened by excessive nutrient and chemical pollution, which cause low-oxgen levels and other problems in key locations in the river. "Folks like Bob and his fellow fishing guides are really the people on the front lines, sounding the alarms on water-quality issues like this," Campbell said. "They are like the Paul Reveres of the river. And it is our job to get to the bottom of their observations and then address them."

Researchers are also investigating what mixture of chemicals—from weed killers to prescription drugs that are flushed down toilets—might be disrupting the immune systems of bass on the Susquehanna River, as well as the Shenandoah, Potomac, and other regional rivers.

But Clouser, an outspoken clean-water advocate, has never been one to sit still and wait for others to solve a problem. Back in the 1980s, he and allies successfully pushed Pennsylvania to change the size limit on catching smallmouth bass, so they would be better protected.

These days, Clouser is writing to his Congressional representatives and urging them to pass a new federal law, the Chesapeake Clean Water Act. The bill would create new financial incentives for states to create strong pollutionreduction plans, and hold them accountable for meeting their goals.

"We need to get the Susquehanna River cleaned up and the Chesapeake Bay cleaned up," Clouser said. "Every one of my kids loved fishing. But today, I have no grandchildren who like to fish, because they are bored—they can catch no fish. They play computer games, because things outdoors don't interest them. And that's because of the pollution."

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