Seven years ago, Joppa resident Norman Bartlett began his quest to break the International Game Fish Association's world record for smallmouth bass.
Bartlett, 57, achieved his goal two years ago while fly fishing the Susquehanna River rapids near Deer Creek.
The fish, a hefty, 3-pound, 7-ounce bronzeback, was caught on 2-pound-test monofilament leader, breaking the existing fly rod record by a substantial margin.
In addition to his record-breaking smallmouth bass, Bartlett also holds world records for striped bass and weakfish caught on a fly rod. To catch his record smallmouth, Bartlett used a fishing technique that has only recently become popular with some Harford anglers. It's called "belly boating."
What's a belly boat? Essentially it consists of a truck-sized inner tube fitted with a canvas cover. A seat and several small storage compartments are rigged under the cover.
Bartlett says his belly boat allows him to safely navigate the Susquehanna's shallow rapids during periods of low water, when it is virtually impossible to negotiate them in a small boat.
Bartlett has built three sizes of belly boats.
One is made of heavy-duty canvas, a 25-inch inner-tube, and heavy stitching. It's built to last a long time.
"I can fish those isolated pockets and pools that boaters avoid like the plague. That's where you'll find some of the largest bass. You might only find one or two fish in each pool. Then you'll have to move to the next one. With the belly boat, I can make a quiet approach and get within casting range without spooking the fish.
"If you were fishing from an aluminum boat, the noise of the boat scraping over the rocks would spook fish for 500 yards in every direction," said Bartlett.
The angler says belly boats are available through mail order from many fishing catalogs. Local tackle shops can special order them from regional suppliers. Prices range from $80 to $150 depending on durability and optional extras, such as back rests and additional emergency tubes.
Bartlett spends most of his free time fishing for smallmouths and white perch in the Susquehanna River, concentrating on the four-mile stretch between Conowingo Dam and Rock Run.
"I'll never forget the day I caught a mess of big white perch upriver from Deer Creek. I forgot to bring a stringer and put the fish in one of the compartments," said Bartlett.
"Never put white perch in a tube compartment. Those dorsal fins are just like razors, and it didn't take long for them to puncture the tube. You really get a weird feeling when you hear the air hissing from the tube and you're in the middle of the river."
Bartlett also fishes the upper reaches of the Bush River, where he catches tidewater largemouths in remote areas inaccessible to boats. He says the tidal marsh near the mouth of Winters Run is easily fished with the aid of his belly boat. In areas where depths make wading impractical, he moves the tube around with swim fins. This allows him to quietly approach remote pockets that often hold larger fish.
"I caught a 4-pound bass on a popping bug within sight of U.S. 40. It was in a place no larger than my kitchen, and it was right in the middle of a big patch of cattails," he said.
Bartlett usually begins his belly-boating season in early June.
"When the temperature is comfortable, about 70 to 75 degrees, smallmouth bass fishing is usually pretty good," said Bartlett.
"But, if you're going to fish the river, don't do it alone and always wear a life jacket. You have to be extremely careful when you're getting into the tube's seat in the shallows. If you slip and your feet are barely through the seat openings, it's like falling on your face and having your legs held up in the air. That life jacket will prevent you from drowning," Bartlett says.
It's also a good idea to avoid fast water chutes and heavy rapids, he advises. Anyway, these are not productive fishing locations and can be dangerous.
Bartlett recommends belly boating on weekends, when water flow at Conowingo Dam is usually at minimum levels.
He enters the river at the launch ramp situated at the end of Shures Landing Road, and then drifts downriver to Rock Run. The four-mile trip usually takes about five hours, depending on his fishing success.
"When fishing is good, the trip always takes an hour longer," he said.