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A catfish to remember: A day in the life of the Susquehanna's Catfish Queen

Written by Gordon Rago, York Daily Record | Jul 21, 2015 6:00 PM
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Photo by Kate Penn, York Daily Record / Sunday News

Captain Jaime Hughes of Mechanicsburg drives to a favorite fishing spot on Mad Catter, her charter boat, on the Susquehanna River in Marietta Wednesday, June 24, 2015. Hughes, of Mechanicsburg, runs and owns Breakline Charters which specializes in catfishing on the Susquehanna River.

(Marietta) -- Using a small net, Jaime Hughes pulls a jittery, flopping Bluegill from a small tank in the back of her 24-foot boat, the "Mad Catter."

She flops the bait fish onto a cutting board, grabs a knife and cuts the fish in half as if it were tomato.

"Sometimes they like them alive," Hughes says. "Sometimes they like them freshly dead."

The 'they' she is referring to are the catfish, the life (and sometimes blood) of her charter company Breakline Charters, LLC.

In a quick maneuver, the captain, known by most as the "Catfish Queen," sticks a hook through the eyeball of the halved Bluegill, grabs the rod and casts.

The boat sat anchored in the middle of the Susquehanna River, about 30 miles downstream from Harrisburg. It was a little after 8 p.m., the end of a particularly cool day with little humidity. As the sun sank behind the hills, a calm spread over the still water.

After all, catfishing, like other types of fishing, can be relaxing. Once the bait is cast, rods are placed in their holders and it becomes a waiting game. I was reminded of childhood days with my grandfather who owned a Mako motorboat, and we'd go out in the summers trolling for bass on the Atlantic Ocean. Or, float trips down streams with my father, an avid fly fisherman who has passed down his knowledge of angling for trout.

So in between setting up rods on the Susquehanna River and cutting bait, I had some time to find out a little bit about the Catfish Queen.

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Photo by Kate Penn, York Daily Record / Sunday News

Fishin' since a little girl

At age 7, Hughes took to catfishing.

Her father, Eric, and grandfather, Jack, got her hooked -- she recalls fishing at the York Haven Power Plant, and having to walk a catwalk in a fenced-off area near the Susquehanna.

"It was terrifying," Hughes, now 35, recalled of walking the small bridge often as late as midnight.

Her father, she said, gets out on the water with her sometimes. But most of his ties to the water nowadays are with an underwater salvage job, using an aquatic machine to find lost objects. He even assisted rescue crews find the body of a teenager who went missing last year on the river.

When she was younger, Hughes said there were only channel cats in the Susquehanna. That changed when flatheads arrived in the 1990s, she said.

Today, about five years after she started her charter business, Hughes says she's out to make sure her customers stay happy. She ensures the fish will be biting.

To help her, Hughes has plenty of equipment.

Showing me her high-tech fish finders and GPS systems, Hughes said most of her work before a trip on the river entails marking on her GPS where underwater structures are. She even marks down digitally where trophy catfish were caught, labeling the spots with nicknames of the fisherman, "Pickel," "Ox," and "Coppertone" among them.

Even before the season starts, Hughes is out on the Susquehanna in May, trolling up and down seeing where new logs and other structures have landed. She's also keeping an eye out for changes in depths.

Because that's where the catfish like to be.

"It's exciting for me watching people catch a fish," Hughes said.

A river business

When your livelihood is on the water, getting to know the other fishermen comes with the job.

There is a river community on the Susquehanna -- Hughes said she will always help stranded boaters or learn about new techniques.

Back in 2009, she ran a free bank fishing club on the Susquehanna. Known as catfish Fridays, Hughes would set up lawn chairs on a bank and provide anglers with rods and bait.

Those days are a far cry from her business today.

The budding business is gaining popularity mostly through booking clients on its website and sharing photos on its social media sites.

When a fire at a chemical plant in Adams County threatened to bring contaminants to the Susquehanna, Hughes said she had clients calling wondering if they could still fish. She said she's seen no effects from the fire and said the fish could still be eaten. But she said the river is in poor health -- oftentimes sores can be seen on fish she catches, she said. A lot of that, though, is out of her control.

She did say her customers have pulled out more healthy fish this year compared to last year.

In the end, it comes down to doing her homework and keeping the fish nipping at the hooks.

Reeling it all in

When a catfish took the bait, I tentatively walked about to the rod. Then the work starts.

First, I set the hook by yanking the rod upward. The line is a good 25 or 30 yards behind the boat (which is anchored) so for the next few minutes it was all reeling.

"Reel up, then lower the rod tip," Hughes instructed me.

For what felt more like 20 minutes, it was a patient cycle of reeling in, moving the rod up and down. And you don't even see the catfish breach the surface. The other end of the rod dug into my side. My arms ached. My fingers had the grip of death and could barely move after.

All worth it -- the hard work we put in everyday at whatever jobs we work, a lot of it requires putting the nose to the grindstone. Work out those hard minutes, push yourself until it hurts. Until you want to stop. Because the prize at the other end of the line is hard work met with gratitude and a sense of relief. A sense of personal accomplishment accompanied by a feeling that you can do more the next time.

Or a big, slimy catfish. Whatever you prefer.

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Photo by Kate Penn, York Daily Record / Sunday News

The Mad Catter, Captain Jaime Hughes' charter boat, on the Susquehanna River in Marietta Wednesday, June 24, 2015. Hughes, of Mechanicsburg, runs and owns Breakline Charters which specializes in catfishing on the Susquehanna River.

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This article comes to us through a partnership between York Daily Record and WITF. 

Published in News, York

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