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The Bass Pro Shop smells of moving water and engine oil. There aren’t many customers around, as the store has just opened. A few, like me, seem to be killing time between errands or appointments. I have arrived early in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for a fishing trip. I always seem to arrive early for fishing trips. Much of my fishing feels like stolen time, as if some invisible hand is going to grab me by the shirt collar and fling me back to New Jersey. You’re having too much fun! Stop it. So I show up early to make it last longer. It never works.

From browns during spring to smallies in the summer, guide Nick Raftas is almost always on the water. 

From browns during spring to smallies in the summer, guide Nick Raftas is almost always on the water. 

I’m meeting Nick Raftas of Wild East Outfitters for a day on the Susquehanna River chasing smallmouth on the fly. Raftas guides for smallmouth, trout, muskie and a host of other species all around the area. He fishes the Lehigh, Susquehanna, Juniata and their tributaries nearly year-round. I’ve followed Raftas on social media and watched him on YouTube. The variety and tenacity of his work impresses me. He fishes hard for species that, like the rivers they swim in, seem happy to make catching difficult.

“Can I help you with something?” a burly man with a walrus mustache asks as I peruse the fly section. He has kind eyes and wears glasses. His nametag reads “Bobby.”

“Just looking,” I reply, which I’m sure he’s heard a million times.

“You fishing today?” he asks.

Raftas expertly navigates the rocky rivers to find fish. 

Raftas expertly navigates the rocky rivers to find fish. 

I’m wearing a Huk shirt and fishing shorts. Not an unreasonable question. “Yeah, I’m heading out for smallmouth with Nick Raftas.”

“I’ve heard of him. Good guide.”

“Should be a nice day. I’ve never been out here, but can’t beat a day with a fly rod in the home of the Clouser,” I say.

“I’m a Clouser. Bob Junior,” he says, lighting up. “Dad’s in Florida now year-round,” Clouser says, and we chat about his father and his famous fly, the Clouser deep minnow. I also learn that Clouser has just become a grandfather. His proud smile illuminates the back of the shop. We talk until he’s called away for a question from another associate about catfish hooks.

I’ve started the day by meeting Clouser Jr. a few miles away from where his father invented one of the most famous flies in the world. Another ringing endorsement for early arrivals.

I meet Raftas riverside in Dauphin, Pennsylvania. He’s standing in front of a graffitied bridge pylon. He’s just turned 40, and you can see remnants of the wrestling champion he was in his youth. He’s waving as I drive up, and his affable smile is welcoming, like the mild weather that has enveloped the countryside around Harrisburg.

Feisty smallmouth bass attack topwater bugs. 

Feisty smallmouth bass attack topwater bugs. 

“Nice to meet you,” he says as we shake hands. His lilting southeastern Pennsylvania accent is as earnest as his stained fishing shirt and well-worn Orvis hat. We set about shuttling to the put-in while chatting about the day, the weather and what I want to learn.

Raftas is the anti trout bum. He’s a right guard: reliable and on a mission. His rivers are giant. His fish are burly and without pretense. He’s one of the only people in this part of the world guiding the Susquehanna with a fly rod, as I realized once we began our float and watched countless bass boats and jetboats motor by his Boulder Boat Works River Skiff.

Growing up where the river passes through the Pennsylvania/Maryland border, Raftas put in countless hours learning the intricacies of the water with his father. He can spot seams and boulders that anyone else would miss. Through high school, Raftas would frequent the Susquehanna River and Lehigh tributaries, dialing in the smallmouth scene and eventually finding large pockets of wild brown trout on the Lehigh.

“I was a teacher for a few years,” Raftas says as we shove off, “but I couldn’t take the structure and the hours.” (I can commiserate. I’m a teacher, and I often find myself grading papers and imagining a 70-foot cast into frothing stripers.)

You always learn a few tips when fishing with Raftas. 

You always learn a few tips when fishing with Raftas. 

So Raftas found his way back to the river he loves and began guiding part time with a local outfitter in 2011. Fly-fishing had always been in his blood, and he knew that’s where he wanted to devote all of his energy. In 2018, Raftas left the outfitter because he found that he was “eating up most of the trips.” He wanted guiding to be his full-time job.

“I wanted control of what I was doing. I didn’t want to build my business or my life on somebody else’s platform,” he says. “So I went out on my own.” That decision led to Raftas forming Wild East Outfitters in 2018. The service was quickly brought into the Orvis program and became fully endorsed the same year.

“Nick just did a great job all around,” says Orvis endorsed operations manager Peter Kutzer. Kutzer enjoyed fishing with Raftas on the river so much that he made a donation. “I was overzealous landing a smallie, and a brand-new pair of sunglasses now rest at the bottom of the Lehigh,” he says with a chuckle.

As Raftas expertly rows us through a run, he points out all the rocks. The river is full of boulders and ledges. “That’s how it is everywhere here. When the water’s low, it gets really challenging to maneuver a boat,” he says.

We haven’t made a cast yet, and I watch as his eyes dart back and forth around the water, searching for signs of life. “There’s a rise. Let’s go,” he says, and just like that, we’re fishing.

Raftas takes note of what and where he catches and how the fly was presented for repeat success. 

Raftas takes note of what and where he catches and how the fly was presented for repeat success. 

When Tommy Lynch first envisioned the Drunk and Disorderly fly, he thought about the Rapala lures he’d used to hammer big brown trout. In 2017, when his streamer became the rage for big trout on big water, Raftas took the fly to the Lehigh River. Many anglers overlook the Lehigh on their way to more attractive waters, but Raftas took the time to the learn the particulars of the fishery, and he would usually have the river to himself. Enter Joe Cermele and his camera.

For years, Cermele produced the Field & Stream video series Hook Shots. Cermele is one of the most savagely sage voices in fishing. His travels and companions on Hook Shots and other film projects were irreverent, insightful and incredibly entertaining. Raftas and Cermele had become friends years before on a carp trip and remained so as Cermele’s series was beginning to grow in earnest.

“When the Drunk and Disorderly streamer first hit the scene, I hated it,” Cermele recalls. “I just didn’t get the fly, which was really just because I didn’t know how to swim it properly.”

Cermele had planned a trip to fish the Lehigh with Raftas for spring brown trout. The reports that Raftas had been sharing with him were stellar, particularly around fishing the D&D. “I tied one on, and Nick told me to be ready the second it hit the water because a lot of the fish were nailing it on touchdown, or the very first strip,” Cermele says. “He theorized that the splat woke the fish up, and because the fly was buoyant and lingered on the surface for a second, they’d mistake it for a wounded baitfish, mouse or some kind of forage falling off the bank. We hammered fish that day, and ever since, whenever I have a D&D on, I’m poised and ready when it splashes down. I’ve caught so many fish on that fly without ever stripping it.”

Raftas’ time on the Lehigh, a complicated river, led to many successful days like the one Cermele experienced. “Nick has made a career out of fishing places that the average angler might overlook, and I really admire that,” Cermele says. “The Lehigh River in northeast Pennsylvania is a shining example.”

His love of the Lehigh didn’t stop with putting clients on fish. Raftas knew that in order to keep the river a sustainable spot, more advocacy was needed. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the primary controller of the Francis Walter Dam at the headwaters of the river. The dam provides a steady influx of colder water that allows wild brown trout to survive through summer. Raftas and Mike Stanislaw became great friends and serve as board members with the Lehigh Coldwater Fishery Alliance (LCFA) to advocate for upkeep and a healthy flow plan with the Corps of Engineers.

The Lehigh river is full of nice trout, even on drab December mornings. 

The Lehigh river is full of nice trout, even on drab December mornings. 

“We asked each other, ‘What can we do to make this better?’ ” Stanislaw says. Through various cleanup projects and public forums, the LCFA joined with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission to produce a flow plan that all stakeholders can get behind. “Nick has been essential in this work through cleanups and being a vocal stakeholder,” says Stanislaw, who is now an LCFA board member.

Getting to know Raftas, it becomes clear that there’s very little to stop him from full immersion. The Lehigh, long overlooked, became his project river.

Midday summer heat settles over the Susquehanna, and Raftas and I have covered much ground physically and conversationally, from blood knots to early-1990s cartoons. We’ve caught many smallmouth and spooked quite a few more. Raftas rows with the dexterity of a true river man who can put the boat where the river requires completing a long, complicated float. “We need something better,” he says, and I wonder if he’s referring to fish or current television programming. “This next turn has some great water, so be ready.”

I stand on the bow with an 8-weight Helios 3 and a sparse Clouser, ready to cast in whichever direction Raftas points. “Next time, as you strip, try a bit of a bob up and down with the rod. Makes the Clouser jig up and down on the strip. It’s called the Susquehanna strip,” he says, pointing to a clump of vegetation. I cast and hit the spot. I strip and bob as instructed. On the third strip, the line comes tight, and I can tell that the fish is different from what we had previously encountered.

The fish runs and dives, and I have to get it on the reel unlike the others I’ve caught. When we get the smallie alongside, it’s about a 3-pounder, with bronze flecks, defined stripes and bright red eyes. A trophy of the Susquehanna.

Time passes. Life happens. Stressors sap souls. I find myself trading text messages, making and breaking plans with Raftas, trying desperately to get out to the Lehigh River and see the second part of his magical world. He tells me the Lehigh gives up some big fish — wild brown trout that grow so girthy and voracious that most of his clients can’t believe that they’re fighting fish in areas of the river that were once ravaged by industrialization.

Things line up, and we put the pieces together for a trip. Raftas and I meet in Easton, Pennsylvania, early on a frigid December morning. We’ve both had difficult fall seasons.

Cermele joins us. Their friendship is infectious and comical as they trade jokes. We are all products of the early ’90s. It’s easy to talk to each other. Both men are gracious in their humor and dialed in as they fish.

Our goal is to float a section of the Lehigh that has been on and off for Raftas during the last few weeks. As we launch, it doesn’t take long for Cermele to connect with a big chub, a nice icebreaker within sight of the boat ramp. Above us, a long freight train crosses the Hill-to-Hill Bridge, and a chilly wind whips from the north. The morning is gray, and the river is willing us to turn back, but there is beauty in the banality of the December dreariness. As much as I would like to see a river in the West with snow-capped mountains in the distance and bison grazing streamside, gray Decembers in old industrial towns with river banks strewn with detritus make a little more sense to me. Growing up in New Jersey, you learn not to expect too much, so you’re usually surprised.

Raftas points a chapped hand toward a rocky outcrop in a stretch of river that you’d never expect to hold fish, let alone wild trout. “Put it as close to the bank as you can and strip right away,” he says.

I cast a sparkle-white Murdich minnow on a sink-tip 8-weight. Two strips, and I feel the slam of a healthy fish. When we get it to the boat, it’s about 16 inches, though we don’t tape it. In my mind, I’m scrolling through my biggest trout, all of them stockers in my local rivers. This may be the biggest wild trout I’ve ever seen in person. It’s golden and speckled and looks like it just finished spawning. It’s a beautiful, healthy fish, and it came out of water that, for all intents and purposes, shouldn’t keep it so.

“Just wait, we’re not even in the juice, yet,” Cermele says. I look at Raftas, who grins like a man with a secret he’s waiting to tell.

Raftas serves on the Lehigh Coldwater Fishery Alliance to advocate for the upkeep and healthy flow of the river. 

Raftas serves on the Lehigh Coldwater Fishery Alliance to advocate for the upkeep and healthy flow of the river. 

A few miles from that spot, a few more fish, and the world falls silent. No traffic noises, no train whistles, and no one jogging on the pedestrian paths above the river. The sun comes out for the first time. The drift boat floats around a bend, slowly bouncing with the current. The bank is contorted and full of downed trees.

“Welcome to the land of giants,” Raftas says.

I’m thinking, OK, how big could they be? Raftas knows exactly what he wants to get out of this trip: He needs to find the bigger fish that he has seen on numerous previous trips. When the heavy sink tips and giant streamers prove finicky, Cermele picks up a spinning rod and fires a stick bait into a pocket of calm water near a riffle. I continue to throw big flies in the bow. And then Cermele’s rod bends over with a tremendous thud.

The fish thrashes like a pike, but there’s no mistaking the bright yellow of a brown. Raftas expertly drops the anchor and has the net ready as we trade expletives in disbelief. When the fish hits the net, guttural yells from all echo around the empty landscape. This fish is special. It is easily 25 inches, with a prominent kype. The fish has a broad back and looks as if it has been through several spawning seasons.

We release the fish and have another 200 yards of bank to float. But we agree to hit this spot again. Raftas and I casts flies, but he is curious about what else might entice these big fish out of their hidey-holes. They ate a stickbait, so Cermele and Raftas agree that while we cast flies, Cermele will rig up a live shiner under a bobber. I had known Cermele’s public persona, but on this day, I get a glimpse of what a tremendous angler he is — his ease with flies, bait and lures. I half-expect him to pull a handline from his bag on the next pass. And with Raftas expertly piloting the boat, both Cermele and I get perfect shots at the bank.

Twenty minutes later, Cermele’s bobber disappears like a toilet flush. Raftas anchors and is up with a net before I even get my streamer back to the boat. Cermele’s rod is bent over so deep it nearly touches the water. We thought we had seen our biggest fish, but we have no idea what’s coming up.

Raftas and Cermele take turns holding the eventual specimen. It’s a female; there’s no kype. The fish is easily 30 inches. They agree that it is the biggest fish either of them has seen from this stretch of the river.

Raftas is a researcher of the highest caliber. When his next float trip is booked, he’ll know where and how to present flies on this stretch of the Lehigh. Dead drifts and wiggles, make it look like a live shiner.

The best fishing trips are those where you come off the water feeling like you know more than when you started. Raftas’ Wild East is full of amazing surprises. The fish are tough and eager for anglers to test their mettle, and only a guide with Raftas’ grit and grace can get the job done.

To book a trip with Nick Raftas, visit wildeastoutfitters.com.

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