Photos by Bill Doster
Weaving its way through rolling hills, dense woodlands, open meadows, dairy farms, urban centers and three states, the 444-mile Susquehanna is the longest river on the East Coast. During its prime, it was one of the most prolific stretches of smallmouth bass water in the world. It was on a vast portion of the Susquehanna around Middletown, Pennsylvania, that inimitable fly tyer and angler Bob Clouser spent more than 50 years deciphering the river’s secrets.
Best known for creating one of the most versatile and widely used fly patterns — the Clouser Deep Minnow — Clouser also has inspired countless fly anglers with his fishing prowess, casting ability and innovative fly tying. He is the author of Clouser’s Flies and Fly Fishing for Smallmouth in Rivers and Streams, and has appeared in numerous instructional videos and television segments.
“Bob is a child of nature, which makes him a keen observer and an amazing angler and hunter,” says Flip Pallot, who hosted The Walker’s Cay Chronicles television show and has led a life immersed in hunting, fishing and conservation. “His ability to see things in nature that are invisible to others is unique.”
“Bobby knows the Susquehanna better than anyone alive,” said fly-fishing legend Lefty Kreh in late 2017. (Kreh died in March 2018.) “His fly-tying and casting skills are second to none. I can’t tell you how much fun we’ve had fishing together around the world. He’s a natural innovator.”
Clouser is a cheery person, with a handsome smile, piercing eyes and a thick, paintbrush mustache. He has a stocky build, and his weathered hands tell the story of a life filled with hard work. He was born Robert J. Clouser on Nov. 12, 1938, the second of three children, with an older brother and a younger sister. His mother was a homemaker, and his father sold lettuce, cabbage and potatoes, and delivered groceries, Clouser says. “We lived in Royalton, which is just south of Harrisburg [Pennsylvania] and now part of Middletown.”
To earn money as a youngster, Clouser mowed lawns, did odd jobs and worked at local farms. “Everything I owned I paid for by myself,” he says. “Our family had a strong work ethic, and all of us enjoyed the outdoors, especially fishing, hunting and trapping.”
When Clouser was an adolescent, his father gave him a gift that would eventually change the course of his life. “I was always fiddling around with things in my room,” he recalls. “You know, carving wood, making wooden lures, stuff like that. So on my 14th birthday, my father got me a fly-tying kit.”
It quickly became clear that tying flies would evolve into something much more significant than a hobby. “In high school, we were required to do an end-of-year project, so I decided mine would be about flies and fly tying,” Clouser says.
He spent the school year re-creating fly patterns he’d seen in books, such as the timeless Mickey Finn streamer. He glued his finished flies to white posterboard displays and labeled each pattern. “I think it ended up being about 450 or 500 flies,” Clouser says. “I got an honorable mention for my project. I was very proud of that.”
Clouser took a job at a local Acme market when he was 16 and quickly ascended to a position as a meat cutter. “I loved meat cutting and the people in the business,” he says. Kreh once described Clouser’s butchering skills: “Bobby can break down any animal from its ass to its eyeballs with his eyes closed and one hand tied behind his back.”
Clouser married in 1957 at age 19, and he and his wife, Joan, started a family that grew to include five children: Robert “Bobby” Jr., David, Michael, Sherry and Robin. He continued working at Acme, along with trapping, hunting and running a small fly-tying operation out of his home, selling flies to local sporting goods stores.
In the early ’60s, Clouser expanded his knowledge of the Susquehanna and sharpened his fly-fishing skills. “I became focused on becoming a better fly caster; I really wanted to master it,” he says. “So I’m on the Susquehanna one day and see this guy fly casting like I’ve never seen. I thought to myself, I want to learn how to cast like that, and this guy is going to help me, whether he knows it or not.”
The caster was fly-fishing sensei Kreh. Clouser moved his boat in closer to talk with him. “I’m in my boat, you’re over here in your boat, and I’m watching you cast. I don’t feel like fishing. I just want to watch you cast,” Clouser told him.
“If you want some help, I’d be glad to do it,” Kreh replied.
“Well then, you’re coming up here and getting in my boat next week, and we’re going out fishing,” Clouser said. That meeting on the river was the beginning of a deep friendship that spanned nearly 60 years, until Kreh’s passing.
Clouser retired from Acme in 1980 after 26 years with the company. “They were closing down the smaller markets and opening these big — and I mean big — supermarkets,” Clouser says. “One of the Acme supervisors, Mr. Hern, wanted me to move to Philadelphia. I told him, ‘Mr. Hern, there’s no smallmouth bass in Philadelphia.’”
During the following years, Clouser mostly guided on the river, but also focused his tying efforts on creating patterns for fooling species and for situations unique to the Susquehanna. Among the patterns were the Clouser Crayfish, Swimming Nymph, Crippled Minnow, Mad Tom, The Darter, Hellgrammite, E-Z Popper and Floating Minnow. However, a sparsely tied streamer he began tying in the late ’70s and early ’80s cemented Clouser’s legacy as a master.
“I’d been working on a streamer pattern for smallmouth bass and eventually tied some prototypes that were effective,” Clouser says. “Sometime in 1984, I called Lefty and told him, ‘Lefty, I have the best bass fly I have ever tied. We can go out on the river and catch 50 bass with this one fly in only a few hours.’ ”
“I’m coming up,” Kreh replied.
“A week or so later, Lefty and a friend walked into my fly shop, and I dropped about 10 of these flies in his hand,” Clouser says. “He looked at them and said, ‘Bobby, are they done?’ I said, ‘Yes, they are done.’ ”
Clouser agreed to meet them on the river later that afternoon. “I put the boat in the water around 3 o’clock, ran up the river, and found Lefty and his buddy,” Clouser says. “Lefty had a red-and-white hackle fly tied on. His buddy was sitting in the back with the biggest grin I’d ever seen on a man.”
“Bob, before Lefty bullshits you, I just out-caught him 10 smallmouth bass to his one with your fly,” the man said.
Lefty looked at Clouser and said, “Now, do you need to hear any more?”
Clouser’s fly was a winner, indeed, but he wasn’t sure what to call it. “I didn’t have any idea about naming flies,” he says. He asked Lefty for help.
“Well, it’s going to be pretty easy, Bobby,” Kreh said. “That fly is tied by Bob Clouser, it goes deep, and it looks like an escaping minnow. Let’s call it the Clouser Deep Minnow.” The fly was officially introduced in a Fly Fisherman magazine article in 1985.
The Clouser Deep Minnow is simple and easily customized. Today, anglers tie the pattern — and variations of it — on a variety of hook sizes and types, depending on the target species and type of water. The belly and back are tied with various color combinations of bucktail accented by a length of flash. Lead, brass or tungsten eyes provide the weight to animate the fly and get it down in the water column, where it behaves much like a conventional jig. A popular variation is the Half-and-Half, which shares elements of the Deep Minnow and Lefty’s Deceiver.
Watch Clouser tie his famous Deep Minnow fly below.
In 2011, Kreh told me he had caught more than 90 species around the world in fresh and salt water with the Deep Minnow pattern, from trout to tiger fish. Clouser estimates that tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of the flies have been tied.
With such talent, it’s easy to imagine that Clouser is a man without mentors. “Bobby Popovics is a big one,” Clouser says. “His epoxy flies led me to use epoxy on the thread of my Deep Minnow fly. Popovics and I were fishing for blues in the New Jersey surf, and those fish were tearing the eyes off my flies within minutes, while Bobby could go 30 minutes with one Surf Candy fly. That was a super lesson. He’s a problem-solver and an amazing innovator.”
And, of course, there was Kreh. “I don’t think I’d have led the life I have or had the success I’ve enjoyed without Lefty,” Clouser says. “It all started out with casting, quickly moved on to fishing and then fly tying. Lefty took me around the world. But there were so many good friends along the way that helped me, coached me or were just good people to fish with and learn from.”
Separated by only an hour drive, Clouser and Kreh spent countless hours together on the Susquehanna. “Bob and Lefty were very similar in their personalities — shy but gregarious with this crazy alchemy that bonded them,” Pallot says. “They were so fiercely independent. They never asked anyone for anything, had no paid vacation, no 401(k), no medical, no golden parachute. I always thought there must have been something in that Susquehanna water. And I wanted to know where I could get some.”
“Bob reminds me of my father,” Popovics says. “They had the same mannerisms and even laughed the same. But the best thing about Bob and his fly tying is that his patterns are simple and effective. They are designed for specific situations and species, and most are accessible and easy to tie. He’s a blast to fish with. I have so many great memories and stories from our trips that I will never forget.”
Clouser’s reach extends beyond his flies. His fishing methodology and innovation with certain types of gear have influenced many people. “I like Bob’s philosophies about breaking down the water into small sections. I follow that in a lot of what I do,” says guide and fly tyer Blane Chocklett. “His casting techniques and innovations with sinking fly lines that can turn over big, weighted flies is huge. And I’ve obviously been inspired by his fly tying.”
Now 82, Clouser has lived through his share of heartache. He lost his son Michael, who was born with special needs, in 2007 at age 36. His wife, Joan, fought a long illness and died in November 2018. “I was married to that lady for 63 years,” Clouser says. “I just woke up one morning, and she was gone.”
Clouser struggled with the grief of losing his wife. “My daughter Sherry and son Bobby came over to my house and said, ‘Dad, you better do something, or we’re going to be burying you, too,’ ” Clouser says.
Not long after, Clouser received a call from Andy Renzetti, of vise manufacturer Renzetti Inc., who offered to fly him to Florida to give a casting demonstration at an event. “I decided to give it a try,” Clouser says. “I was sitting in the office down there eating chicken legs, and this lady came in and said, ‘I would like to see your performance outside on fly casting.’ I told her, ‘Come out, and when I’m done, I’ll help you.”
Jackie Prock “grabbed a chair, and we started talking,” he says. “The longer we talked, the more I admired this woman. She started talking about my friends — Lefty, Popovics, Brian Horsley and Sarah Gardner. … I just felt this whole realm of my friends coming out of her.”
As it turned out, Prock had lost her husband about a year earlier. The two talked frequently after Clouser returned to Pennsylvania, and it wasn’t long before he made Prock a proposal: “I’m buying a one-way ticket down to Florida, and if things go OK, I’m going to stay.”
Clouser took up residence in the Sunshine State in April 2019. “We moved all my stuff down from Pennsylvania and quickly figured out we needed a bigger place,” Clouser says.
Today, the couple live in a pondside home in Cocoa, Florida, on a piece of property Clouser describes as being filled with turtles, alligators, largemouth bass, crappie and birds he’s never seen before. “I just love all the nature right outside our back door, and we’re close to some really nice fishing water,” he says. “I don’t know what half of the things out there are called, but every day I see something new.”
Clouser continues to tie flies and teach. During the pandemic, Prock beefed up his online fly shop and helped Clouser teach fly tying virtually. “A few nights ago, I had 40 people in a Zoom fly-tying class,” he says.
Prock and Clouser spend a lot of time fly-fishing for juvenile tarpon together in an area of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge he calls “The Jungle,” which is peppered with red mangroves and is a challenge to fish. “Sometimes we have to do some really crazy stuff to get those flies in there, but it’s a ton of fun,” Clouser says. “We’ve caught 157 tarpon since I’ve been here. They’re tough to catch and even tougher to get to the net, but we love it. It feels like when I was learning about smallmouths.”
Clouser’s exuberance with his new life reminded me of a story Pallot told about walking with him in the deep Florida woods. “I took him out in the airboat, and we spent the morning walking through the woods,” Pallot says. “I was impressed with the way Bob moved through the woods, the way he blended — nobody can do that. He had intelligent questions about the plants and snakes and hogs that we saw. He was just in love with it all, and it was amazing to see the touchstones that Bob has to the natural world and how he translates those to hunting and fishing … and life.”
It’s not the Susquehanna River, but it looks as if Clouser has found home again.