Juan Veruete is an American Canoe Association Certified Kayak Instructor and a licensed kayak angling guide in Pennsylvania. As the proprietor of Kayak Fish PA, LLC, Juan conducts excursions and classes targeting river-dwelling smallmouth bass. An angler since the age of six, Juan has parlayed his four decades of experience into a mission to educate others, and, through numerous publications, citation catches, and pro staff appointments, continues to make a name for himself in the sport. A man with a life woven to the sport, Juan lives by his personal mantra, “I don’t live to fish… I fish to live!”
What first drew you to this style of angling? When was that?
I’ve been around moving water all my life, and I’ve always been drawn to it. I spent most of my youth traversing down swollen creeks in everything from an old borrowed aluminum canoe to a bunch of railroad ties roped together as a make-shift raft. Fishing, though, had always been a separate activity which I pursued intensely. I was really blessed, in terms of my fishing opportunity, to grow up next to a creek full of trout and within easy walking distance of a bigger creek loaded with smallmouth bass. Fast forward to the future. Six years ago I was fishing rivers in central Pennsylvania out of my flat bottom river jon boat. I was becoming increasingly frustrated, however, with the inability of that water craft to access certain locations on the river during the dry hot summer when water levels are at their lowest. I knew the address of some big smallmouth bass, but repeatedly was thwarted in my efforts to approach and fish for them out of my river jon. Determined to find a more suitable water craft that was smaller, quieter, and could run in very shallow water, I hit the internet searching for a solution. The answer hit me like a ton of bricks after only about a half hour of searching. Those crazy guys fishing out of kayaks…that was it! I also liked the idea of feeling closer to nature paddling along under my own power. I knew kayak fishing was going to be a great fit for me. Within weeks I had purchased my first kayak, a Wilderness Systems Ride 135.
Do you remember the first fish that you caught from a kayak?
The first thing I really remember was being frustrated. I was a confident and accomplished angler, but fishing from a kayak proved to be an organizational challenge. I struggled with gear organization and rod storage in the beginning but fairly quickly overcame those obstacles through my own ingenuity and ideas I gleaned from various websites like KayakBassFishing.com. Despite my struggles, I did catch fish on my very first trip. Ironically, my first fish was a largemouth bass of about 17 inches caught on a crankbait. I say ironically because my specialty is really fishing for river smallmouth bass. In the first month that I fished from a kayak, I caught 3 citation largemouth bass in Pennsylvania. Needless to say the effectiveness of fishing for big fish from a kayak was evident to me right from the start. I was accessing waters that other folks just couldn’t get to and it was paying off!
What food and/or music fuels your drive to the put-in?
Ha! That one is easy. Country music and coffee! The coffee wakes me up and the country music relaxes me, clears my mind, and helps me mentally prepare for a day on the water. I’m a huge country music fan! I enjoy listening to artists who lean toward a more traditional style like Johnny Cash, Alan Jackson, and George Strait. Carrie Underwood and Chely Wright are among my favorite female artists. Once I’m on the river, I rely on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and cashews to keep me going all day long. I might even belt out a couple country songs along the way, but only when my fishing buddies aren’t in earshot!
Through your business, Kayak Fish PA, LLC, you teach classes and boot camps aimed at improving your student’s catch rates in river-based smallmouth fisheries. Tell us about the etiology of said business, and what it was that moved you to start such an endeavour.
I’ve always enjoyed teaching and coaching. I’ve done both all of my adult life. My love of teaching and love of the sport of kayak angling for river smallmouth bass were definitely the two primary motivators when I decided to start my guiding business three years ago. A guy isn’t going to get rich guiding and that wasn’t my goal. It took about a year of researching and gaining the various certifications I wanted in order to deliver a top shelf experience for my kayak fishing “students.” My goal was, and still is, to offer a premium educational experience to all those who book a class with me. I want every novice and experienced kayak angler to walk away with new skill sets and knowledge that will help them continue to improve their “game” beyond the day of my class. In particular, boat control and paddling skills play heavily into a kayak angler’s success in moving water. I’ve had successful bass boat tournament anglers book a class with me because they are getting into kayak angling and are frustrated with their struggle to catch fish in the small water craft. Yes, teaching people how to locate and catch smallmouth is important, but quite honestly lack of boat control is typically the number one reason for less than stellar fishing success when river kayak angling. I work hard to shorten the learning curve of my students by improving their boat control.
Who, specifically, is shaping the future of kayak angling?
If I have to name people then I’d say guys like Chad Hoover, Jeff Little, Cory Routh, Mark Lozier, and Kayak Kevin Whitley. They all have distinctly different personalities and different kayak fishing niches, but they are out there every week pushing the envelope and pursuing the sport that they love. They are incredible ambassadors of the sport. I also have to say that there are many unsung heroes out there in kayak fishing. They are out there every weekend fishing hard and spreading the word at boat launches and during convenience store gas stops. Kayak fishing is truly a grass roots sport, and that’s where a lot of the growth will occur over the next several years.
With regard to kayak angling, what issues are important to you? What, if anything, can be done about them?
Two things come to mind. Access and water quality. There is a lot of discussion about right of way and access to flowing water in states like Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia just to name a few. Of course, as a kayak angler, I’m interested in having more access rather than less while still keeping land owner’s best interests in mind. Water quality is also a hot button issue in watersheds across the north east. Rivers like the Juniata and Susquehanna have seen multiple fish kills, and smallmouth bass populations have dwindled over the past several years. Sections of those waters are now closed to all smallmouth bass fishing for about two months during the spring. The list of suspected causes all pretty much boil down to water quality issues. As kayak anglers, we should take the lead in promoting civil discussions around water quality issues, and bring these issues to the forefront in as many venues as we can. This past winter Jeff Little and I did an on the water interview with YNPR out of Marryland regarding water quality issues on the Susquehanna River from the perspective of a kayak angler. It was a great show the framed the issue quite well.
Barring money or logistics, what is your dream kayak angling trip?
I’ve already crossed off a “bucket list” trip that’s on many kayak angler’s lists. In May of 2012, I and three other kayak anglers spent four days running and fishing the Devil’s River in south west Texas. The Devil’s is a remote oasis river that runs through some of the most rugged and remote desert terrain in the United States. During the 3,600 mile round trip drive from Pennsylvania we were already plotting our next kayak fishing adventure. For me it’s more about the total experience, not just the fishing. I think we will be heading deep into the Boundary Waters of Minnesota and Canada for our next trip in search of trophy welleye, smallmouth bass, and pike. That being said, I do have one other idea rolling around in my head that I may do instead. I’ll keep that one to myself for now.
Your recent travels have taken you down Texas’s Devil’s River, an expedition that garnered much attention during your last radio appearance. The narrative of your trip was inspiring and laced with true passion for this kind of far flung adventure angling. Do you have plans to extend your aquatic and well-populated classroom to rivers beyond your home state?
I’m always looking for the next kayak angling challenge. I have had thoughts of taking my three day Kayak Fishing Boot Camp on the road to other rivers around the United States. The Boot Camp is a three day immersion into the world of kayak fishing, which includes talking seminars, on the water instruction, and an overnight kayak fishing trip on the river. I think its a great learning environment. The biggest hurdle is that the requirements for fishing guides very greatly from state to state. I’d have to do a lot of up from research and planning to see what states would be feasible. That being said, I could be taking the show on the road sooner rather than later!
What’s in your milk crate?
The most important piece of fishing equipment I “own” has been on my person or in my milk crate on every fishing trip since 1992. It’s a clear plastic 35 millimeter film canister with a river worn small quarts rock and a penny inside. My son, who was about four at the time, had found both laying on the ground near a local creek and gave them to me as I was leaving to fish. I thanked him for the gift and popped them into an empty film canister that I had in my fishing vest. I caught a citation smallmouth bass that day then followed up with two more citation smallmouth that very same week. I’m not a superstitious guy, but needless to say, I’ve never left home without those items on any fishing trip since that day…NEVER!
Tell us about your best day on the water.
That’s an easy one. Any day that I’m sharing the river with my son is a “best day.” He’s in his early 20′s now, but I still get a kick out of spending time with him on the water. He’s definitely a little more adventurous than his father when it comes to taking on rapids in our fishing sit-on-tops, but dad can still usually edge him out in the fishing department! I’ve been doing multi-day river fishing trips with both my daughter and son since they were about 6 years old. I still remember our first multi-day trip like it was yesterday. We did three days on the Shanendoah river, camping and fishing out of an Old Town canoe. My son was eight at the time, and my daughter six. My kids still speak fondly of that trip, and man did we catch a ton of smallmouth bass!
What is the kayak fishing lifestyle?
The kayak fishing lifestyle for me is about challenge, adventure, solitude, and being immersed in nature. The challenge is about pushing the limits of where I fish and how I fish. It’s about developing new strategies for targeting smallmouth, and doing so in extreme conditions such as in high water or in the dead of the North East’s winter. The adventure is about looking for that next challenging waterway to test my kayaking and fishing skills. The solitude as the way I feel when I’m out on the water by myself or with a couple select kayak fishing buddies. It gives me time to reflect on my life and those people who are important to me. The solitude feeds my soul. Immersing myself in nature has always been an important pursuit for me. Kayak fishing allows me to connect with nature in a very real way. I love pitting myself against the elements. I’ve been on rivers rising so fast I could see the exposed rock around me submerging. I’ve caught smallmouth during snow squawls so intense that you can’t see the river shoreline. I’ve weathered a golf ball sized hale storm on a desert river. If that doesn’t make you feel alive, then you might as well pack it in and take up knitting!
Tell us a story, any story.
As kayak anglers and anglers in general, we should never underestimate the impact that we can have by introducing kids to the sport that we love. During my formative years, there where two individuals who fueled my love of the water and fishing. I’m not sure that I would be doing this interview today if it wasn’t for those two people. My mother definitely played the biggest role. She fueled my passion for fishing in many ways, even though she never fished a day in her life. She bought me fishing gear for every Christmas, Easter, and birthday. She also made sure my subscriptions to a number of fishing magazines were always current. Most of all, she provided shuttle for my friends and I on our local flows toting rafts, canoes, or any other water craft we attempted to fish out of. The second individual was the father of one of my childhood buddies. That guy could catch a smallmouth bass out of a mud puddle with a Snoopy rod! He taught me a lot about smallmouth bass habits in flowing waters, that smallmouths preferred forage, and how to make natural presentations. To this day he is one of the best river smallmouth anglers I have ever met.
For many anglers, smallmouth fishing is a seasonal affair; winter often brings sluggish fish and inhospitable paddling conditions. Yet, you have found a way to buck this trend, and, in the process, have made a name for yourself in the wintertime pursuit of these fish. Many view such an accomplishment as the pinnacle demonstrative act of bass fishing. Tell us about your ascent to this elite status, and the associated learning curves experienced along the way.
I’ve received quite a bit of attention for my winter fishing exploits on the river. Jeff Little and I have shot video of many of our winter fishing “expeditions” on the Juniata and Susquehanna Rivers in Pennsylvania. You can check them out on the Kayak Bass Fishing Youtube Channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/KayakBassFishing?feature=g-user-u. Gaining attention wasn’t something I thought about when I decided to get serious about my winter kayak fishing about 5 years ago. I was really just looking for a challenge and a new angling experience. It probably sounds crazy but now I actually look forward to the winter and the opportunity to chase those cold water river smallmouth bass. It has become my favorite time of year to fish. In the winter I’m usually on the river every week paddling in the snow, freezing rain, and blistering cold. Jeff Little, of Blue Ridge Kayak Fishing, most often is my partner in crime November though March. Jeff is also a skilled kayaker and river angler, so we can rely on each other to do the right thing if one of us goes in the water, or if one of us starts showing early signs of hypothermia. Notice I didn’t say “if the unexpected happens.” Why? Because you have to anticipate and prepare for every possible bad scenario. There should be no “unexpected.” That’s how you stay alive to fish another day.
I fish in the dead of winter for river smallmouth bass for a lot of reasons. First, as I alluded to earlier, it is one of the toughest angling challenges out there. Trying to get a lethargic winter smallmouth to take a small piece of plastic that you’re dragging at an excruciatingly slow pace across the river bottom takes a lot of patience and skill. Lure presentation and mental focus are paramount in the dead of winter. You go into it knowing that most days your fishing for a handful of bites. Second, The extreme conditions not only provide a beautiful backdrop, but also represent an incredible physical and mental paddling challenge. Stated simply, you have to be at the top of your game every time out. Last but definitely not least, four and five pound river smallmouth are not uncommon in the winter. Big smallmouth bass very often are concentrated in vary specific “spots” on the river in winter. If you know how to identify these specific smallmouth wintering haunts, you’ll often be able to get on multiple big fish!
I get a lot of questions from “would be” cold water kayak fisherman. The first thing I tell guys is that I can’t possible tell you everything you need to know in a 10 minute conversation or a message board post. When I hit the river in the winter, I’m relying on a life time of experience. First and foremost, kayak anglers have to understand that winter fishing is an extremely dangerous endeavor that requires specialized gear, physical preparation, paddling skill, and an endless list of safety precautions. The danger is magnified exponentially when we are talking about a dynamic river environment. Cold water can end your life in a handful of minutes, and I think about that each and every time I hit the water in search of winter smallmouth bass. This sobering fact keeps me sharp and helps me stay focused on safety first. I like to say, in the winter you are a paddler first and a fisherman second. I nearly drowned in cold water during an early spring fishing trip when I was a youngster, so I know first hand how quickly things can go wrong. I’m not trying to sound like a know it all, but I see too many kayak anglers trying their hand at cold water fishing that don’t have the appropriate cold water gear or an understanding of all the hazards and how to prepare. These anglers are one misstep from a tragedy.
In terms of gear, I think a lot of kayak anglers skimp on cold water gear because of cost. My questions are, how much is your life worth? And would you buy a car without seat belts just to save a few dollars? I started cold water fishing seriously for river smallmouth about six years ago or so. I actually started by wading the banks of a small river using neoprene waders. One cold December day I had the unfortunate experience of falling into a deep river trench with my waders on. I didn’t sink to the bottom, but I quickly realized that the restrictiveness of angling specific wading gear impeded my ability to effectively self rescue, and it was a very poor barrier to keep out the cold water. When I transitioned to kayak angling in the winter a year or so later, I understood the value of quality kayaking-specific cold water gear, and I shelled out the green backs to purchase it. Cold water kayaking gear, like a dry suit, is not only designed to protect you from the elements, but its also designed for maximum mobility, which you will need if you find yourself going for an unexpected swim. Having the right cold water gear can help you avoid becoming a statistic. If you’re even considering cold water fishing, don’t head to the river or lake until you spend a lot of time educating yourself, improving your paddling skills, purchasing the right gear, and, most of all, finding yourself a seasoned knowledgeable mentor to fish with.
What does the future hold for you?
A lot more kayak fishing! I hope to do this until I just can’t “go” anymore, and if the “man upstairs” pulls my number, I hope he does it when my butt is in a seat of a kayak hauling in a 5 lb. river smallmouth! Ha! Until then, I’ll definitely continue to teach others about kayak fishing through my business and speaking engagements. I’ve developed a number of unique educational experiences for kayak anglers, and I want to continue to think of new ways to reduce the kayak angling learning curve for newcomers and shore up veteran kayak angler’s skill sets. I will also continue planning at least one serious kayak angling “adventure” trip each year.