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Commentary: Rock Run Landing, gone but not forgotten

There's a line at the end of "The Road Warrior," second of the three Mad Max flicks, that haunts me more as I grow older: "He lives now only in my memory."

The older I get, the more things there are that live only in my memory, well and also the memories of others who ponder such things and share similar interests. One such place is the old Rock Run Landing, a patch of Susquehanna River bank that was home to fishermen and hunters, depending on the season and whether the water was low enough that the whole place wasn't under water.

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In its later years, it was known as Townsend's Rock Run Landing, as its manager was Michael G. Townsend Sr., who if my memory holds, once served on the Port Deposit Planning Commission. The property itself was, and is, owned by the succession of corporate entities that have had possession of Conowingo Dam. Notably, it was the launch point for generations of anglers who pursued shad in the springtime and rockfish as long as rockfish could be found. Notably, Earl Ashenfelter ran his Susquehanna fishing guide service out of Rock Run, taking a cast of Baltimore area sports celebrities, and just about anyone else who was interested, out to pursue rockfish.

Mr. Ashenfelter's claim to angling fame is that he was one of a few people who had the fishing knowledge or persistence, or both, to consistently convince rockfish to strike in the middle of the day in the heat of summer. They're a fish that's much easier to pursue in the early morning and late evening hours. He also was notorious for having mapped the boat-hazard rocks in the Susquehanna from Conowingo Dam down to the deep water at Port Deposit. For years, his Susquehanna Map was published in the annual "Fishing in Maryland" guidebook, a publication that referred to Mr. Ashenfelter as "The Dean of Susquehanna Fishermen." That characterization stuck and was used when his obituary was published in The Baltimore Sun back in May 1997.

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By the time I got to know Mr. Ashenfelter, he had all but retired from leading rockfish expeditions, owing largely to the mid-1980s ban on fishing for them in Maryland because their numbers had dwindled. I recall, however, the tales he told of the many Susquehanna fishing trips launched from Rock Run Landing. Mr. Ashenfelter's family had moved to the Aberdeen area when his dad got a job with the crew building Conowingo Dam. Mr. Ashenfelter grew up fishing the Susquehanna, and told me (and a lot of other people) that he was able to draw the legendary rock map because he had hit every rock in the river many times over. Rock Run Landing, which is an awful lot like any number of fishing and duck hunting camps along the banks of the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania, was established by the company building the dam as a recreation area for its work crews at a time, the late 1920s, when recreational opportunities in the area were few and trips to cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore had to be made over back roads because I-95 was a solid 40 years in the future.

In the late 1980s when I saw the landing operation for the first time, it was bare bones. It did have electricity, though it seemed this was an afterthought. A bare bulb hung from the low ceiling of what I'll loosely call an office, the place where you paid boat launch fees and bought worms for fishing. The screen door to the office swung into the building, barely clearing the ceiling, and would have decapitated the bare bulb if not for a notch having been cut out of the door to keep it from hitting the bulb. In a wonderment of practical engineering, the door's threshold was modified so as to accommodate the notch in the door, presumably in an effort to keep the swarms of river bugs out when the door was closed.

Elsewhere on the landing property were similarly makeshift fishing shacks, and a floating dock had slips for maybe as many as two dozen shallow running boats. It was the primary location for the build of boats Mr. Ashenfelter and a few others preferred to be called the Susquehanna skiff. Though production vessels billed as Susquehanna skiffs can be purchased, the true form of the boat is in short supply as only a few were ever built and the demand for a craft designed specifically for the lower 14 miles of the Susquehanna River is at best limited.

Mr. Townsend and Mr. Ashenfelter, along with a core group of outdoor enthusiasts from a faded generation, managed to keep their traditions going well into this generation, as Rock Run Landing survived a few years into this millennium. They were of a time when there was no such thing as professional bass fishing tournaments and when rockfish and shad were believed to be limitless in numbers. Mr. Townsend was old enough to remember a time when rockfish were equaled in popularity among anglers to the massive runs of white shad that drew hundreds of anglers from hundreds of miles away.

Mr. Townsend, who I recall as generally having a cigarette going on those occasions when I talked with him, fell victim to lung disease in the summer of 2008, and that was the end of Rock Run landing as it had been. Earlier this year, unaware of the landing's fate, my son, Nick, and I, along with my fishing buddy, Mike, and his son, Mike, tried to launch a boat at Conowingo Dam, but the water was too high, so we drove down to Rock Run, figuring on paying a $5 launch fee and buying a dozen or so worms.

We arrived to find the boat launch still in place, but the place had been denuded of the old office and shacks.

Gone were the floating dock and fleet of Susquehanna skiffs. The place had been scrubbed clean of a collection of stuff that was old, but not quite historic. To borrow a phrase, it lives now only in my memory.

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