As Pennsylvaniaâ€™s bass anglers get primed for the coming season, the outlook is a good one. The 2012 season promises to be a productive, with many lakes and river systems offering fine sport.
According to Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission fisheries management personnel, bass populations in lakes and reservoirs appear to be quite stable. With a variety of bass age classes present in most stillwater environments, anglers from across the state should find quality angling for black bass. River systems, too, will provide good action. The outlook is good on the waters of the Ohio River watershed (which includes the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers), as it is for the lower portions of the Delaware. The West Branch and North Branch of the Susquehanna River should offer excellent fishing, though problems persist on the main stem of the river.
For nearly a decade now the main stem of the Susquehanna has experienced low recruitment of freshly hatched smallmouth bass, meaning there are fewer young bass available to replace adult fish as they are removed from the system (through fishing or other sources of mortality). Young-of-year fish die offs have been traced to bacterial infections. Itâ€™s believed the young fish are more vulnerable to such infections due to stress caused by low levels of dissolved oxygen in backwater river areas where the hatched smallmouth spend their first few months of life.
Last spring the Fish and Boat Commission permanently adopted catch and release regulations on portions of the Susquehanna and lower Juniata rivers.
â€śWe know that deteriorating water quality is a significant factor contributing to the decline of the smallmouth bass population in portions of these rivers and we continue to work with other state agencies and conservation groups on the issue,â€ť said PFBC Executive Director John Arway. â€śBut at the same time, we can protect the existing bass population by reducing angling pressure on them.â€ť
These regulations have been in place since January 1 of last year under a temporary order issued by Executive Director Arway. They apply to approximately 32 miles of the Juniata River, from the State Route 75 Bridge at Port Royal in Juniata County downstream to the mouth of the river at Duncannon, Perry County. On the Susquehanna, the regulations cover 98 miles, from the inflatable dam near Sunbury in Northumberland County downstream to the Holtwood Dam in York County.
Another major change regarding these river potions is that harvesting or attempting to harvest bass is prohibited during the spring spawn. Check your 2012 regulations book for the exact dates of this closure. During the remainder of the year, catch-and-immediate-release regulations will apply to anglers and a catch-measure-immediate-release format will apply to tournaments.
The Commission also made a change regarding tributaries that feed these river sections. The catch-and-release regulation, as well as the springtime closed spawning season, also include the first half-mile of tributaries.
What follows is a look at a few of the better bass fisheries across the state, venues which promise to provide good bass fishing during the months to come.
Mercer Countyâ€™s Lake Wilhelm is one of the finest largemouth bass fisheries in the state, though it proved to be a tough nut to crack last year. Despite its reluctance to give up its largemouths last season, Wilhelm continues to support a fine largemouth bass population.
Fish and Boat Commission fisheries personnel sampled Wilhelm in 2010. While overall numbers were down from the lofty numbers revealed during the prior survey (2004), the lake still had a strong population: Night electrofishing collected largemouths at the rate of over 60 per hour. And numbers of quality bass in excess of 12 and 15 inches were collected in exceptional numbers. Sadly, the 2010 survey also revealed high numbers of gizzard shad, a species that was absent until a few years ago. Shad represented 48 percent of the fish collected. Fisheries managers feel the shad explosion has adversely affected the panfish population. Itâ€™s also likely that the availability of this food source is making Wilhelmâ€™s largemouths more difficult to catch.
An impoundment of Sandy Creek, Wilhelmâ€™s nearly 1,900 acres sit in a gently rolling valley surrounded by both wooded and agricultural lands. The dark, rich water allows weedgrowth down to depths of around 5 feet. Several old roadbeds rise up from the lake bottom. Humps and shoals, some of which are formed by twisting creek channels, gather up summertime bigmouths.
â€śThe bass move up on these humps and ledges to feed come summer,â€ť said largemouth bass enthusiast Dave Lehman. â€śYou might hit a spot early in the day and not have any action, and then stop back a few hours later and catch a half dozen in a few minutes. When they are up, you find out in a hurry.â€ť
Lehman uses deep-diving crankbaits capable of touching bottom in water as deep as 12 feet (which often requires using a bait touted as a 14- or 16-foot model). Using a smooth bait-casting outfit he launches long casts, which allow the lure to reach its maximum potential depth. He doesnâ€™t feel the lure needs to plow a groove in the bottom, but he does want it to make occasional bottom contact. Typically he tosses marker buoys on each end of a hump to provide points of reference for casts.
When bass are less active, and holding down off the edges of ledges, channels and humps, Lehman uses a drop shot rig to present action worm profile offerings like Roboworms and Yum Houdini Worms.
In recent years Wilhelm has featured abundant submerged weed cover â€” milfoil mostly â€” in shallow zones. Cuts and points in the weed edge make good targets for pitching skirted jigs. Early and late in the day largemouths also often respond well to soft swimbaits like Berkleyâ€™s Hollow Belly Minnow worked over the tops of the cover.
Four boat launches provide access to this state park (Maurice Goddard) lake. The horsepower limit is 20. The headwaters of the lake extend into State Game Lands 270. An off-limits propagation area is sandwiched between two areas that are open to fishing, but under an electric or non-powered boat restriction. Mercer Countyâ€™s Tourism and Promotion agency can provide assistance for traveling anglers. Visit www.mercercountypa.org.