Wherever you are, you’re close to great Pennsylvania bass fishing this summer.
By Bob Frye
I didn’t have to wait long.
Slipping the soft-plastic minnow-shaped lure on my hook, I let go with a cast toward a couple of rocks visible out of the water. I gave it a few seconds to sink, courtesy of a little bit of weight further up the line. Then, I gave it a twitch. Then another, and then another.
A feisty smallmouth of 16 inches or so, ablaze with the bronze color that makes them so distinctive, fought hard all the way to the canoe. Lifting it just a moment, I slipped it back in the water and watched it dart off.
Many more fish, some bigger, some smaller, followed as we floated on the Allegheny. It was a glorious way to spend a mid-summer day.
There are opportunities like that for bass anglers all across Pennsylvania, whether for smallmouths in flowing water or largemouths in impoundments. The state is blessed with quality fisheries. Here are some worth checking out.
The Allegheny River has long had a reputation as western Pennsylvania’s top smallmouth bass destination, at least among flowing waters. It remains wonderfully productive, too.
Some sections stand out, though. For smallmouth bass, it’s wise to focus on the free-flowing portions of the Allegheny, from Kennerdell in Venango County upstream. That’s what the bass population survey numbers say.
Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission biologists survey the river’s bass population regularly, looking at four sites: President, Kennerdell, East Brady and Freeport, which run north to south, in that order. President and Kennerdell are considered to be free-flowing; East Brady and Freeport are impounded.
Bass can be found at each location.
But the recent trend has been for the most fish on a catch-per-unit-effort basis — meaning the number of bass collected by hour — to come from Kennerdell north. They’ve been giving up about twice as many fish as Freeport, and almost four times as many as East Brady.
Biologists rate the smallmouths seen in three categories: trophy, for bass longer than 20 inches; memorable, for those 17 to 20; and preferred, for those 14 to 17.
Monsters are hard to come by. Fish longer than 20 inches are fairly rare anywhere in the river, at least according to the surveys by biologists (anglers do report some bigger ones, and biologists say they don’t always get the biggest fish, so don’t give up hope).
But the river around Kennerdell has been, according to long-term averages, giving up three to five times as many memorable fish as lower stretches, while the area around President has been producing five to nine times as many.
That’s a lot of fat, healthy fish. One biologist went so far as to call the numbers “remarkable.”
The fishing can be accessed in a couple of ways. The Allegheny is a favorite of anglers who like to wet wade. Those in smaller boats — canoes, kayaks and the like — love it, too.
But there are also opportunities to put powerboats on it, with jet boats able to run in shallow water a good choice.
Anglers take fish on natural baits — chubs and minnows caught in the river are preferred by live bait anglers — as well as artificials, from soft plastics on a jig to small minnow-shaped plugs and spinnerbaits, to name a few.
A visit to the commission’s website (www.fishandboat.com) will reveal access points.
CROSS CREEK LAKE
There are some waters that might be classified as secret hot spots. Cross Creek Lake is not one of those. Bass anglers, as well as those who like to target big panfish, know the Washington County lake well for all of its potential and production. It gets a corresponding amount of pressure.
That’s not to say it’s not worth fishing, though. Despite the fishing pressure, the lake continues to produce good fishing.
Cross Creek — at 244 acres and located near Avella — is a relatively deep lake, with the water reaching 60 feet near the dam. It’s also turbid, and often off-color. Anglers will find it’s full of the kind of cover bass love, too, from stumps and woody debris to floating vegetation.
Its defining characteristic, though, is its fertility. Biologists with the Fish and Boat Commission say it “contributes to maintaining one of the densest largemouth bass populations in the commonwealth.”
Those fish get big on average, too. When Cross Creek was last surveyed in 2015, about 60 percent of the hundreds of bass handled were longer than 12 inches. Almost one in five were longer than 15.
Some larger specimens turn up, too. Biologists handled fish going 21 inches and 5 pounds or more.
There’s some shore fishing to be had, along with a handicapped-accessible fishing pier on the north shore. That’s where a paved boat launch is, too. There’s a 10-horsepower limit on the lake, though, and all boaters must get a permit from Washington County Parks and Recreation. They’re $7.50 a year for county residents, $10 for all others.
There are a few shallow no wake zones boaters need to be aware of. Meanwhile, the lake’s bass fishery is managed under “big bass” regulations, meaning anglers are limited to harvesting four bass per day, all of which must be at least 15 inches.
As for forage, the fish have a lot to eat — golden shiners and bluntnose minnows, among other things — so the fishing isn’t necessarily easy. But it can be good.
The Juniata is a tale of two rivers right now. The lower portion, specifically the 31.7 miles from Port Royal downstream to the mouth, is closed to bass fishing from May 1 through mid-June to protect a fishery that’s seen trouble in recent years.
Fishing is permitted during that time – which coincides with the spawn – upriver, though. And it’s getting a lot of attention, then and throughout the rest of the year.
The closed season elsewhere is one reason, of course. But another reason, equally big, is tied to the fish themselves.
Portions of the river upstream — around Mapleton and Newton Hamilton, in Huntingdon and Mifflin counties, respectively — have been producing lots of smallmouths in recent years. And the best fishing yet may be just arriving.
Consider what biologists were saying a few years ago.
“During 2013, 6- to 11-inch bass were well represented in our catch, which has the potential to translate into exceptional bass fishing opportunities in the years to come as these individuals grow to larger desirable-sized fish,” they wrote. “Additionally, there are more 15-inch and larger smallmouth bass in this portion of the river than was historically documented by surveys conducted during the 1990s. Catch rates of smallmouth bass 15 inches and longer exceeded the long-term average seven of the last nine years.”
Those young 2013 smallmouth bass will be at or maybe even exceeding “desirable” size right now. Catch reports from anglers suggest that’s the case. Fish of 15 inches and 2 pounds are common, with plenty of bigger ones available.
Spinnerbaits, often with a soft plastic trailer, are a popular bait on the river. Jigs tipped with live bait or soft plastics take a lot of fish, too.
There are multiple boat launches, suitable for smaller power boats and canoes and kayaks. The river can be waded, too.
One word of caution: respect the fishery here during the spawn. It’s getting a lot of pressure, so be sensitive to the resource for its long-term benefit.
Hamilton Lake, located about 2 miles from Wellsboro in Tioga County, is one of those bass waters hidden in plain sight.
Consider that the 42-acre lake is stocked with trout every year. It gets fish once in March, before opening day, twice in April within two weeks of opening day and then once again in fall, in preparation for fall and perhaps winter ice-fishing.
Lots of fishermen turn out to pursue those hatchery fish.
But Hamilton Lake, like many of the smaller trout-stocked lakes around the state, is actually a prime largemouth bass lake. Sure, it can support trout for a while, but really, more than anything, it’s got the right water temperature, the right habitat and the right forage to support a rich warm water fishery.
It’s been getting better as time goes along, too. The Fish and Boat Commission surveys the lake periodically to assess its fish populations. It’s examined the largemouth fishery in particular three times.
The trend shows that while bass numbers have remained fairly steady, the average size of the fish has been increasing. Most recently, fish 15 inches and longer predominate.
There are smaller ones and bigger ones, including a few up to 21 inches. But it’s a good bet to give up fish that are, on average, nicer than in many places.
The lake got a boost, too, in 2014, courtesy of problems at another lake. Nearby Nessmuk Lake was drained in 2014 to facilitate repairs to its dam. The fish swimming there at that time were salvaged and moved, with Hamilton Lake the beneficiary.
Shore access is pretty good and there are two large parking lots, with a free boat launch, located off Roundtop Road.
Golden shiners, suckers and minnows are the most common forage here, so live and artificial baits that replicate those are good bets.
Lake Greeley — or Greeley Lake, as it goes by both names — offers prime fishing for the small water bass angler.
Located in Pike County north of Route 6 and Lords Valley, it’s a relatively small water at just 60 acres. It’s long, narrow and shallow. The maximum depth here is about 8 feet, but it’s about half that in most places.
All of that precludes the use of your typical bass boat. Shore fishing is okay in spots, limited in others.
But those who fish from canoes, kayaks and rowboats, whether unpowered or with electric motors, can do very well.
There’s one boat launch here, on the lake’s southwest corner. It’s not paved, and there’s not a lot of room; the parking lot can handle perhaps a half-dozen vehicles. But the fishing can certainly be worth it.
Largemouth bass hide in the lake’s stump fields and lily pads, waiting to ambush prey. Golden shiners are the predominant forage, so live bait which matches that, or artificials that mimic it, are good bets.
Expect to catch some nice fish, too.
Surveys done here by biologists have collected largemouths up to 20 inches. Those may be the exception, but fish in the 15-inch range are actually pretty common, and fun to fight when you’re in a boat close to the water with them.
Adrian Avena: Big Worms, Big Fish
Side Notes: Pennsylvania Bass in the SE
Southeastern Pennsylvania is packed with people. It’s home to Philadelphia, the sixth largest city in the country by population, and lots of surrounding sprawl. There’s still good bass fishing to be had, however.
If you like to fish from a bass boat, a good bet is Blue Marsh Lake, a 1,150-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundment in Berks County, north of Reading. The regular draw-downs done at such lakes often limit shoreline habitat. Artificial structures — trees felled on the shoreline and anchored there with wire cables — are good spots to target. Focus on the Spring Creek and Tulpehocken Creek arms.
For boats with electric motors, 89-acre Chambers Lake, in Hibernia County Park in Chester County, is worthwhile. It’s relatively deep, averaging 14 feet, and highly productive, with lots of shoreline vegetation and other cover. Bass are plentiful with some very high-quality fish there.
If you prefer to fish moving water by floating in a canoe or kayak or wading, the Conestoga River in Lancaster County is home to smallmouth bass. The area from Morgantown downstream to the confluence with Cocalico Creek can be especially good. There aren’t many really large fish (a 15-incher is a big one) but the numbers overall are high enough to keep things interesting.