A variety of good options await early-season anglers looking for some great March fishing in Pennsylvania.
By Bob Frye
The snow we’d hoped to have but didn’t get for the rifle deer season had finally fallen a few weeks ago.
But its days were already numbered. Oh, it was hanging on wherever there was shade, but was slowly receding everywhere else.
And we had the bug. The calendar had turned to March and it felt like time to go fishing.
That we did. A friend and I grabbed our gear — suspending jerkbaits for bass, live bait and jigheads for panfish, among other things — and set out.
We were fishing from shore and the walk in was a bit tricky at times, given the last bits of ice in some spots and the slick mud it left behind in others. But we caught fish and kicked off the open-water season, as is our rite of spring.
If you are looking to do the same, there is some good fishing to be had out there, with the choice of where to go dependent on what you hope to catch. Here are some suggestions.
CROOKED CREEK LAKE
Crooked Creek isn’t temperamental necessarily. But it can be unpredictable. Weather and water are the reasons.
Crooked Creek is a 350-acre lake near Ford City in Armstrong County. It’s owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and managed as a flood control reservoir, so water levels can fluctuate pretty readily.
Spring fishing conditions – with perhaps rain, perhaps snow melt, perhaps neither – can be especially tricky. But, if you can get on the water, the fishing can be really good, particularly for white crappies.
It’s not always obvious where to seek them out. Like most Army Corps lakes, Crooked Creek is shy on easily visible cover. But the fish are there.
Biologists from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission surveyed the lake in 2017 specifically to assess its crappies. The survey found plenty. Crappies were the most commonly caught species, in fact, turning up more often than even bluegills.
“Most were in the 9- to 12-inch range,” said biologist Brian Ensign. “But we did have several in the 14- to 16-inch range, too. There were some real nice fish.”
The lake holds black crappies as well, but not nearly as many, Ensign said. They’re not nearly as big, on average, either. Between the two species, anglers with a boat equipped with a fish finder to find schools of fish and structure can do well. Typically, successful anglers are using fathead minnows or are jigging.
Talk about the chances of catching a really nice yellow perch in Pennsylvania and most anglers probably immediately think of Lake Erie. That’s understandable. It gives up more jumbos than any other water. But it also takes a boat of a certain size — or even a charter — to get them.
There’s another game in town, though, one more easily accessed.
Colver Reservoir is a 73-acre lake owned by the Cambria County Water Authority. It’s open to public fishing. And it is just loaded with nice perch right now.
That’s not always been the case, and no one is sure just what’s changed. But when biologists surveyed the lake in 2009, they collected 37 yellow perch. A survey done in 2017 turned up 512, or 14 times as many.
“We were surprised by that,” said commission biologist Rick Lorson.
What was equally surprising was how big the fish tended to be. Biologist Mike Depew said they ranged from 4 to 13 inches. But 94 percent went 9 inches or longer, with the average going 10 to 11.
Anglers who seek them out — small minnows are a favorite of live bait anglers, as are nightcrawlers — also have the chance to tie into some other nice panfish.
The lake is home to a good population of large bluegills, Lorson said. They’re not as plentiful as the perch right now, but that’s not to say they’re not doing well. Indeed, the ones collected in the 2017 survey averaged 8 to 9 inches.
Colver also holds some large black crappies. They’re not nearly as abundant as the perch or bluegills, but the majority collected went between 11 and 12 inches.
Anglers who fish here have the chance to catch a walleye or saugeye, too. They’re not so abundant you’d target them specifically. But some nice specimens are available. In their surveys, biologists have seen walleyes up to 29 inches and saugeyes up to 22.
We’re talking Erie in March, so understand that fishing Edinboro Lake might mean casting into open water or fishing down through ice.
But the fishing can be good either way.
One of the real stars in this 240-acre water, especially if you want to start your season off with a relative giant of a fish, is the muskies. Edinboro gets stocked with muskies and they do well enough that the commission collects adults annually to spawn the next generation of trophies.
All those fish are returned to the lake. Add them to the others swimming around and it’s an impressive fishery. Populations are thought to be at an all-time high, in fact. Some of those fish get big, too. A recent survey turned up some going as big as 44 inches and 28 pounds. The average musky is smaller, closer to the mid-30-inch range, but there are lots of them.
The lake has two boat launches, so some target muskies here by trolling big plugs and spoons. Others get them casting the same lures, or occasionally large live baits like suckers or the golden shiners that are increasing in number in the lake, to weedy areas.
And in the meantime, if you want more consistent action, or just to do something to break things up, Edinboro is also home to some good panfish populations.
The same survey that found so many muskies also found populations of bluegills and crappies that were the second-highest on record. The number of keeper-sized panfish in both cases has been on the upswing in recent seasons, too.
One thing has remained largely unchanged at Beltzville Lake. Another has undergone a dramatic change. Anglers can take advantage of both here.
Beltzville Lake — a 947-acre lake owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — has long been stocked with walleyes. Traditionally, they’re done fairly well and sustained a fishery, and that remains the case today. A spring 2017 survey of the lake revealed that it’s still producing walleyes just about as well as ever. The catch was down a bit from 2013, but not significantly, and was still high enough to warrant continued releases, say biologists.
Anglers can expect to catch some nice fish, too. Those handled by biologists ranged in size from 15 to 27 inches, with an average somewhere in the range of 19 to 22.
The season on walleye closes in mid-March, of course, but the first two weeks or so of the month can be productive. Trolling is a favorite tactic for many walleye anglers here, but fish are also caught by those tossing jigs tipped with nightcrawlers toward shore.
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As for what’s changed at Beltzville, that would be the bass.
Fifteen years ago, smallmouths outnumbered largemouths in the lake by a 5-to-1 margin. Today, things have flipped almost completely, with largemouths by far the predominant species. They account for about three of every four bass seen.
They’re a little easier to find, too. Beltzville suffers from a lack of shoreline habitat overall, but there has been some work to cut trees – both to provide cover and stabilize banks – in recent years. A lot of that has been done in the Pohopoco Creek arm of the lake, for example.
Biologists say far more fish, be they bass or other species, are found in those areas than elsewhere, so make a point of seeking them out. Suspending jerkbaits and wide-bodied crankbaits like Wiggle Warts can get them biting.
And while you’re there don’t overlook Beltzville’s white perch population. They’re plentiful, often larger than the lake’s other panfish. They taste good, too. Find them in places like Pohopoco and other shallow coves.
They’re among the first fish to spawn in spring, doing so as soon as water temperatures hit 50 to 60 degrees, and so provide good early-season action.
Chambers Lake is a relative baby as far as fishing goes, having been created just in 1994 and opened to fishing only in 1999.
But it is considered highly productive in terms of its ability to sustain all kinds if forage, and it’s home to a pretty good population of largemouth bass.
Biologists, when assessing a Pennsylvania lake for bass, look at three things: the total number of bass, total number exceeding 12 inches and total number exceeding 15 inches, all measured in terms of the catch rate per hour of electrofishing.
Chambers Lake scores well on all fronts. When last examined in 2016, it produced almost four times as many fish per hour as needed to qualify as a “quality” lake. So numbers aren’t an issue.
Neither is size. Biologists didn’t handle any monsters — say, fish 20 inches or over — but the numbers over 12 and 15 inches exceeded state standards and ranked it equal to or better than other lakes in the southeastern corner of the state.
Now, that all comes with one qualifier.
The vast majority of bass seen — and there’s no surprise here — were caught “under overhanging shoreline, terrestrial vegetation or emerged from under felled trees and stumps.” That can make them hard to reach for shore anglers.
There’s some decent shoreline access here. The lake is part of Hibernia County Park and as a result is well maintained. That includes a trail that, at just less than three quarters of a mile, goes around a portion of the lake. There’s a public fishing pier on the lake’s north shore, too.
But the best fishing is absolutely by boat. That’s limited to canoes, kayaks and boats with electric motors — no gas engines are permitted — and all must have a registration sticker or launch permit. Boaters on all craft shorter than 16 feet must wear a life jacket at all times, too.
Meet those requirements, though, and there are bass to be had, along with some nice panfish. Bluegill and pumpkinseed are especially abundant, with good numbers of fish longer than 7 inches.
ROSE VALLEY LAKE
Another U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake — this one 389 acres near Williamsport — Rose Valley is a good spot to target walleyes, both before the season goes out in March and then again when it comes back in early May.
The numbers of fish the lakes support are the reason.
The Fish and Boat Commission has stocked Rose Valley with walleyes for years and years. That continues to pay dividends. A 2017 survey found legal-sized walleyes, those exceeding 15 inches in length, at a rate about five times the minimum required for a good fishery.
Crews didn’t necessarily find lots of really big walleyes; those longer than 20 inches were scarce. But they did collect plenty between 15 and 18, so if catching a keeper is enough to satisfy you, there’s lots of opportunity here.
Walleyes aren’t the only species to target here, though.
Rose Valley is home to a pretty nice population of largemouth bass. It mirrors the situation with walleyes in the sense that there are lots of fish, and lots of decent ones, if relatively few monsters.
The catch of bass lately has been good, biologists say, certainly comparable to some of the best seen for overall numbers. The total of fish longer than 15 inches is admittedly down, though.
Still, the average Rose Valley largemouth is in the 11- to 14-inch range, so there are plenty of chunky bass to be caught.
And don’t forget the lake’s yellow perch. Few people target them specifically — the numbers may not be there to make a trip here specifically for perch worthwhile – but those using live bait for bass and walleyes do catch some nice ones, 12 inches and longer and fat.
Only non-powered boats and those with electric motors are permitted here.
So have you got the bug to go fishing? If so, there are options aplenty out there. Pick one and go.