With the arrival of March many anglers will begin thinking of bass, and the opportunities that lie ahead. In general, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about this season’s potential.
What follows is a look at some of the more significant bass management situations in the state, along with a statewide look at some of the better bass fishing options.
With respect to bass management, the biggest story is the lower Susquehanna and lower Juniata rivers, where bass mortality in young-of-the-year smallmouth bass continues to be a major concern.
Studies have indicated young bass, stressed by low dissolved oxygen levels caused by algal blooms, contract the bacterial disease columnaris. Also, young bass tend to stay in backwaters areas where they were hatched, places where oxygen levels tend to be lower than in main river channels.
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has created the program “Save our Susquehanna,” (SOS), in an attempt to generate funds and public awareness aimed at reducing the nutrient loading that’s fueling the algal blooms.
While the major concern has been with young smallmouth bass, last season an adult bass with a cancerous tumor was caught. According to fisheries biologists, it’s extremely rare for fish to contract cancer. The state Department of Environment Protection has declined — at least to this point — to deem the Susquehanna an impaired river, a step that would kick-start cleanup activities.
Invasive species also continue to of concern to Pennsylvania anglers, including bass anglers. Unauthorized introduction of species such as gizzard shad can negatively impact fisheries.
For instance, gizzard shad were first discovered in Mercer County’s Lake Wilhelm in 2004. Since that time Wilhelm’s panfish fisheries — crappies and bluegills — have suffered due to competition from the highly prolific shad. The lake’s largemouth population hasn’t been significantly impacted, though they have become more difficult to catch given the new, very abundant food source.
Night electrofishing conducted by the Fish and Boat Commission in 2011 collected largemouths at an overall rate less than in 2004, but numbers of fish greater than 15 inches stayed similar. Since it’s been a dozen years since shad were discovered in Wilhelm, it’s hoped that their population will become more moderate following the initial explosion.
What follows is a look across the state at a handful of waters that are likely to provide good sport this season.
Even with the shad issue, Mercer County’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 the prior season, Wilhelm continues to support a fine largemouth bass fishery.
An impoundment of Sandy Creek, Wilhelm’s nearly 1,900 acres sit in a gently rolling valley surrounded by both wooded and agricultural lands. The dark, rich water allows weed growth 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.
“The bass move up on these humps and ledges to feed come summer,” said largemouth bass enthusiast Dave Lehman. “You 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.”
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 doesn’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 — milfoil mostly — in shallow zones. Cuts and points in the weed edge make good targets for pitching skirted jigs; early and late in the day largemouths often respond well to soft swimbaits like Berkley’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 County’s Tourism agency can provide information for anglers. Visit mercercountypa.org.
Straddling the Clarion/Venango county border, 250-acre Kahle Lake hosts a dense largemouth bass population. The bass in turn keep panfish numbers in balance, which provides for quality bluegill, crappie and yellow perch populations.
When last surveyed during night electrofishing, Kahle produced 225 bass per hour of effort. As one would expect of a lake with a dense bass population, smaller fish strongly outnumber quality bass. But that’s not to say there are no big ones in Kahle. There are plenty of fish over 12 inches, and a fair number over 15. I fish Kahle a lot, and each year I catch a reasonable number of largemouths in the 3- to 5-pound range. And as far as numbers go, during a nice late spring/early summer day it’s common to catch 30 to 50 bass a day; my boat partner and I have taken up to 80 in a day.
As a Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission property, Kahle is limited to electric motors only. The lake has been under a six-foot drawdown the past three years, due to a structural problem with the dam’s spillway. Two ramps provide access for boat anglers. The south launch — due to the drawdown — is limited to cartoppers. Trailered boats can be launched from the north launch, though it’s wise to have a four-wheel-drive tow vehicle for safe retrieval of the boat at the end of the day. Shore fishing is pretty much limited to the areas near the boat ramps.
One of the better types of cover to is to key in on at this lake are the weed edges. Typically there is both an inside and outside edge. Weeds grow out to depths of 10 to 12 feet.
By midsummer, in areas where milfoil beds rise to or near the surface, bass can be taken in good numbers by pitching a skirted jig along edges and open pockets. A drop shot rig dressed with a Yum Dinger or Yamamoto Senko is another good option for working such areas. Many days, particularly if the day is a cloudy and/or breezy one, bass will rise up from weedy flats to hammer a soft swimbait run over their heads. When a distinct inside weedline is present I like to hold the boat over the weeds, and throw a soft swimbait close to shore. Hits happen right when the lure reaches the inside wall of weeds.
When it comes to black bass, Crawford County’s sprawling Pymatuning Lake manages to fly under the radar, as most angler attention is directed toward walleyes, muskies and panfish. But this 13,000-acre border lake (shared with Ohio) supports a dense bass population made up of both largemouths and smallmouths.
Most of the bass-fishing pressure on Pymatuning happens during the spring, often in the form of bass tournaments, since this lake has no closed season. Consider the results of the Keystone Bass Buddy Circuit, which conducts two tournaments each spring. Consistently, it takes around 20 pounds (from a six-fish bag) to win. Lots of 4- to 5-pound-plus fish are caught. Six-fish limits are common.
There’s an axiom about Pymatuning’s largemouths that says “if your trolling motor isn’t kicking up mud, you’re fishing too deep.” This certainly applies to springtime fishing there.
Bass-fishing expert and tournament veteran Deron Eck finds Pymatuning largemouth in both back bays and main lake shorelines in May.
“One of the key areas in May is flats with old lily-pad stems,” noted Eck. “Also, black bottom areas draw in largemouths, like ones around Red Cross and Padanaram. And they set up on sandy-bottomed main lake shorelines.”
Laydowns sitting in a foot or two of water can be picked apart with a jig-n-pig, or Brush Hog-style baits rigged Texas-style.
While largemouths tend to stick to shallow wood, anglers are more likely to find smallmouth bass on shallow gravel areas. Pay attention to the gravel shoals and points that attract walleye anglers during the early spring. The same spots that collect walleyes during in April will often have smallies on them during summer and fall.
Huntingdon County’s Raystown Lake supports a diverse fishery, including quality largemouth and smallmouth populations. And springtime — a calm before the “storm” provided by summer’s crazy boating activity — is one of the best times to be on this 30-mile-long reservoir.
Raystown supports good numbers of both largemouth and smallmouth, including quality individuals of both. It’s often the season’s second stop on the Keystone Bass Buddies Circuit. In May, bass expert Deron Eck looks to the upper end of the lake when targeting largemouths. Hard-bottomed flats between around mile markers 22, 23, and 25 contain the right physical conditions. Often he’ll target these rocky flats with a buzzbait.
For smallmouths, he concentrates on the lower end of the lake, where the water tends to be clearer at this time of year. He often finds smallies in 12 to 14 feet of water in the Seven Points area. He also fares well on a large flat near mile marker 3.
The centerpiece of Bucks County’s Nockamixon State Park, Lake Nockamixon’s nearly 1,500 acres provide an important bass-fishing resource in the state’s heavily developed southeast region.
Though the lake doesn’t see incredible fishing pressure — traffic is kept down somewhat by the 20 horsepower outboard restriction — its location ensures you likely won’t be lonely. Human usage, combined with a rich forage base that includes gizzard shad, alewife and young panfish, make Nockamixon a place where one shouldn’t expect a lot of bites, but the ones you get will likely be from good fish.
Though some smallmouth bass are present, they are well outnumbered by green bass. The lake consists of two major arms. The primary arm is fed by Three Mile Run and Tohickon Creek; the secondary arm is on Haycock Run. The two meet near the dam. Both arms feature numerous bays and coves that attract pre-spawn and spawning largemouths. The lake contains lots of milfoil beds, as well as pad fields of spatterdock, the latter being particularly attractive to largemouths at this time. Work a spinnerbait or Fluke over these emerging pad fields.