As Pennsylvania'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. It'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.
"We 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," said PFBC Executive Director John Arway. "But at the same time, we can protect the existing bass population by reducing angling pressure on them."
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.
(RELATED: Tips, Tactics and More at the Game & Fish Bass Page)
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 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 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. It's also likely that the availability of this food source is making Wilhelm's largemouths more difficult to catch.
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 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.
"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 also 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 and Promotion agency can provide assistance for traveling anglers. Visit www.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 in turn produces quality bluegill, crappie and yellow perch populations.
When last surveyed (fall of 2007) 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 6-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 car-top boats. Trailered boats can be launched from the north launch, though it's wise to have a four-wheel-drive tow vehicle for the safe retrieval of the boat at the end of the day. Shore fishing is pretty much limited to the areas proximate to the boat ramps.
One of the better strategies is to key in on 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 featuring 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. As a testament to its productivity at this time of year, during the Keystone Bass Buddies Circuit event held there last May, all 50 of the top 50 teams had six-bass limits. The winning bag was 23.72 pounds. Though fish over 5 pounds are possible (the lunker during the May 2011 KBBC tournament was 5.44 pounds), the norm is chunky 2- to 3 pounders — and they are here in good numbers.
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 smallmouth bass 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. Last year's event, held in early April, produced several bass in excess of 5 pounds, two of which topped 7 pounds.
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 — 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 greatly 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 later being particularly attractive to largemouths at this time. Work a spinnerbait or Fluke over these emerging pad fields.