If you're looking for great smallmouth bass fishing this spring, these proven hotspots will do the job. Our expert explains how you can get in on the action this season. (March 2006)
One of the classic sporting images is that of a smallmouth bass leaping from the water, its bronze sides reflecting the bright morning sunlight.
Those who know fish call smallmouths the "fightingest" freshwater game fish. Their power is awesome. Their endurance is legendary. Could there possibly be a better way to start a new spring of angling than at one of Pennsylvania's world-class smallmouth fisheries?
Keystone State regulations allow for bass fishing year 'round with special regulations for specific waters. At most waters, bass fishing is strictly catch-and-release for the first few weeks after smallmouths start hitting in the spring, but there are opportunities to catch the smallmouth of a lifetime during this peak period for trophy fishing.
Following are some top picks for the top 10 spring smallmouth waters across the Commonwealth. If you disagree with these waters or the order in which they are listed, send us a map of your secret smallmouth spots and samples of your favorite smallmouth lures. Be sure to include at least a half-dozen of your best smallmouth flies. We will do our best to check out your story and get it right next time. Our crack team of smallmouth researchers are willing to go to great lengths for our readers!
Without question, the best smallmouth bass fishery in the world is Lake Erie. Pennsylvania's 46 miles of coastline happens to contain some of the best of the best. Here is a place where you can expect to catch 5-pound smallmouths and have a realistic chance of catching 6-pound and even 7-pound smallmouths.
Among the five heaviest smallmouths registered with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission each year from 2000 through 2004, 19 out of 25 were caught from Lake Erie. No other water accounted for more than one such fish.
A special season from April 16 through June 17 allows anglers at Lake Erie to keep one bass per day. The minimum keeper size during this time is 20 inches.
Spring smallmouth fishing at Lake Erie typically gets better through May, peaking in late May or early June.
Habitat is the most important factor in locating big smallmouths. As anywhere, smallmouths like rocky bottom. There is plenty of this in Lake Erie, but a relatively small portion of it is right for smallmouths. The real secret is rocky rubble, a mix of rocks of different shapes and sizes. The biggest concentrations of smallmouths will be over a rocky rubble bottom with an irregular shape: drop-offs, humps, dips and similar steep depth changes.
Depth is important. Most of the fishing effort directed at smallmouths on Lake Erie takes place during spring because the bass are in relatively shallow water. However, relatively shallow water here is considerably deeper than at most other waters. It might be more than 35 feet deep. Most anglers hope to find smallmouths in depths of about 15 feet.
Because you will be fishing deeper water here than you'll find at most spring smallmouth hotspots, lure selection will be different. Bring a good assortment of jigs, jigging spoons and blade baits. Gobies have become the major smallmouth food in Lake Erie, so brown tube jigs, which mimic them, are excellent lures. Silver lures that resemble emerald shiners or rainbow smelt are also effective.
North East Marina, a Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission access, is a good starting point for Lake Erie angling. It is off state Route 5 near the town of North East. You can get there from Interstate Route 90 by exiting at North East and following state Route 89 north to Route 5 and then turn right.
PRESQUE ISLE BAY
Lake Erie is slow to warm because it is so large. You can get an earlier start at Presque Isle Bay, Pennsylvania's only natural bay on the big lake. The special regulations that allow anglers to keep one bass 20 inches or longer per day from April 16 to June 17 are also in effect here.
We will give it the No. 2 ranking because of convenience, regulations and the size of its bass.
Because Presque Isle Bay is much shallower than Lake Erie, it warms much sooner, sometimes by a few weeks. Occasionally, anglers catch smallmouths here as early as late March, but the better fishing usually comes later.
Jigs can be very effective. However, since the water is shallower and smallmouths might be in water that is less than 5 feet deep, crankbaits and single-blade spinnerbaits should also be in your tackle box.
There are several boat launches along Bayfront Parkway in the city of Erie, but for visiting anglers, the launch at Presque Isle State Park might be easier to find.
Equally as famous for its smallmouth fishing is the Susquehanna River. Smallmouths are abundant, though not as large on average. Still, there are 5-pound smallmouths to be had. How this could possibly be ranked so low as No. 3 might seem absurd, yet it proves how great smallmouth bass fishing is in Pennsylvania.
The Susquehanna is a broad, shallow river, perfect habitat for smallmouths. Much of it can be waded, though this might not be possible during typical spring flows. Big spinnerbaits can be more effective here than they normally are for smallmouths. This is one of the best opportunities in the country to catch really big smallmouths on fly-fishing gear.
There has been a recent problem in the Susquehanna River. Anglers were finding dead and dying young smallmouths in a variety of locations throughout the river last year. Later, biologists making their annual collections of young-of-the-year smallmouths observed an unusually high number of fish with skin lesions. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission identified the cause as a common bacterial agent, Flavobacterium columnare. This disease is not harmful to humans but can affect other fish.
The problem appears to be greatest downstream from Sunbury to below Harrisburg.
Reproduction has been good. Fish and Boat Commission researchers sampled sites on the Susquehanna and Juniata rivers and found good numbers of young smallmouths. The average catch rate for 2005 is the third highest recorded over the previous decade. Low flows and warm water resulted in excellent growth rates.
"Young-of-the-year abundance is a key predictor of adult fish populations in future years," said Dr. Doug Austen, the Fish and Boat Commission's executive director, after surv
eys were completed last year.
"We were particularly interested in the results of this year's analysis as we continue to look at the unusual river conditions in 2005. The sampling this year took place before, during and after the most pronounced outbreaks of bacterial infection in young smallmouths. So, even with some young bass mortality as a result of the infection, the 2005 year-class appears to be among the strongest we've documented in the last decade."
It takes three to four years for young smallmouth bass to reach the legal size of 12 inches, so anglers should not see any ill effects for at least a couple more years. It has not yet been determined how much effect the bacteria problem will have on this fishery, but to be safe, get there this spring. You do not want to miss out on this outstanding smallmouth fishing.
Special Big Bass Regulations apply to the Susquehanna River from the Snyder-Holtwood Dam upstream to the inflatable dam near Sunbury. The regulations apply to largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass. From Jan. 1 through April 16 and from Oct. 1 through Dec. 31, the minimum size is 18 inches and the daily creel limit is two bass of any species.
From April 16 through June 17, fishing is catch and immediate release only, and no tournaments are permitted. From June 18 through Sept. 30, the minimum size is 15 inches and the daily creel limit is four bass of any species.
For the purposes of these special regulations, power dam pools and recreational dam pools on the Susquehanna River are classified as rivers.
Coming in at No. 4 is the Juniata River, the cream of central Pennsylvania's smallmouth fishing. The Juniata is a small river where it is formed by the joining of the Little Juniata, Frankstown and Raystown branches near Huntingdon and is just becoming a medium-sized river when it empties into the Susquehanna near Duncannon.
Good smallmouth potential extends up into its branches. Smallmouths are abundant in the upper reaches of the Juniata, but moving downstream the bass get bigger.
The nature of this hard-bottom river varies from riffles and pools to long slicks or calmer pools. Try stick baits and other shallow-running crankbaits if the smallmouths are aggressive, but switch to 1/16-ounce jigheads dressed with brown bodies if the bass seem finicky. Keep a rod rigged with medium-diving crankbaits for the deeper holes that may pass quickly while floating.
Unfortunately, the same bacterial problem that is impacting smallmouths on the Susquehanna River is also affecting smallmouths in the Juniata. The infection rate was 46 percent in a section surveyed by the Fish and Boat Commission. It was observed primarily downstream from Lewistown, but it should not affect spring fishing.
Big Bass Program Special Regulations are in effect on the Juniata River for 31.7 miles from the PA Route 0075 bridge at Port Royal downstream to the mouth.
Smallmouth bass fishing at the Allegheny River certainly does not rate as highly as the Susquehanna River or the Juniata River, yet it still gets close to world class and rates a debatable No. 5 in our rankings.
Spring is the time to be here for fast action and for the biggest bass. It normally gets going by May when the water temperature rises above 40 degrees, perhaps sooner in the lower reaches, and around warmwater discharges and warmer tributary mouths in the Pittsburgh area.
Smallmouth fishing is fine on the Allegheny all the way from Warren downstream to Pittsburgh. Perhaps the best of it is from the Tidioute area downstream through Venango County. Fish and Boat Commission launches at Tidioute, Tionesta and Franklin make good take-off points.
There is also some overlooked bass fishing above the Allegheny Reservoir from the Port Allegany area downstream into New York.
Big Bass Program Special Regulations apply to the Allegheny River in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties from Lock and Dam No. 4 at Natrona downstream to and including Lock and Dam No. 3 at Acmetonia. For the purposes of these special regulations, navigational dam pools in the Ohio River drainage are classified as rivers.
We will give the Delaware River the No. 6 ranking because there is quite a bit of it and it can be float-fished, making it accessible by boat throughout. A long stretch flows through the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.
Bass fishing is allowed year 'round in the Delaware River through reciprocal agreements. A change last year to align regulations with New Jersey rules is more conservative with respect to harvesting bass during the spawning period.
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has adopted amendments regarding the New Jersey-Pennsylvania portion of the river (downstream of I-84) that imposes a catch-and-immediate-release season from the first Saturday after April 11 and extends through 12:01 a.m. the first Saturday after June 11. It provides an opportunity for competitive anglers to have catch-measure-immediate-release tournaments during the catch-and-release season.
One lake which does not get its due respect for smallmouth fishing is the Allegheny Reservoir. This 12,000-acre lake has plenty of smallmouths, so we will rate it No. 7. It is temperamental, though. Cold fronts can really shut down the fishing.
Do not expect huge smallmouths, but there are some fish taken here that weigh over 4 pounds.
Start your mornings on Allegheny Reservoir by casting surface lures. If the smallmouths are not looking up, go after them with deep-diving crankbaits or soft-plastic twitching minnows. Try slender crankbaits with silver finishes or silver in combination with blue. White soft plastics are also effective.
This is a great place for a camping and fishing vacation. There are several developed campgrounds bordering the lake along with some less developed campgrounds that are accessible only by boat or by hiking.
Shenango Lake is better known for largemouth bass and other game fish, but it is also a fine smallmouth bass lake. We will rank it No. 8 because we need another lake and because access is excellent. This is a U.S. Corps of Engineers flood control reservoir.
This lake is reasonably fertile and grows all fish to good sizes. A Fish and Boat Commission survey in June 2005 found smallmouths up to 16.7 inches, with a good number over 12 inches. They get bigger than this.
While fishing during spring, if you cannot get them on surface lures, try firetiger color crankbaits up the Shenango River arm. As anywhere when pursuing smallmouths, look for the rocky cover, but do not overlook stumps or other wood cover.
Any list of best smallmouth bass waters must reflect varied fishing
environments and for this reason No. 9 goes to the Clarion River.
This small river draws its headwaters from Elk County and then flows southwest through Jefferson, Forest and Clarion counties. Above Piney Dam it has all of the characteristics of a perfect smallmouth river with riffles, pools, long fast runs and plenty of rocky rubble on the bottom. However, the surroundings make it really special. The densely forested Allegheny Highlands surrounds the steep valley. Human population is sparse.
Float-fishing is a great way to approach Clarion River smallmouths. It may be floated down from Ridgway to Cook Forest State Park, or farther down to Piney Dam and other take-out points. Or it may be waded in many places. Be sure to wear good gripping soles; the river's rocks are slippery.
Typical smallmouths here will be as large as 3 1/2 pounds, though there are larger specimens. Be sure your tackle box includes stick baits, other shallow-diving crankbaits in natural colors and plenty of jigs. Fly-fishermen will love it here. Try not to be disappointed should the occasional trout take your smallmouth flies.
No. 10, and this required a lot of difficult thought, goes to the Youghiogheny River. Famous for its whitewater rafting and well known among anglers as a trout fishery, the Yough becomes a fine smallmouth bass river before it is finished.
While there are smallmouths throughout Pennsylvania's portion of the river, the fishing starts improving below Ohiopyle State Park. The stretch below Connellsville is best known as smallmouth water.
For more information about fishing for bass in Pennsylvania, contact the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, P.O. Box 67000, 1601 Elmerton Avenue, Harrisburg, PA 17106-7000; or call (717) 705-7800.
For more travel information, contact the Pennsylvania Office of Tourism, Room 404, Forum Building, Harrisburg, PA 17120; or call (717) 232-8880 or (800) VISIT-PA.