Fish and Boat Commission electro-shocking surveys are revealing some huge populations of largemouths and smallmouths, some over 7 pounds. Here's what's in store for Keystone State anglers in 2006. (June 2006)
Over the past few decades, bass fishermen in Pennsylvania have enjoyed increasing opportunities, thanks to a general trend of improving water quality, more lakes and more intensive bass management.
That trend might be leveling off, but only because progress has been made, not by any less intensive management. This year, there are mostly encouraging changes to report, more reasons to sharpen your hooks and read up on the fishing hotspots and new fishing methods.
However, there are some areas of concern. Year-to-year bass-fishing fortunes tend to be linked to weather patterns, which affect reproductive success. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has an extensive bass-stocking program, but it's intended primarily to introduce or reintroduce and augment bass populations in waters where natural reproduction doesn't fill the niche sufficiently. It doesn't provide catch-and-release fisheries, as is the case with the modern trout program. Raising bass for a similar put-and-take program would be prohibitively expensive.
"Probably the news for 2005 and projecting into 2006 are young-of-the-year (YOY) bass indices and columnaris disease in the Susquehanna River basin," said Bob Lorantas, Warmwater Unit leader for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. "Weather conditions conducive to bass reproduction, in contrast to the previous few years, led to good smallmouth recruitment in all three of our major river systems. Favorable conditions are lower flows from April through June, along with moderate to warmer water.
"Young-of-year indices were up in all three basins, that is, above the long-term averages," Lorantas added.
For the Ohio River basin, the YOY index for 2005 was 7.8 smallmouths per 50 meters. This was the highest rate since 1986 and well above the 5.1 statewide average. The index was 1.8 in 2000, 3.6 in 2001, 5.2 in 2002, 4.1 in 2003, and was not measured in 2004.
The Ohio River basin includes the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers along with their tributaries. The Monongahela and its major tributary, the Youghiogheny River, have not been surveyed in this study.
Last year's YOY index in the Susquehanna basin was 8.6. Rates there have been 1.6 in 2000, 6.8 in 2001, 2.4 in 2002, 2.6 in 2003, and 1.95 in 2004, based on only a small sample. The average YOY index is 6.9 for the Susquehanna basin, which includes the West Branch Susquehanna and Juniata rivers. Low flows and warm water resulted in excellent growth rates, with the majority of bass reaching between 3 and 4 inches by the first week of July.
The Delaware basin's YOY index last year, 15.7, was the highest on record for any of our major river basins. Indices here have fluctuated greatly from 0.65 in 2000, 10.0 in 2001, 6.7 in 2002, 3.6 in 2003 and 3.6 in 2004 based on a small sample. The long-term average is 5.7 for this basin, which includes the Schuylkill and the Lehigh rivers.
Typically, it takes three to four years for smallmouths to grow to legal creel size, so we can expect this great 2005 year-class to become part of the fishery in 2008 or soon after.
What are the prospects for smallmouths in our river systems in 2006?
"More smaller fish than bigger fish would be my prediction," Lorantas said. "Of course, that is looking at the big picture. Anglers shouldn't take that to mean the fishing will be terrible."
Lorantas pointed out that there are still plenty of bigger smallmouths out there. There may be fewer larger smallmouths for the next few years because of weaker recruitment from 2002 through 2004, but anglers will find good fishing in places if they learn where the bigger bass are lurking.
The big news last year was a bacterial infection that resulted in widespread mortality of smallmouths in the Susquehanna and Juniata rivers. The outbreak was observed primarily in the Susquehanna River from Sunbury to below Harrisburg and in the Juniata River downstream of Lewistown. Lesser problems were reported from the West Branch Susquehanna River, the North Branch Susquehanna River, Loyalsock Creek and Penns Creek.
There were no reports of the problem from other river systems.
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission worked with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission to compile and analyze data that could help explain why random pockets of young smallmouths contracted columnaris in early summer.
Flavobacterium columnare is a common bacterium in soil and water. It is harmless to humans but can infect all species of freshwater fish. Columnaris is a secondary infection brought on by environmental or nutritional factors that stress fish. In this case, high water temperatures and low dissolved-oxygen levels were probably the stress factors. The same warm water and lower flows that led to the good year-class were probably the major factors in allowing the columnaris outbreak.
Columnaris mortalities are known to occur when water temperatures exceed 65 degrees. At the Susquehanna River, temperatures exceeded 80 degrees during the YOY sampling. While sampling was done in the morning, dissolved-oxygen levels were found to be near the crucial point and were probably lower at night. Of course, young smallmouths inhabit shallow water near shore where these conditions are most extreme.
Some sort of pollution might have been a factor, but this is unlikely because only young smallmouths were seriously impacted. Pollution would probably have affected, all species. Also, the widespread incidences of the outbreak within the Susquehanna Basin appear to rule out pollution.
Even with this problem, the 2005 year-class was the strongest in several years. But with nearly half of the YOY smallmouths in one of the Juniata River samples displaying columnaris infection, biologists are concerned.
"Although we were above average, it's unknown whether that above-average value will continue to maintain itself," Lorantas said. "Whether the mortality associated with that disease will have a lasting effect remains to be seen."
The Susquehanna-Juniata river system is one of the top smallmouth bass fisheries in the country. Regardless of the columnaris problem and low recruitment for the few years preceding 2005, fishing here is still very good.
This is but one element of the Pennsylvania bass scene, however. Elsewhere, the outlook is generally better in comparison to previous years.
That said, even though other river systems in Pennsylvania have more encouraging news relative to the long term, the Susquehanna River basin still has the best smallmouth fishing among our river systems.
"Anglers are going to see a lot of small fish in 2006, and releasing those fish carefully is going to be important," Lorantas advised.
LAKES AND PONDS
Studies are ongoing in Pennsylvania's lakes and reservoirs.
Said Lorantas, "We're in the process of doing some summary work on smallmouths and largemouths in lakes and reservoirs across the state. Generally, warmer-than-normal conditions tended to affect survey success."
Tournament anglers last year reported results that were down somewhat. Reports from bass tournaments are just one of the ways these fish are studied in our standing waters. More about this as we look into bass fishing region by region.
Following a recent trend resulting from dam safety inspections, Duke Lake in Greene County and Opossum Creek Lake in Cumberland County have been drawn down to facilitate dam repairs. Both lakes were in the PFBC's Big Bass Program.
"Those lakes had some pretty nice bass that won't be available to anglers this year," Lorantas pointed out.
In 2000, Perez Lake was drained for repairs to the dam. The following year, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission restocked the lake. A survey last year found a hardy population of largemouth bass up to 15 inches. This lake is in the Stone Valley Recreation Area and is owned by Penn State University.
Bass fishing has also been getting better at Koon Lake. During nighttime electro-shocking surveys conducted in May 2005, Fish and Boat Commission biologists reported a catch rate of 174 bass per hour, the best ever for this water. For bass over 12 inches, the catch rate was more than 69 fish per hour and for bass over 15 inches, it was nearly 16 fish per hour. The largest bass sampled was 22 inches in length and weighed 6 pounds, 3 ounces.
Part of the study at Koon Lake is of growth rates determined from scale samples. It takes bass three years to grow to 9 inches, five years to reach 13 inches and eight years to reach 18 inches.
Koon Lake in southern Bedford County is a 268-acre impoundment owned by the Evitts Creek Water Company. It supplies water for the city of Cumberland, Maryland. Boats must be carried to the lake. Only electric-powered motors may be used.
"It's an excellent place for largemouths and smallmouths," said biologist Dave Miko.
Since Big Bass Program regulations were implemented in 1998, they've had the desired results at Lake Somerset. Although the night electro-shocking catch rate of 45 bass per hour doesn't rank among the top lakes in the commonwealth, it's a distinct improvement. The catch rate of bass over 12 inches was 17 per hour and for bass over 15 inches, six per hour. The largest bass sampled was 22 inches in length and weighed 7.8 pounds. It's a pretty sure bet that this lake holds even larger bass.
The catch rate for bass over 12 inches was the best since the lake was first surveyed in 1978, while the catch rate for bass over 15 inches was the best since 1988, when a rate of 12 bass per hour was recorded and the total catch was less than half of what is now is.
Lake Somerset is a 252-acre Fish and Boat Commission impoundment in Somerset County. There are two boat launches. Boats are restricted to electric motors only.
In June 2005, night electro-shocking crews surveyed Shenango Lake in Mercer County to monitor changes in the quantity and size structure of its black bass population.
They found that largemouth bass numbers had increased from the previous survey in 2003, but smallmouth bass numbers were down. The bulk of the largemouths were in the 8- to 16-inch range, with the largest over 21 inches. Most smallmouths were from 6 inches to 13 inches.
This 3,560-acre lake is managed under the Big Bass Program.
Tamarack Lake is a shallow, 562-acre Fish and Boat Commission impoundment in Crawford County. In 1999 it was drained for repairs to the dams at either end and then restocked the next year. It was surveyed last May by electro-shocking to get a handle on largemouth bass recovery rates, but the results have been less than desired.
Lake Erie has the best smallmouth bass fishery in the world, yet fishing pressure is remarkably light. According to one of several ongoing studies, the Lake Erie Cooperative Angler Log, only 5 percent of fishing trips target smallmouths.
The Lake Erie Boat Angling Survey, taken from interviews with anglers at access areas, showed that 9 percent targeted smallmouths and only 3 percent of the catch was smallmouths. More than half of the catch was made during May, and more than a quarter of the catch was taken during June, leaving just 21 percent for the remainder of the year. Those two heavy fishing months constitute the "trophy bass season," during which 88 percent of smallmouth fishing effort takes place.
Fisheries research leans toward trout in the North-Central Region more so than in the other regions. This area consists primarily of the Allegheny Highlands, where fisheries are mostly swift, cool streams. One result of this is that bass fisheries tend to be overlooked.
One example is George B. Stevenson Lake, where an 8-pound largemouth was taken a few years ago. Local anglers head there every evening to take advantage of the good bass fishing.
At Rose Valley Lake in Lycoming County, an electro-shocking survey in May 2005 revealed an excellent bass population with good-sized fish. The catch rate was 150 bass per hour, and 74 percent were longer than 12 inches. Smallmouths are present but the majority of the bass are largemouths.
This 389-acre Fish and Boat Commission lake is managed under the Big Bass Program. Under these regulations, bass size structure has been slowly but steadily improving.
Only electric motors are allowed. There is no launch site, so boats must be light enough to be carried to the water.
Bass anglers in Bradford County can anticipate a good year of fishing at Stephen Foster Lake. Biologists gleaned an impressive catch rate of 93 bass per hour last June in night electro-shocking. Forty-eight percent of the bass exceeded the minimum legal size limit of 12 inches, and some were considerably larger
Stephen Foster Lake is in Mt. Pisgah Sta
te Park. Boats may be powered only by electric motors.
Smallmouth bass fans should note that the YOY indices for the Delaware River were exceptionally high last year and well above average in 2001 and 2002. Fish hatched in those two years will now be of decent size. This might result in some of the best river bass fishing in the commonwealth.
For hot smallmouth action on the Delaware River, start in the Damascus area and work downstream. The Delaware Water Gap is one of the best stretches for smallmouths and it offers plenty of access.
The Southeast Region has relatively few trout streams. Most waters are warmwater fisheries, and one reliable place for largemouth bass is Lake Ontelaunee.
This Berks County lake, owned by the city of Reading, is fairly deep and has a lot of rocky bottom with few aquatic plants. Boats are not allowed.
"It's not a lake where a lot of bass anglers go," biologist Brian Chikotas noted, "because you can't put a boat in it."
Bass generally don't require a lot of management other than fishing regulations. Given the right habitat, they do well. One lake that was designed with good bass habitat in mind is Chambers Lake, which has a lot of standing timber. If things go according to the usual cycle, the hot spring bass fishing will taper off soon.
When the lake was built, all the timber was flooded with the intention of creating good fishing, especially in the upper end, Chikotas noted.
Chambers Lake is in Hibernia Park in Chester County.
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 statewide travel information, contact the Pennsylvania Office of Tourism, Room 404, Forum Building, Harrisburg, PA 17120; or call (717) 232-8880 or 1-800-VISIT-PA.