Keystone State bass anglers can look forward to another great year of fishing in 2007. Here's how things are shaping up on bass waters near you. (June 2007)
Photo by Ted Peck.
When it comes to managing black bass, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission relies heavily on self-sustaining populations, according to Bob Lorantas, head of the agency's Warmwater Fisheries Unit.
"Self-sustaining populations are indeed our principal goal," Lorantas said. In other words, no stocking of bass. "On occasion we make exceptions, although that is rare."
Those "rare" exceptions are newly filled reservoirs, where poor water quality has been remediated and also where bass reproduction has been poor for number of years. In these cases, Lorantas noted, the PFBC performs a seeding of waters over one or two years so that stocking will no longer be required.
But just because they do little bass stocking, that doesn't mean the Fish and Boat Commission has a hands-off policy regarding management of largemouth and smallmouth bass. A keystone of the program is the monitoring of the bass population with biological surveys through night electro-shocking or trap-netting.
"New approaches that create more efficient broad-scale (that is, state-wide) monitoring are being reviewed and developed," Lorantas said. "The purpose of this is to insure we deploy adequate sampling effort to measure changes that may be taking place in bass populations -- and more importantly, to insure we can make accurate statements about changes in black bass populations.
"The number of reservoirs or lakes surveyed varies annually," he added. "However, a minimum of eight reservoirs is usually sampled for black bass electro-shocking assessment."
Something new in the assessment process is a better understanding of different areas of the state during the same year.
"The agency is re-examining protocols on how frequently various resource categories are sampled and species targeted in those surveys," Lorantas said. "Our goal is to provide for greater coordination, so that when observations are made in the east end of the state, we have perspective on those species observations in the western and central portions of the state as well. We do a good job of that now, but wish to see if we can make improvements."
The agency's regional coordination was revealed in the way it has handled the smallmouth mortality problem in the Susquehanna River.
"In the case of smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna Drainage, in the summer of 2005, environmental conditions appeared to create a scenario that stressed young smallmouths and favored development of columnaris disease," Lorantas said.
"Circumstances previously observed have not been observed in 2006 in smallmouth bass. (And) that disease problem has not been observed in black bass in reservoirs in the state."
For the last seven years, a key in the agency's management program has been its year-round bass fishery.
"We have not identified any problems with this," Lorantas said. "In our regular black bass assessment, we continue to look for issues that may be attributed to year-round fishing. But none have been identified.
"With year-round fishing came other harvest restrictions, and no tournament fishing is permitted in the mid-April to mid-June catch-and-release season. The outdoor media can help insure that impacts remain small by encouraging short play time and prompt release of bass caught in the catch-and-release season. Also, not removing bass from the water while unhooking during this period benefits survival."
While the PFBC has not identified problems with its year-round fishery, a review of data collected since 2000 is slated to be discussed by fisheries managers at an upcoming technical meeting, Lorantas said. "This review is a matter of protocol and has not been precipitated by any problems that have been observed."
In looking at this season's prospects, Lorantas alluded to last year's history: "Perhaps the best news for 2006 was that there was no news in terms of disease problems or serious broad-scale habitat problems. Hopefully, those circumstances will continue and be reflected in good bass fishing in 20007 and beyond."
Last summer, Northeast Region anglers gave the PFBC quite a scare when fishermen reported finding skin lessons on largemouths in Lower Woods Pond. Following incidents of skin growths and bad fishing on the lower Susquehanna River in recent years, there was concern that a further spread of columnaris would cause immense problems with Pennsylvania's bass populations.
According to Area 5 fisheries manager Dave Arnold, bass anglers in a tournament noted that some of the bass had open sores around their heads and reddish blotches on their sides.
In July, a team of biologists surveyed Lower Woods Pond in the Poconos' Wayne County. In a little over an hour of daylight electro-shocking, biologists collected 27 largemouths Indeed, skin lesions were found on some. Eight of the 27 bass exhibited regions of skin irritations.
The affected bass were placed on ice and transported to Lamar, Pa., for analysis at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Fish Health Unit.
"Test results from the largemouth bass submitted for pathogenic analysis were negative for viral and certifiable bacterial pathogens," Arnold said. "Toxicology tests were also negative. What we do know is that motile aeromonads, a bacterial group, were present in five of the 16 bass sampled."
Motile aeronomads are common bacteria in soil and water and can become pathogenic when fish become stressed.
"Although the exact cause is not known, motile aeronomads are the leading candidate for causing these skin irritations," Arnold said. "Very cool May and June temperatures might have prolonged the spawning period, extending the physiological stress associated with spawning.
"The age of the bass noted with lesions should be four to seven years, based on previous Lower Woods Pond age data. These are the prime ages for spawning. Largemouth bass younger than the spawning age did not exhibit external signs of skin irritations as noted during our survey."
The bottom line was that the Lower Woods Pond bass did not have the columnaris associated with the Susquehanna River.
According to 2005
tournament records, Northeast Region anglers at Fairview Lake, Lake Wallenpaupack and Tobyhanna Lake caught above the state of fish-per-angler average.
The decline in smallmouth fishing on the Susquehanna River has been a source of worry for the Fish and Boat Commission over the last few years. Branches of the big Susquehanna stretch across the state, reaching far into the Northeast, North-central and Western regions.
The Susquehanna's two major forks merge at Sunbury, and the united river flows into the South-central and Southeast portions of the state. Smallmouth fishing seems to have suffered most from the forks down through the southern region and remains problematic.
But there is a bright spot.
Last September, a team of biologists surveyed a stretch of river near Marietta in Lancaster County. The survey team found good numbers of smallmouths in the York-Lancaster county region.
Biologists recorded a catch rate of a dozen legal-length fish per hour, comprising 43 percent of the catch over 12 inches. This marked a record high for the sample site, according to a PFBC report. Legal size for fish in this area is 15 inches or longer.
In addition, biologists said the per-hour electro-shocking catch rate of 28 fish over 12 inches in length was also the highest recorded at the sampling site.
That catch rate exceeded the rate obtained during the late 90s, when the Susquehanna's fishing was at its peak. It also blew away the horrible 2005 catch rate of fewer than five fish per hour.
It should be noted between that the river was not sampled at this site between 2002 and 2004, years when anglers experienced a significant downturn in smallmouth bass on the lower Susquehanna River.
"Presentation of the very favorable site-specific smallmouth bass abundance and size distribution data is not a suggestion that the entire Susquehanna River in Area 6, which extends from York Haven Dam downstream to the Maryland state line, maintained such an attractive smallmouth bass population in 2006. It didn't," noted Mike Kaufmann, Area 6 leader.
According to Kaufmann, the bad news was just downstream.
"Electro-shocking catch rates in the Safe Harbor Dam tailrace and on Lake Clark were poor. The Conowingo Pool was not sampled. The electro-shocking results near Marietta indicated, however, that potentially good smallmouth bass fishing was available in certain stretches of the river."
For direct access to this portion of the river, anglers may use the PFBC's Marietta launch at the south end of the town of Marietta on the west side of the river. They can also use the East Donegal Township Riverfront Park launch in Lancaster County off Route 441
No bass fisheries in the Southeast Region equaled or exceeded the state's mean catch rate per angler. In tournaments, however, Marsh Creek Lake, Hopewell Dam and Lake Nockamixon showed respectable largemouth catches.
Many Harrisburg-area anglers looking for smallmouth fishing as it was in the good old days have been heading slightly west to the lower West Branch Susquehanna River.
Their fishing reports in that zone have been mixed. But a new survey by a PFBC electro-shocking team provides some reason for celebration. The team visited three sampling sites: Montoursville, Watsontown and Chillisquaque. During nearly three hours of electro-shocking, a total of 216 smallmouth bass were captured. They ranged in size from 2-inch yearlings up to hefty 20-inch specimens.
"The 2006 catch rate of age 1 and older smallmouths was the highest on recent record and a considerable improvement from catch rates in 2005," the Area 3 team reported.
"Additionally," reported Bruce Hollender, Area 3 fisheries manager, "the catch rate of smallmouth bass greater than 15 inches -- 6.5 bass per hour of electro-shocking -- was also the highest on recent record."
Does this mean the lower West Branch Susquehanna River is on the way back? The survey report was optimistic.
"The good catch rate of age-1 fish is encouraging and suggests that the smallmouth bass population in the lower West Branch produced a strong 2005 year-class," biologists noted.
This was in spite of the columnaris outbreak that occurred in the Susquehanna Drainage in 2005.
"In addition," the report noted, "the good numbers of 6- to 10-inch bass should provide for good angling as they grow and enter the fishery within the next couple of years,"
On average, smallmouth bass in the West Branch Susquehanna River reach 12 inches at age 4 and 15 inches at age 6.
If you want to get in on the resurgence, use the PFBC's Chillisquaque access, which is four miles north of Northumberland on Route 405, or the PFBC's Watsontown Access in the town of the same name off Main Street (Route 405). Both lie in Northumberland County.
Regarding a largemouth problem at F. J. Sayers Lake in Centre County, biologist Lorantas had this to say:
"Largemouth bass virus was detected in at least one reservoir in the state: F. J. Sayers Lake. Largemouth bass virus can kill largemouth bass, and some mortality was reported at F. J. Sayers Lake by tournament anglers. However, agency personnel observed no dead fish.
"Samples of largemouths provided by anglers tested positive for the disease at that lake. The black bass population appears below average at the lake, but bass are available for capture. F.J. Sayers Lake is indeed a lake we will be focusing more attention on," Lorantas said.
Tournament catches above the mean catch per angler were reported at Kettle Creek, Raystown and Walker lakes.
In addition to the Susquehanna River, the decline of smallmouth bass fishing was also felt in the Ohio River system. One of the red flags was the poor showing of smallmouths during the 2005 Bassmasters Classic held on the Allegheny River. But was it the fish or the fishermen?
In July and September last year, the Area 8 staff conducted young-of-the-year smallmouth surveys in the lower Allegheny at Freeport.
"Results of these lower Allegheny surveys in 2006 were positive," said Rick Lorson, Area 8 fisheries manager. "One measure of the current status of the river smallmouth bass population comes from night shoreline electro-shocking. Valid comparisons can only be made for samples from similar seasons with data collected from July through October.
"The highest total catch-per-hour from four sample years (1989, 1993, 2005, and 2006) was recorded in 2006 at 70 fish
per hour of electro-shocking. The catches-per-hour over 12 and 15 inches were second-highest in 2006 behind the numbers generated in 1989."
The decline in smallmouth fishing on the Susquehanna has been a source of worry for the Fish and Boat Commission over the last few years.
In 2006, all three of the measures of smallmouth bass abundance were higher than in 2005. Generally, angler reports from 2006 also suggest better smallmouth fishing in the rivers. This is likely from a combination of better fishing conditions and more bass available, Lorson added.
"Fish managers use a young-of-the-year smallmouth bass index to provide a prediction or perspective on how future years' density of older smallmouth bass may be affected," he said. "This section of the Allegheny River has been monitored for nine years. The number of young bass can give an idea of when a strong year-class has established that should lead to improved fishing for bass 3 to 5 years down the road.
"Young-of-the-year numbers were above-average for 2005 and 2006," Lorson added. "If our indices prove valid, we can expect improved smallmouth numbers and improved fishing, starting in 2008. This is not to suggest that anglers quit fishing until then. It simply means that if your fishing is good now, it may only get better."
In the Southwest Region, respectable largemouth catches were reported in Youghiogheny Lake and above the state average in Crook Creek Lake.
Apparently, there's also good news for smallmouth anglers in the northwest region of the state. A biology team from Area 2 surveyed the upper Allegheny River in late August.
Three historic sites at East Brady, Kenerdell and East Brady were sampled over four kilometers of shoreline in four hours of electro-shocking.
When biologists speak of "an historic site," they're not talking about a famous battle or amazing architecture. To a survey team, an "historic" site is one they've surveyed again and again. Biologists use these historic sites to create a common basis of measurement from year to year.
"We captured a total of 445 smallmouth bass ranging from 4 to 19 3/4 inches. Our results showed the Allegheny River produced an excellent year-class in 2005, and that 2006 was our best year ever for smallmouths over 12 inches and also smallmouths over 15 inches."
Anglers they encountered on the water also reported good catches of smallmouths, using live bait.
Floating the Allegheny River in canoe and kayaks is productive in the summer months. And access to the river is good in Warren, Forest, Venango, Clarion and Armstrong counties, according to Area Two biologists.
Excellent largemouth catches were reported by tournament anglers in Pymatuning Reservoir, Presque Isle Bay and Lake Erie.
For additional information about Keystone State bass fishing, log on to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission at wwwfish.pa.us, or call them in Harrisburg at (717) 705-7800. For travel information, call 1-800-VISIT-PA.