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Hotspots for Pennsylvania's Spring Smallmouths

Hotspots for Pennsylvania's Spring Smallmouths

The Keystone State boasts some of the best smallmouth bass fishing in the country, and the time to go is now! Here's a sampling of top-rated rivers for excellent bronzeback angling.

Smallmouth bass are "waking up" across the Keystone State this month after a long winter of lethargy. For one thing, the smallies are hungrier than they've been for many cold months; also, with spawning on their fishy minds, they're becoming a lot more aggressive.

Add to this the fact that smallmouths are now moving into shallower waters, making them more vulnerable to a variety of angling techniques, and it's no wonder bass fishermen get excited toward the start of spring.

This is the third season that bass fishing has been legal year 'round in Pennsylvania. Until April 13, anglers may keep a daily limit of four smallmouths or largemouths with a 15-inch minimum size. From April 14 to June 15, an immediate catch-and-release restriction is in place.

Fish and Boat Commission officials also acknowledge that self-imposed catch-and-release fishing or limited creeling in early spring is helpful to the smallmouth fishery.

As proof, the state continues to expand its Big Bass Program waters where, until April 14, an 18-inch minimum size with a two-fish limit is in effect for rivers and streams. For lake waters, Big Bass restrictions are no different than other year-round regulations.

By having the different regulation for rivers and streams, fisheries biologists are hoping to improve smallmouth angling in typical smallmouth habitat.


Here's a look at some of the best places for hot smallmouth action in Pennsylvania this spring.

Photo by Michael Skinner

Bob Lorantas, state biologist and Warmwater Unit leader, considers the Juniata River his favorite smallmouth water in the state. Lorantas regularly floats the "Big J" in his aluminum canoe, paddling downstream from Lewistown to Mifflintown. Along this 4-mile trip, he works the river's ledges and pool for the trophy bass that inhabit its limestone waters.

"This is an incredibly fertile water," Lorantas said. "There's a lot of food in the river, and the bass grow quickly with this rich supply of food."

Flowing from the Raystown Lake dam east to the Susquehanna River at Duncannon, the Juniata River is a good early-spring fishery, particularly if one stays away from the colder feeder streams above Lewistown. There may be deep pools where smallies may still be lurking at the start of the season, but as the sun warms the river, bass move into the ledge pools and shallower riffles.

The main spring forage for bass is the river's abundant crayfish, which grow to dinner-plate proportions. Following in importance are the river's assortment of madtoms, a type of catfish, and an assortment of shiners and minnows. Bass chasers would be wise to exploit this information by using matching lures or live bait.

Access is good along the Juniata River. In Lewistown, there's a municipal boat launch behind the old dairy off Route 22. There are also some small landings around Lewistown where a nominal fee will put you on the water.

Downstream from Lewistown, the first state access in Juniata County is at Mifflintown on Route 32. Six miles downstream from Mifflintown is the Walker access on Route 32, followed by the Muskrat Springs access at Center, about five miles downstream.

Next in Juniata County is the Thompsontown Access just below the Thompsontown Bridge, about six miles below Muskrat Springs. Other fee-based and municipal ramps are in Juniata County.

According to Lorantas, a 31.7-mile stretch of the lower Juniata River has been included in the Big Bass Program for 2002. This is an extension of some 13 miles and runs from Port Royal downstream to the Route 11/15 bridge near the mouth of the Susquehanna River.

"This addition resulted, in part, from an analysis of how these regulations affected bass survival and how bass density changed in the (prior) Big Bass segment of the river," Lorantas noted.

For more fishing information on Juniata River, contact Bob Lorantas at (814) 359-5168, or contact the PFBC Area 7 office at (717) 486-3710.

For accommodations, call the Juniata-Mifflin Tourist Promotion Agency at (877) 568-9739.

No one seems to argue with the assertion that the Susquehanna is one of the best smallmouth rivers in the country. Thousands of anglers who have made the pilgrimage to this central Pennsylvania waterway leave with a sense of awe and a great deal of satisfaction.

Of course, the Susquehanna's great bass fishing didn't happen by accident. Two major factors that led to today's great fishing are the flushing of the Susquehanna River after years of mine drainage and Big Bass regulations that were imposed by the state. While the new regulations were originally met with some skepticism by anglers, no one is doubtful now. Let's just hope this fine fishing continues forever.

Better spring fishing usually begins around the southernmost stretches of the Susquehanna River. In part, this is caused by a warmwater discharge at the Brunner Island electric plant below York Haven Dam. Also, bass in the lower part of the river just seem to get into an aggressive spring mood faster than the fish in some other waterways do. In fact, anglers take smallmouths from the lower Susquehanna through most of the winter, weather permitting.

The discharge from Brunner Island creates a warmwater plume that extends about a mile downriver. Depending on the discharge flow and the ambient river temperature, smallies will be somewhere in the area. Bass also turn on quickly in the river's rocky shallows away from the discharge plume.

Boat access to the area above the York Haven Dam is from a state ramp at Goldsboro in York County. To reach the site from Interstate 83, take Route 262 to Goldsboro. Go through the town square to the railroad tracks and make an immediate left. Shore-anglers can also get into the act, accessing the area near the York Haven power plant by taking Route 181 between York Haven and Conewago Heights. A gravel road that parallels the river between the plant and the railroad tracks provides a way to the river.

The York Haven Dam does not extend all the way across the Susquehanna River, so it is possible for boats to get around the dam on the east side.

On the east side of the river, launches are available in Falmouth, one mile below York Haven Dam along Route 441, and in Bainbridge at the foot of Race Street. Unless you have a jet boat or a shallow-draft craft, it will be difficult to cross the river from these points to reach the warmwater discharge plume.

A number of anglers prefer to launch farther south at the Fish and Boat access at Marietta in Lancaster County. From there, they test the rocks to the lower end of the warmwater plume. The ramp is on the sound end of the town of Marietta.

For more information on the middle Susquehanna River, contact the Area 7 office at (717) 486-3710; or, for the lower river, contact the Area 6 office at (610) 847-2442.

For accommodations, call the Pennsylvania Dutch Visitors Bureau TPA at (800) PA-DUTCH or the York County Visitors Bureau at (888) 858-YORK.

Twenty years ago, the Schuylkill River above Philadelphia would not have been worth writing about or fishing. But in recent years, the suburban section of the river has become a slam-dunk smallmouth fishery. Now anglers are flocking to parts of the Schuylkill River, regularly catching 2-pound bass and reporting fish up to 4 pounds.

When the river was studied by the state in 1999, the crucial "young of the year" classification posted an all-time high. Basically, this classification gives the number of smallmouth fry present in a waterway. All things being equal, it should be a harbinger of good fishing in the future.

The previous high on the Schuylkill River was in 1991, when 11 young bass were found per 50-meter site. In 1999, the number jumped to 23 bass per measured area.

It takes between four and five years for a Schuylkill River bass to reach 15 inches in length, so this year could produce a trophy bonanza. Certainly, Schuylkill River anglers were pleased with the number of legal fish they turned up last fall.

Tournament anglers are also turning to a section of the river accessed in Norristown at the bottom of Haws Avenue. Across from the ramp is a power plant island, Barbadoes Island, which has major channels on both sides. Competition fishermen often turn left from the ramp and proceed downstream to Stoney Creek. The Norristown Dam prevents further travel downstream.

Turning right from the ramp, most anglers proceed toward Port Indian and the Betzwood bridge. Another ramp and parking area is on the upstream side of the bridge.

The Schuylkill River has frequent flat spots, and boaters should follow the buoys. While these rocky areas provide good smallmouth habitat, the river's shorelines, which hold a considerable number of fallen trees and boathouse docks, seem to provide the best fishing.

The Haws Avenue access is in Norristown's residential area off West Main Street. The Betzwood access is beneath the Route 422 bridge near Valley Forge National Park.

For more information, call the PFBC Area 6 office at (610) 847-8424.

For accommodations, call the Valley Forge Visitors Bureau at (888) VISITVF.

The Allegheny River, with its series of locks and dams, seems more like one of the great southern rivers than one typically seen in Pennsylvania. For Pittsburgh-based anglers, the Allegheny River is the premier southwestern water for spring smallmouth fishing.

The impoundments that slow the flow of the river begin at Pittsburgh and proceed northeast through Armstrong County. When studying maps of the river, anglers should realize that Lock No. 2 is actually the first lock above the river's junction with the Monongahela River from the Ohio River. That will save some confusion.

Allegheny River smallmouths tend to congregate in the riffles below the dam and in the initial part of the pool. The deeper water is home to some good-sized walleyes and saugers. Anglers will find good bass fishing from the city on through Armstrong County.

Expect to find more trophy-sized fish in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties in Pool 3 and from Lock No. 4 at Natrona downstream to Lock No. 3 at Acmetonia, thanks to the Big Bass Program.

Access to the lower part of the Allegheny River is through a host of commercial and state access sites off Route 28. In Allegheny County, state access points are in Harmarville, Springdale and Tarentum. Upstream in Armstrong County, state accesses are at Brady's Bend, Cowanshannock, Parker City and Rosston.

All things being equal, anglers can expect good smallmouth fishing this year along the Allegheny River as well as in the Three River system, including the Monongahela and Ohio rivers.

"Production and survival of young bass has been steady, not substantially above or below average, over the past five years," biologist Lorantas said. "Generally, fishing for bass 12 inches and up should be good in 2002 in the Three Rivers system."

For more information on the lower Allegheny River, call the Area 8 office at (814) 455-3497.

The Monongahela River holds good numbers of smallmouths, which is reason enough for Pittsburgh-area anglers to rejoice. This is a good spring fishery with a number of early-season hotspots.

"Monongahela River smallmouths can be taken at several 'river habitats' throughout the year and especially in the spring," said Lorantas. "These include the mouths of tributary streams. The mouth of Tenmile Creek is a traditional hotspot, but smallies can also be taken at the mouth of most warmwater tributaries."

The gravel and sand bars extending from the mouths of tributaries into the river are a second option for Monongahela River smallmouths in spring.

"The best place to fish in these areas is the downstream side of the bar," Lorantas said.

Lorantas also noted that many anglers catch spring smallies in the slack water below the dams.

"In spring, bass stack up below the dams in the slack water, not in the riffles. Some dams seem to be better than others, although most hold fish," he said.

Three Rivers-system anglers are cautioned against venturing into posted, off-limits areas immediately below the dams.

"The fish do not hold in these areas in abundance, anyway," Lorantas said.

There are six Fish and Boat Commission ramps along the Monongahela River. They include the East Fredrickstown access, which is adjacent to the ferry at East Millsboro; at Point Marion off Route 88 in Fayette County; and at Rice's Landing, one mile east of Dry Tave

rn off Route 88 in Greene County.

In addition to numerous commercial and municipal ramps in Allegheny County, a PFBC access is in McKeesport off Route 148 at its confluence with the Youghiogheny River.

There are also two Commission-maintained ramps on the Monongahela River in Washington County, including the Monongahela access off Route 187 at the bottom of Nelson Street and the Speers access south of Charleroi off Route 88. A municipal access is also available on Tenmile Creek near Clarksville.

For more fishing information, call the Area 8 office at (814) 445-3497.

For accommodations around the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, call the Greater Pittsburgh Visitors Bureau at (800) 366-0093.

One structural element of a river that makes it a better spring fishery than other waterways is its depth. Generally speaking, shallow waters warm faster than deeper ones, and as a consequence, the fish turn on earlier.

The 50-mile-long Conestoga River through Lancaster County meets these shallow-water criteria. It's also an easy drive for Harrisburg and Philadelphia-area anglers.

Throughout most of its length, the Conestoga River is more like a creek than a river. But, just like many of the state's finest waterways, it is full of large bass. In a recent survey, state biologist Dave Miko found smallies between 13 and 19 inches close to the Lancaster dam.

Despite the river's silty bottom (the river flows through a considerable amount of agricultural land), state studies have revealed a good population of smallmouth bass. The densest concentration of fish appears to be downstream from Route 30.

Wading does best for fishing along the Conestoga River, particularly its upper reaches. Access is best at the river's bridge and road crossings.

There are deeper portions of the Conestoga River, and one state launch ramp suitable for cartop boats is south of Slackwater and Rockhill at the Conestoga River and Little Conestoga Creek.

In addition to the main river, a number of tributaries also offer spring fishing for smallmouths. The 6 miles of Muddy Creek around the village of Clay are worth trying, as are 5 miles of Little Conestoga Creek around East Petersburg.

Call the PFBC's Area 6 office at (610) 847-2442 for more fishing information.

For accommodations, call (800) PA DUTCH or the Capital Region's Vacation Bureau at (800) 995-0969.

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