October 05, 2010
Huntingdon County's Raystown Lake offers excellent hybrid fishing as well as being possibly the state's top striper fishery (May 2010)
Follow schools of baitfish using sonar gear and fish below and beside them to take nice schoolie-sized fish like this one.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
Which is Pennsylvania's finest striper lake? Though opportunities exist for both pure and hybrid stripers in a variety of state waters, it would be tough to argue against the striped bass fishing merits of Huntingdon County's Raystown Lake. Though its stripers can be tough to catch, Raystown has the potential of providing exciting, world-class striped bass fishing.
Read on to learn more!
Covering over 8,000 surface acres, Raystown Lake is the largest impoundment contained entirely within the state. An impoundment of the Raystown Branch Juniata River, the lake fills the serpentine valley for well over 20 miles.
In addition to its striped bass fishery, Raystown is one of the most productive multi-species lakes in the state, featuring excellent numbers of largemouth and smallmouth bass, panfish, muskies and walleyes include some exceptional individuals. The lake also harbors a fair population of lake trout, adding a coldwater resource to the mix.
Unlike smallmouth and largemouth bass, which are members of the sunfish family, striped bass are "true" bass, in the same family as white bass. While most stripers are anadromous -- typically reproducing in freshwater but living in the ocean -- the species can also thrive in landlocked rivers and reservoir systems. Typically, however, their numbers must be maintained by continued stocking efforts.
Hybrid stripers, for example, are stocked in several commonwealth waters. This is pure striper x white bass hatchery product. Wild striped bass populations exist in the Delaware River in the eastern portion of the state, where a catch and release fishery exists during the spring months, primarily on the tidal portion of the river.
Four of the five largest inland striped bass entered in the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's annual Angler Recognition Program in 2008 (latest year available) came from Raystown Lake. The largest striper entered that year was a 32- pound, 1-ounce lunker taken by Franklin Boyer of Marysville. It was caught in August that year. The one "certificate" striper not taken at Raystown Lake in '08 came from Beltzville Lake.
Denny Clapper, a Raystown-area native and guide (www.clappersguide.com) has been fishing the lake for 35 years and guiding on it for about 30 years. Striped bass are his primary target species.
"There's been more striped bass stocked during the last 10 years than there has ever been," said Clapper. "In addition to the fish stocked by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, stripers are being stocked by the Raystown Striper Club and the Pennsylvania Striped Bass Association."
Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission stockings have remained consistent on Raystown for the past 15-plus years. The foundation of the state agency's stockings is fingerling-stage stripers. Most year's fingerling stockings have hovered around the 100,000 mark, oftentimes a bit more, occasionally less. Fry were stocked in 2005 along with fingerlings. Adult stocks augmented fingerling stockings in 1997, 2000, '05 and '07.
"The striper fishery has definitely increased during the past decade," noted Clapper. "But there is room for a lot more fish. The baitfish situation on the lake is incredible. There are two primary species, gizzard shad and alewives, and they are in there by the billions! A lot of credit goes to the sportsmen's clubs for helping out the PFBC, which only has so many dollars in its stocking fund. If it wasn't for what these folks have done over the past few years we wouldn't have nearly the striper fishery that we do today."
Clapper said all of the stripers he and his clients catch, from 12- to 14-inch juveniles to 20-pound-class fish, are very healthy, likely due to the abundant forage base that's present in the lake. He has observed, however, that some year classes appear to be missing.
Though stockings take place annually, environmental factors such as cold or stormy springtime weather can reduce, or even eliminate, recruitment of some stocked fish. Over the course of the year, Clapper will catch stripers of all sizes. Some of the smaller fish are taken during spring, when the fish are in shallow water and can be caught by casting minnow-shaped plugs. The average-sized fish, he tells potential clients, will run from 10 to 20 pounds.
"On the upper end of the scale, we'll catch fish in the 30- to 40-pound range," he added. "Most years someone on the lake will catch a 50 pounder, though to my knowledge none were caught last season."
Like many enthusiasts who target a specific fish on a specific body of water, Clapper pursues stripers from early spring until late fall. Typically, fishing gets off to a good start soon after the ice leaves the lake. Though Raystown's stripers don't successfully reproduce, they will attempt to do so. This activity dictates where anglers should fish in early spring.
"The early fishing usually starts in mid March," he explained. "The fish will be going through their spawning ritual. They'll be in the upper portion of the lake. Then, around early- to mid-May, they will begin dispersing around the lake, some still in the upper end, but some on main lake points and other locations. At this time they are hard to catch, and what you do catch are usually the smaller males."
Clapper said that as spring gives way to summer, water temperatures will rise, and most of the stripers will be found from the mid-point of the lake down to the dam. When water temperatures begin to quickly drop during autumn, the stripers will often be found in the back ends of the larger bays and coves.
"Fall is one of my favorite times to fish," Clapper noted. "This is when the stripers begin to move into those back bays. The bays hold the warmest water, which draws in the baitfish. And the stripers go in after the bait. The colder it gets, the farther back they move. They will be in some of the shallowest water imaginable looking for big gizzard shad."
Until summer heats up the water, expect to find striped bass in the lower half of main lake, Clapper advised.
"During summer, they don't like the upper end of the lake," he said. "A thermocline will set up, and that's what the fish will relate to from mid-summer into fall."
Though the timing varies a bit from y
ear to year based on the weather in spring and early summer, Clapper said the thermocline is typically set up by late June or early July.
Deep lakes such as Raystown stratify as the sun's warming rays warm the surface. The thermocline is the middle band of water that separates the warm surface layer from the frigid bottom tier.
"Summer fishing is some of the lake's more consistent striper fishing," he reported. "Once the thermocline is set up, the fish will relate to that fairly thin band of water."
Clapper said the thermocline tends to run from 18 to 24 feet deep and remains consistent year-in and year-out. The shallow edge of the thermocline is the area Clapper targets during the summer.
"Don't get me wrong. Stripers will rise up well above the thermocline, especially during morning and evening. You can even get them at times free-lining with live bait near the surface. But, that cooler band of water is their comfort zone. They quickly retreat back to that area," he said.
Clapper has also found that striped bass will suspend higher in the water column than lake trout.
"If you are catching lake trout," he said, "you are fishing too deep for stripers."
Though Raystown is the state's premier striped bass lake, this isn't to say catching these fish is a breeze. The combination of clear water, abundant food fish, and the presence of a multitude of other lake users ensures that you have to work for them, even when you are fishing with another, highly experienced angler.
"People think that because you fish with a guide these fish are going to be easy to catch," he noted. "But, you earn every one you catch. You try to put everything in place for it to happen, but you still have to work for them.
"It's mostly because of the baitfish. I've fished a lot of striped bass waters in the east, such as Lake Cumberland in Kentucky. Down there, you better give yourself the best part of a day just to get bait to fish with. There's just not that much bait. Those stripers are always searching for something to eat.
"At Raystown there is just so much bait! When our fish decide to eat they don't have to go on the prowl," Clapper said. "The food is right there. They'll feed for an hour or two and then they are done."
While baitfish are thick in Raystown, they aren't everywhere throughout the lake during any given season. Clapper said anglers must pay close attention to their sonar unit and fish in areas where there are schools of baitfish present.
"Just understand," he said, "that your bait will be competing with thousands of other baitfish. That's why we use fluorocarbon lines and match the hook to the size of the bait. You have to put everything you can in your favor."
To put things in perspective, Clapper said that throughout much of the year he'd estimate his clients have about a 70 percent success rate for getting striped bass. And, anglers should understand that not all bites or strikes equal hooked stripers. Experience and skill level varies greatly among fishermen, and not everyone can make the most of their opportunities.
Striper anglers can do other things to increase their chances for success, particularly during the summer season, when Raystown is busy with boating activity of all levels. Try to schedule trips during weekdays, and expect the best action to occur during the early- to mid-morning hours, before the daily recreational boater traffic begins.
The lake has no horsepower limitations. Excellent launch ramps are available all along the lake's shoreline and may be accessed from Route 26. The Huntingdon County Visitors Bureau (www.raystown.org) can be of assistance for anglers traveling from outside the area.
Fishing Hotspots produces a map of the lake that is available at many area bait shops as well as on the Web at www.fishinghotspots.com.
Electronic maps -- which provide detailed background maps on GPS units designed to accept such data -- are available from sources such as Navionics.
A flood control lake, Raystown is subject to fluctuating water levels. Information on lake levels and recreational opportunities may be obtained by calling (814) 658-3405.