March 03, 2015
By Jeff Knapp
Hints of spring bring with them thoughts of bass fishing. Pennsylvania anglers have a wide variety of venues to choose from. Reservoirs that run the range from sprawling lowland impoundments like Pymatuning to winding, hill-land ones like Raystown.
We have a wide assortment of medium-sized lakes — ones in the 100- to 400-acre range — that often offer outstanding sport for bass (largemouths most often), in peaceful settings. The northwest and northeast corners of the state feature a smattering of natural lakes that hold bass.
Then there are the flowing waters. Pennsylvania is a state of streams and rivers, many of which hold good populations of bass. Big rivers like the Susquehanna, Delaware and Allegheny receive angler attention, though in many cases much less than our lakes. Dozens of medium-sized warmwater streams hold good populations of smallmouth bass, many of which rarely see a fisherman.
What follows is a quick look at the black bass situation across the state — including updates on a few significant waters. Then we'll move on to highlight a statewide selection of high-quality bass lakes scattered across Pennsylvania.
The smallmouth population on the main stem of the Susquehanna River continues to experience a downward cycle. Die offs of young-of-year smallmouth bass continue, as does the frequency of diseased adult bass. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) persists in its struggle to convince the Pennsylvania EPA to deem the river as impaired, an official designation it feels is needed to trigger the steps necessary to correct water quality issues.
In July of last year, PFBC Executive Director John Arway wrote U.S. EPA Director Shawn Gavin, stating, among many things, the necessity of examining the effects from the watershed's agricultural sector, a step needed in creating proper regulatory changes.
Recommendations in Arway's letter include numerous items aimed at lowering the amount of nutrients entering the watershed. Excessive nutrients fuel the algal blooms the Susquehanna has increasingly experienced, events that lower levels of dissolved oxygen, stress bass, and make the fish overly susceptible to the bacterial issues that have been causing disease and high mortality levels.
The Susquehanna River issue is — as many things are — a political issue. Efforts — in the form of letters to your local legislators — are needed to pressure regulatory agencies such as the state EPA and federal EPA to deem the river impaired. On the PFBC website, from its homepage you can click on "Restore the Susquehanna River" icon for information, including contacts for your lawmakers, on how you can help save a world-class smallmouth bass fishery.
In the western part of the state, the Fish and Boat Commission has started stocking fingerling largemouth bass in Mercer County's Lake Wilhelm. Largemouth fingerlings are rarely stocked in the state. This effort is aimed at bolstering the bass population in a lake that's become thick with gizzard shad during the past decade.
The shad explosion has impacted both bass and panfish. The shad compete for limited food sources with young bass and panfish, in this case at such a level as to bring about a reduction in these gamefish and panfish species. And the glut of food fish (excessive shad) makes catching adult bass more difficult.
Traditionally Wilhelm has been one of the top largemouth bass lakes in the state. It is hoped that gizzard shad numbers will eventually drop down to a balanced level, and become just another component of the fish community, as they are in Pymatuning and Lake Arthur.
Though the news on the Susquehanna isn't encouraging, there is good news from other river bass fisheries. For example, last year's Bassmaster Elite tournament on the lower Delaware River, in the shadows of Philadelphia, put the spotlight on the excellent bass fishery found there.
The Allegheny River, particularly the free-flowing "middle Allegheny" from Warren down to East Brady, continues to shine as a smallmouth bass fishery. Last summer I had pleasure of joining personnel from the Fish and Boat Commission during a nighttime electrofishing survey in the East Brady area. The effort turned up nice numbers of adult smallmouth bass.
It was a continuation of a trend such annual samplings have produced. In addition of East Brady, adult bass surveys were also conducted at Oil City and President, also with solid results. Here are a few waters to consider while on your quest for good bass fishing this season.
Presque Isle Bay
Lake Erie's Presque Isle Bay provides double-barreled bass action. It features a strong resident population of largemouth bass; during the spring it experiences a "run" of Lake Erie's oversized bronzebacks that enter the bay to spawn.
Erie Bay, as it's known by many, was last surveyed by the Commission in spring of 2008. The results of that electrofishing effort are encouraging. Personnel collected the highest number of largemouth bass ever recorded during such an effort on the bay: 675 largemouths during a total of 3.5 hours of nighttime electrofishing, which is a rate of 202.5 per hour of effort, a 65 percent increase over the prior year. The rate of bass over 12 inches increased 150 percent over that found in 2007; the occurrence of bass over 15 inches was up 245 percent.
While these numbers are from a few years ago, historically Erie Bay is one of the more consistent largemouth bass fisheries. The bass are very well fed, resulting in chunky, football-sized 15 inchers, of which the bay has many. The influx of smallmouths begins in early April; brown bass are pretty much out of the bay by the end of June.
Shenango River Lake
Mercer County's Shenango Lake is a popular bass fishing destination. Not only does the lake harbor a strong largemouth bass fishery, its unlimited horsepower status provides a venue for larger bass boats.
Largemouths bass outnumber the smallmouths two to one in Shenango. When the Commission surveyed Shenango relatively recently, 4.33 hours of electrofishing produced bass (largemouth and smallmouth combined) at a rate of 56.3 per hour. Nearly all of the quality-sized fish were largemouths.
The catch rate for bass over 12 inches was the highest ever for the lake; for bass over 15 inches, the third highest ever. Interestingly, no bass over 18 inches were collected, the first time such has occurred since the 1994 survey.
Located on the Venango/Clarion county border, 200-plus acre Kahle Lake has one of the densest largemouth bass populations in the state.
When last surveyed, bass were collected at a rate of 132.2 per hour. The rate for bass over 12 inches was 47.6; 4.6 for bass over 15 inches. The survey is a reflection of anglers' results: a lot of bass, many of which are in the 12- to 15-inch bracket, though fish in the 4- to 5-pound range do show up with fair consistency.
A downside to Kahle is that, due to problems with the dam's spillway structure, it's drawn down significantly. As such, access can be limited. Of the lake's two boat ramps, the north ramp is the best choice for trailered boats at this time. Car-toppers can be launched from either the north or south ramps. Boats are limited to electrics or non-powered.
Commonly called Keystone Power Dam, since it's the water supply for the coal-fired power plant located a few miles away, Keystone is one of the better bass lakes in southwestern Pennsylvania. Both largemouth and smallmouth bass are present, with some exceptional individuals, particularly in the case of the smallies.
Keystone was last surveyed during the spring of 2007. While the survey was limited to trap and gillnets, fisheries personnel captured high numbers of bass, smallmouth in particular. Typically bass avoid nets, which is why electrofishing is used when targeting them. But in this instance, 108 smallmouth bass up from 12 to 21.6 inches were netted, along with largemouth bass up to 18 inches.
I've fished Keystone for the past 40-plus years and can attest to the quality of the bass it holds: some are truly exceptional fish. During the summer of 2014 I had good success working the many weedbeds that jut out from the lake's northwestern shoreline. Pay particular attention to points that guard the many bays and coves that exist there.
Keystone has a 10 horsepower limit. It also is subject to drawdowns during dry summers such as last year. The 1,000-acre lake is in Armstrong County.
North Branch of the Susquehanna River
While the bass fishing is suffering on much of the main stem of the Susquehanna River, the same can't be said of the North Branch. The North Branch rises in New York, flows south through northeastern Pennsylvania, and joins the West Branch to form the main stem of the river near Northumberland.
The North Branch of the Susquehanna has enjoyed relatively consistent spawning success for several years. While bass production was below the long-term average in 2009 and 2013, it was above the line in five of the last seven years. It's common for fluctuations to occur in river bass setting, where high flows during the spring and early summer can play havoc with reproductive success. 2007 and 2010 had exceptional year classes, and should have the North Branch well stocked with quality bass this season.
Hopewell Lake, found in Berks County's French Creek State Park, hosts a fine largemouth bass fishery in its 68 acres.
When the lake was last surveyed, fisheries personnel collected largemouth bass at a rate of 60.2 per hour, above the 47.9 rate that is the southeastern Pennsylvania average. The bass population in the lake also showed an improved size structure, likely in response to the introduction of Big Bass regulations, which raised the minimum length limit from 12 to 15 inches, while lowering the creel limit from six to four. The numbers of bass over both 12 and 15 inches have improved since the application of the more restrictive regulation. Non-powered boats and electric motors are permitted.
Located in southern Bedford County, Koon Lake — and adjoining Gordon Lake — are water supply reservoirs for Cumberland, Md. A few years ago the water company improved access by allowing electric-motored boats, in addition to bank-fishing.
Koon Lake covers 268 acres. When last surveyed largemouth bass were collected at a rate of 174.28 per hour. Fish over 12 inches at 69.28 per hour; those over 15 inches at 15.71 per hour.
Though electric motors are allowed on Koon, the access is not suitable for trailered boats.
Consider Luzerne County's Lake Jean to be an up-and-coming bass lake. Historically the bass fishing there was limited, thanks to the low pH caused by acid deposition and the local geology. In 1995, bi-annual introductions of lime started to improve the water quality. The bass population has responded favorably. Bass were collected a 41.5 bass per hour rate, a vast improvement over the 21.9 experienced in 2003. The lake is worthy of attention from bass anglers.
Boats are limited to electric-only motors on this 245-acre lake.
An impoundment on the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, Curwensville Lake is a bit of a sleeper, one that's come on thanks to improvements in water quality, as well as a more stable pool level.
The Fish and Boat Commission surveyed Curwensville a few years ago and found a vast improvement in the bass population. Bass were collected at a rate round 55 per hour, up from nine per hour in 2008. Significant numbers of fish over 12 and 15 inches were also present. There is no horsepower limit on this 790-acre lake, which is located in Clearfield County.