Small game, smallmouths on outdoors menu

October has always been a month that often begs me to choose between a fishing rod and a shotgun for a day outdoors. That dilemma is one of the reasons I never took up archery hunting. Just too much to do this time of year and too little time to get it done.

I still enjoy small-game hunting, although I now spend almost as much time fishing for trout and bass in the fall as I do in the woods and fields. Early in my hunting career, I was an avid grouse hunter and spent every possible moment negotiating thickets and grapevine tangles, hoping to flush a bird or two. Back then, a rabbit or two regularly found their way into the game bag as well. And even though I didn’t have a dog, I managed to kick out a few pheasants each fall.

For some reason, most of my favorite grouse covers were located on some rather steep terrain, and around the time I turned 40, tramping up and down those slopes for countless hours in search of birds became somewhat less appealing on older legs. That was also about the time I bought myself a deadly accurate customized .22 rifle, which I used for squirrel hunting. Most of my squirrel hunting, however, now tends to be a good excuse to spend extra time in the woods scouting for deer and deer sign. Of course, picking off squirrels with the scoped .22 helps to keep my rifle shooting skills sharp, which also makes a difference in deer season.

Switching topics from small game to smallmouth bass, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission recently released the results of their annual survey of smallmouth bass populations on the Juniata River. This year’s survey took place during the early part of September at four sites near the towns of Mapleton and Newton Hamilton on the upper Juniata River and Thompsontown and Millerstown on the lower Juniata. To sample the bass populations at those areas, Fish and Boat Commission biologists capture adult smallmouth bass by using nighttime electrofishing and then tracking the number and size of bass caught per hour. By comparing catch rates and size distribution of the current survey with those of previous years at the same locations, fisheries managers can determine the relative abundance and age of bass on the upper and lower portions of the river.

Newton Hamilton produced the highest catch rate during the 2013 Juniata survey with 133.80 fish per hour, while the Millerstown site yielded the lowest catch rate with 26.21 fish per hour. Catch rates on the lower river since 2005 have consistently been below the long-term average, and this year’s survey continued that trend. Although overall numbers of smallmouths in the lower river are reduced, the numbers of 15-inch and larger bass are good, and catch rates of bass 15 inches and longer have exceeded the long-term average six of the last nine years.

The news is much more encouraging for those of us who fish the upper Juniata, as 2013 survey revealed the fourth highest catch rate on record for that part of the river. In his report on the 2013 Juniata smallmouth survey, area fisheries manager Kris Kuhn said, “Currently, there are good numbers of smallmouth bass in the upstream portion of the Juniata River for anglers to enjoy and overall abundance of smallmouth bass is well above the long-term average. During 2013, six to 11 inch bass were well represented in our catch, which has the potential to translate into exceptional bass fishing opportunities in the years to come as these individuals grow to larger desirable-sized fish. Additionally, there are more 15-inch and larger smallmouth bass in this portion of the river than was historically documented by surveys conducted during the 1990s. Catch rates of smallmouth bass 15 inches and longer exceeded the long-term average seven of the last nine years.”

More data from the 2013 Juniata smallmouth survey is available on the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission website, I plan to survey the smallmouth population on the upper Juniata myself in the coming weeks, but I’ll use tube jigs and crankbaits rather than the electro fishing gear the biologists employ. The river smallmouth fishing can be quite good well into November, weather and water conditions permitting, and fall can be primetime for catching some of the bigger bass as well.