Hoping for a rebound for Susq. smallmouths

When it comes time to write the final column of a year, I always find myself in the dual position of reflecting on the many things that occurred during the past 12 months and anticipating what events and changes that will develop as the coming year unfolds.

One thing I have yet to come to terms with, however, is how the older one becomes, the faster each year seems to go by.

But I’ve already purchased my 2014 fishing license, and I am hopeful of using it for the first time sometime soon.

As I look back on my fishing experiences for 2013, I spent considerably more time fishing for trout than I have for 10 years or more. For the most part, we enjoyed ample rain and good weather throughout most of the spring and early summer, which produced better-than-average fishing overall. But later in the summer, rainfall became scarce, and, by fall, most of my favorite area streams were as low and clear as I had ever seen them.

I learned quite a bit from fishing in those tedious and challenging conditions, including some on-stream tactics and new fly patterns. Maybe I’ll finally even get around to working on a book about trout fishing, something I’ve been contemplating and putting off) for quite a few years now.

On the flip side, I spent fewer days on the Juniata River chasing smallmouths than I have in the last 10 years or more. That was more a function of my work schedule and some other projects that begged my time rather than the quality of the fishing there. In fact, the size and numbers of bass I caught on the upper Juniata were well above average most days.

This year was the first in a long time that I didn’t fish the Susquehanna River for bass at least once. That situation arose partly from the great smallmouth fishing so close to home on the Juniata and a dreadful decline in the bass fishery on the Susquehanna in recent years.

The causes of the Susquehanna’s problems have confounded fisheries biologists since they surfaced in the early 2000s when fewer and fewer young-of-the-year and other juvenile smallmouths were taking their places in the overall river bass population. As a result, most of the bass in the middle section of the Susquehanna between Sunbury and the York Haven Dam south of Harrisburg were larger, adult bass.

That might sound like a good thing for us fishermen, but obviously without the continual recruitment of smaller bass into the population, the smallmouth fishery could easily collapse entirely.

Back in mid-September, Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) biologists conducted their annual nighttime electrofishing surveys on the middle Susquehanna to determine current population levels, size structure, age and growth of adult smallmouth bass. Fisheries biologists have been doing these surveys since 1990, and the data obtained provide a valuable record of the river’s smallmouth fishery.

Catch rates of age-1 and older bass was the highest since 2001, although still lower than the historic average for this section of the river.

In a report regarding the survey findings, PFBC Susquehanna River biologist, Geoffrey Smith, said, “During 2013 surveys, the proportion of the catch between 6 and 12 inches was higher than during recent years. We have also received similar reports from anglers who fished this reach during 2013. This provides evidence that at least two modest-year classes recruited to the population despite possible limited survival attributable to disease outbreaks affecting young-of-year smallmouth bass since 2005 in this portion of the Susquehanna River. Anglers targeting smallmouth bass within the middle Susquehanna River could potentially expect slightly better catch rates in coming years as those smaller individuals [2011 and 2012 year classes] appear to have recruited to the fishery and should be available to comprise a larger proportion of the angler catch in the near term. Catch and Immediate Release Bass Regulations apply to this portion of the Susquehanna River.”

After so many years of gloomy news regarding the future of the Susquehanna’s smallmouth fishery, the results of the recent PFBC survey is somewhat encouraging. It would be premature, however, to think that that problems with smallmouth bass in that great river are anywhere close to over. But in the spirit of optimism, let us hope the recent rebound in young bass in the river is the start of what will likely be a long road to recovery.