There hasn’t been a lot of good news about smallmouth bass fishing on the Susquehanna River in the past decade-plus.
Long considered the state’s – and one of the nation’s – premier flowing water smallmouth fisheries, the Susquehanna has seen some hard times as of late. Disease tied to poor water quality resulting from an unknown source decimated fish populations. Numbers of young-of-the-year bass, meaning those born in spring, especially plummeted.
There appears to have been a rebound, however.
And that may lead to some changes.
Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commissioners recently gave preliminary approval to a proposal to allow catch and release fishing from May 1 through mid-June on 98 miles of the Susquehanna River from Sunbury downstream to the Holtwood Dam and on 31.7 miles of the Juniata River from Port Royal downstream to the mouth. Right now, fishing is prohibited during that window.
If given final approval this summer, the new rules would go into effect in 2018.
The rule closing those river stretches to fishing was never meant to be permanent, said Geoff Smith, the commission’s Susquehanna River biologist.
“This was done to maintain as many adults as possible until recruitment could improve,” he said.
That appears to be the case now.
The commission surveys bass populations on the river every year, he said. The work done between 2013 and 2016 has been encouraging.
Bass populations, especially related to young-of-the-year fish, have improved significantly, Smith noted.
This past year, the catch of adult fish on the middle Susquehanna was 155.2 bass per hour. That’s the second highest on record, Smith said. The catch of fish 15 inches and larger topped 16 per hour. That’s the best the commission has ever seen, Smith added.
None of that is to suggest that the river has rebounded completely, or that it should go back to being managed under general statewide bass fishing regulations, he said.
The commission’s proposal would continue to mandate that all fishing be catch and release year-round. Tournaments would still be prohibited during the spawn, too.
But the changes would allow more people to fish more often in more places, he said.
“It would give people more freedom than they’ve had since 2012,” said Andy Shiels, director of the commission’s bureau of fisheries.
That sounds good, said commissioner Eric Hussar of Union County. But he still has concerns, he added.
The biggest, he said, is that the disease that hurt populations so severely has never been attributed to anything in particular.
“We don’t know why it happened. We don’t know if it could happen again,” he said.
“That’s a great plan going forward. I just don’t know if this is the right time to do it or not.”
Commissioner Len Lichvar of Somerset County said he wonders if opening additional portions of the rivers to fishing, especially during the spawn might not lead to too much fishing pressure.
Guides operating on the river have expressed that same worry.
“That just gives me some reason for concern,” Lichvar said.
The commission will be monitoring impacts, though, Smith said. It will study three things: the number of young fish, meaning those younger than 1; the number of fish longer than 15 inches; and the ratio of little to big fish, meaning those smaller than 6 inches and longer than 12.
The commission will examine each factor annually. Numbers will be compared to those from the most recent five years.
If the fishery is meeting its goals in two of the three categories, the commission can allow for fishing as outlined in the proposal, Smith said. If it’s not, it can tighten things up.
Smith suggested the commission treat the middle Susquehanna and lower Juniata equally, and consider the lower Susquehanna independently.
Anglers will be given some extra time to weigh in on the matter.
Typically, proposed regulations go out for public comment for 30 days. Thiswill be open for 60 days.
In addition, commission executive director John Arway said he’ll hold three public meetings, one each on the middle and lower Susquehanna and lower Juniata.
Commissioner Ed Mascharka of Erie County said he hopes that will lead to some good discussion.
“I think I’d like to hear from more of the public on this,” Mascharka said.