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A summer smallmouth about to be released.
A summer smallmouth about to be released. (Bill May photo)

Smallmouth bass fishing has been a summertime ritual in the mid-Atlantic for over a century. The best-known local waters are the Potomac River between Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, and the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Despite degradation in sections of these rivers, there are still opportunities for some good fishing.

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Billy Zeller is the best kayak bass fisherman I know. Every other month or so in recent years he has sent me eye- popping picture of smallmouth bass he has taken on sections of the Susquehanna River. The problem to date has been the sites of his greatest success are mostly beyond my kayaking abilities. The first is below Conowingo Dam in Maryland, where Billy routinely takes 2- to 4-pound smallmouth bass and stripers from 2 to 10 pounds. The other is the Holtwood Dam area in Pennsylvania, where the smallmouth are often even bigger than the Conowingo smallmouth.

But that may be about to change.

Earlier this summer Billy began exploring other sections of the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania. He reported, with photographic evidence, good fishing in the area of Wrightsville/Columbia, east of York. The best news was that this is not just another cause of tooth-grinding envy for me: in average water levels this area can be accessed with moderate efforts by canoes, kayaks and rowed/paddled inflatables.

So Joe Bruce, Chuck Thompson, and I opted to try. Billy was right. But we found the area demanded different tactics than our standard Potomac River fishing, at least during daylight hours, clear and shallow water conditions. So our Potomac River technique of drifting, swinging and bottom-bouncing 4-inch Salty Fat Albert Grubs in crayfish colors didn't work and often snagged on bottom. The same was true of swinging Fin-s Fish, which likewise snagged. Not did the smallmouth go for a slowly fished fly rod bug or Tiny Torpedo.

"You can't give 'em a long time to look at it," Joe Bruce concluded.

So there were three lures that did work — spinnerbaits in shad, chartreuse or fire tiger colors, floating/diving Rapala in the same colors and unweighted Houdini-colored Swimming Super Flukes in full and Junior sizes. As dark descended on the river, we found we could fish more slowly, and a Rapala fished as a surface lure drew some enthusiastic strikes.

I suspect a black Shore minnow Tiny Torpedo, fly rod bug or "walk the dog" type surface lure would also have worked.

Since I get weekly reports from Ken Penrod's Life Outdoors Unlimited (LOU), I decided to compare the Susquehanna and Upper Potomac reports of Ken and his guides with our experiences. There were significant differences in choices of lures in some reports, e.g., surface lures and wacky-rigged stick lures did well for the LOU guides and clients. Spinnerbaits did well in all waters they fished. But their advice on where to fish as water temperatures rose was spot-on: "Avoid calm water and concentrate on ledges first and chunk rock in current next."

"Submerged ledges are a must area to fish in the summer as well as the edges and pockets of eel grass, boulder flats and the edges of grass islands when there is current along the edges."

"Target the ledge and island shoots, sides of bridge pilings, shallow flats with good current and flooded grass." Fish "ledge fronts and current edges behind rocks."

The good ledge current shoots are often marked by paths of bubbles, as these spots provide current food and oxygen.

Licenses, Regulations, Permits

Pennsylvania rules, conditions and regulations are complicated, and the Internet is as necessary as a watercraft. See www.fish.state.pa.us for fishing license, boating, safety and launch ramp regulations. We all fished from kayaks but still bought permits for state launch ramps. We launched from a ramp in a city park in Wrightsville which may or may not require a ramp permit. There are other places along the shore where a canoe, kayak or small boat can be launched without a ramp. Most craft we've seen in this section of the Susquehanna are of this ilk. We see some aluminum flat-bottomed boats with jet drives which are likely the only powerboats that can operate here. This is not a place for fiberglass boats and conventional gas motors.

Water levels

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We've been told the most reliable river level readings are those for Harrisburg, and ideal levels for unpowered craft are 3.1 to 3.3. See water.weather.gov/ahps2/hydrograph.php?wfo=ctp&gage=HARP1.

Water Conditions

A Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) advisory lists all of the state's 347-mile-long section of the Susquehanna as impaired for fish consumption. DEP recently issued a series of warnings about harmful coliform bacteria in the Susquehanna River and its tributaries, and recently over four miles of the river near Harrisburg were listed as unsuitable for recreational uses. Likewise a 1.2-mile portion immediately upstream and downstream of the Route 462 Bridge at Columbia was listed as "impaired for recreational use." Columbia is directly across the river from Wrightsville, and our guys who paddled over to that side noticed distinctly discolored water.

So this is not only a catch-and-release situation, but one calling for care in fishing, boating, and wading, especially if one has an open wound.

Areas north of Harrisburg have better water quality. Note that the LOU guys fish in the Duncannon area, about 8-10 miles north of Harrisburg.

So Pennsylvania smallmouth fishing can offer a chance for quality fish. This is just an introduction, and readers may want to do more research before trying this fishery, or perhaps book a trip with a guide service like Life Outdoors Unlimited. See www.penrodsguides.com.

A simpler option might be fishing the Potomac, which is at comfortable wading levels in most sections when water levels are 1.5 feet or below at Point of Rocks, the level as this goes to press. Fishing conditions should improve on both rivers as we move into fall, which often provides great surface action.

410-857-7896

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