The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

May 14, 2013

Ken Maurer's Outdoors column: Bass problems exaggerated

By Ken Maurer
For The Daily Item

— Much of the news about the smallmouth bass on the river has been negative to downright dismal. The PFBC (PA Fish and Boat Commission), the DEP (PA Department of Environmental Protection), the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other groups are hard at work fighting about whether or not to list the river as impaired.

There are and have been studies under way to try to figure out why there aren’t as many bass as there used to be and why the young of the year smallmouth are not surviving in historical numbers.

The black spots have people concerned recently. Those who have fished the river in colder weather have seen the black spots for years. I started seeing more of it eight or nine years ago. We were told it was a pigment abnormality.

The black spots are not unique to this river. Black spots are showing up on bass from the Great Lakes to Florida, and even in saltwater fish and they have been for years. It’s only recently that any attention has been paid to it, and it’s about time.

Curiously, the incidence of black spots greatly decreases as the water warms, then returns again in the fall when the water cools, a fact the PFBC biologists are well aware of.

It is a complex problem with no easy solution, but it appears that we have at least partially solved the raw sewage and dumping problems with the Clean Water Act, only to run into a new sort of pollution which involves trace pollution of a few parts per million or billion.

Pesticides, herbicides and pharmaceuticals, most of which were formerly deemed safe, are very likely at least part of the present issue. It is astounding to think that a couple of parts per billion could affect the physiology of fish or other life forms, but it certainly seems to be the case. What you put in your mouth or spray on your yard ends up in some degree in the river, and every year chemical and medical companies come up with new concoctions to sell to us.

In spite of all this, there is still some fantastic smallmouth fishing to be had on the river. Catch-and-release bass tournaments on the river have a dedicated group of anglers who still enjoy bass fishing and the competitive component of tournaments. Ask them how the fishing is.

There are some who are against tournament fishing on the river — everyone is entitled to their opinion. The PFBC effectively killed the long-running Susquehanna River Tournament Trail with the catch-and-release regulation, even though all of their fish were released after weigh-in.

There are a number of tournaments held out of Shikellamy State Park, and in recent years the winning weights have been far heavier than years ago, rivaling smallmouth weights of anywhere in the country. There is no doubt we have fewer fish, but there is also no doubt that we have more quality-sized fish than ever.

Bass are hard to catch during the summer, mostly because there is so much food available to them. In the spring and fall when the food supply is less, the smallmouth fishing can be awesome. Personally, I had some of, if not the best, smallmouth fishing of my life last fall in the Susquehanna, and I have fished for smallmouth in three states and two provinces in Canada.

We need to study the water quality, not just for the aquatic life, but for humans, too.

But in the meantime, the rumors of the death of the Susquehanna smallmouth fishery have been greatly exaggerated.

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