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Black spots on Pennsylvania bass worry river anglers

Posted on March 29, 2012

Sunbury, Pa. — Ron Bane Sr. has been fishing the North Branch of the Susquehanna River between Danville and its confluence with the West Branch near here for more than a decade.

Around the year 2000, when the Frackville man started pursuing the many smallmouth bass in the scenic stretch bordered by state Route 11, he never saw a bass with black spots.

But something changed three years or so ago, according to the recently retired car sales manager who has been fishing for bass for more than 40 years.

“These days we are seeing more and more of them,” he said. “Last Thursday we caught 33; the Thursday before, we caught 42. I’d say more than 10 of them had black spots.

“One of them was half black clear down to its tail, another had a black lip. We wonder why there are so many of them now.”

Bane, a local bass tournament angler who often fishes with his son, Ron Bane Jr., also of Frackville, is worried that the black blotches have something to do with the fluid that “boils out“ of the pipes into the river at the Merck, Sharp and Dhome pharmaceutical plant at Riverside, Northumberland County.

“We reported it to the fish warden a few years ago, but as far as I know nothing ever came of it. But with the problems the Fish & Boat Commission is having with the diseased bass population downriver, you have to wonder ...”

Ron Bane Jr., an environmental chemist who fishes bass tournaments across the East, did see one bass with black blotches a few years ago while fishing the Potomac River in Maryland. He is concerned about what is causing the black blotches, too.

According to Geoffrey Smith, Susquehanna River biologist for the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission, agency biologists have been seeing these melanistic spots with some frequency in their smallmouth bass collections  on the Susquehanna.

He noted that they see the black spots on fish when sampling is done during prespawn, cold-water periods.

“A couple of the largemouth bass we picked up at Speedwell Forge Lake during the recent salvage had these, but the spots were larger,” he said after viewing the photo at right and another one provided by Bane.

“Glancing through my emails, the comments we get about this are during cold-winter months,” he explained in an email. “Most of the fish I’ve seen with this have had a few large blotches. I don’t recall seeing any with a higher number of small spots like this picture shows.

“Everything I’ve read regarding this indicates that this condition is common and nothing to worry about,” Smith added. “Auburn University is currently conducting research on this topic.”

But Smith could not say why anglers are seeing more fish from the Susquehanna River with the “melanistic spots” in recent years.

“They are simply an increased amount of melanin in the epidermis and sometimes dermis,” he said. “We don’t know exactly what causes them.”

Dave Miko, another biologist who is director of fisheries for the commission, has seen the spots before.

“Interesting, I saw what appeared to be the same markings on bass in the Bass Pro Shops tanks last week,” he wrote in a recent email. “The black spots were only on the bass in the tank. 

“I have also seen similar black spots on bass during sampling throughout Pennsylvania, but I am unfamiliar with what causes the spots.”

It’s very strange, and it’s not natural, Bane concluded. He’s grateful the fishing has been so good in the North Branch, but he can’t help thinking that more and more bass with black blotches showing up is a bad omen for the Susquehanna.

“Otherwise, the smallmouths look healthy,” he said. “We have been catching lots of bass on tubebaits, minnowbaits and spinnerbaits. But it worries me.

“There has been a sort of oil-based scum from the river that we can hardly get off our aluminum boats. I don’t remember that from before either.”