By P.J. Reilly
What a difference a year, and some decent rainfall, makes.
Last year at this time, the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat
Commission was issuing news releases about bacteria in the
Susquehanna River killing tons of young smallmouth bass and causing
ugly lesions on big, adult bass.
No such deaths to report this year, said Dan Tredinnick, the
“We’re not seeing bacteria-related deaths this summer,” he said,
adding that the ample spring rainfall has kept the river above last
year’s severe low-flow stage.
Biologists said the bacteria are always in the river, but that
last year’s low water and high temperatures put the Susquehanna’s
smallmouths under stress. That stress, they said, made the fish
susceptible to the ill effects of the bacteria that they normally
can fight off.
Many seasoned Susquehanna anglers said the reports of widespread
smallmouth deaths last year were much ado about nothing.
“I was on the river 80 to 100 days last year – mostly in the
summer – and I didn’t see these dead fish,” said Darrell Gesford,
pro angler at Bass Pro Shops of Harrisburg. “If they were out
there, I would have seen them.”
Gesford said the fishing on the river last year was better than
it’s been in years. He competes in a number of tournaments on the
Susquehanna each year and competitors last year weighed in heavier
catches than he’s ever seen.
“For me, last year was one of my best ever on the river,” he
Gesford estimated he and his partner won about $18,000 in prize
money from river tournaments last year. He admitted, however, that
he is a bit more skilled than the average weekend angler, and
therefore has an advantage.
Last year, Gesford explained, the low water on the river forced
bass to congregate in deeper, faster sections where oxygen was more
“It was literally like catching fish in a barrel,” he said.
This summer, there’s more water in the Susquehanna, thanks to
the spring flooding, and so the smallmouths are more spread out,
Gesford said. But they’re still out there, as Gesford demonstrated
on an early August morning in the vicinity of Fort Hunter.
A union carpenter by trade, and a budding professional angler at
heart, Gesford moved from riffle to riffle, chucking a half-ounce
spinnerbait with two, large willow-leaf blades. The bait had a
trailer hook on it and a white skirt, which Gesford modified by
pulling out strands of silicone so that the skirt extended all the
way to the bend of the trailer hook. It was a big bait.
“You’re not going to catch any dinks on this,” he said. “This is
a big bass bait.”
He was right. He caught many smallies over the course of six
hours and not one was under 14 inches. The biggest one he caught
was a 3.5-pound football-shaped fish over 20 inches.
Ample catches of big smallmouths might dwindle in coming years,
according to Tredinnick, when the recent years of poor recruitment
catch up with Susquehanna anglers.
Each year, Fish & Boat Commission biologists electroshock
sections of the Susquehanna to gauge the young-of-the-year
smallmouth population. The long-term average catch for the river is
6.9 bass per 50 meters surveyed. The last year biologists hit that
average was 2001, and since the agency estimates it takes six years
for a Susquehanna smallie to grow to 15 inches, anglers catching
fish around that size now are likely catching bass born in
From 2002 through 2004, agency biologists captured fewer than
three young-of-the-year bass per 50 meters surveyed each year on
the river – well below the average.
“At some point, those poor recruitment years are going to catch
up with us,” Tredinnick said. “The big bass just won’t be out there
like they are now.”
Last year started out looking good, Tredinnick said. In early
summer, biologists caught an average of 8.65 young-of-the-year bass
per 50 meters surveyed on the river.
And then the bacteria started killing them, he said.
“We’re not sure how much of an impact that had on the 2005-class
of fish, but we’ll know in a couple of years,” he said.
This year’s sampling data is not yet compiled, according to
Tredinnick. But once again, conditions went from good to bad.
The spawning season began with beautiful water conditions – not
too high, not too low. And then the spring floods hit right about
the time the smallmouths should have been in the fry stage.
“Flooding isn’t a problem on adult bass because they can find
places to hide out,” Tredinnick said. “Fry and fingerlings are not
as able to withstand the floods.”
Once again, Tredinnick said, the agency isn’t sure what impact
the flooding had on the 2006-class of bass.
“We hope it wasn’t too bad,” he said.
In a report entitled “Factors Influencing Smallmouth Bass
Year-Class Strength And Future Smallmouth Bass Fisheries,” Fish
& Boat Commission staff wrote that “anglers complaining about
lousy bass fishing – or rejoicing about the great fishing, should
consider spring and summer conditions three to four years earlier.
What were the conditions at that time? Were the river flows high
during the spring? Was the water colder than usual during the
“It is very likely that a poor bass-fishing season was the
result of high spring river flows and cold water temperatures that
occurred in the previous two or three years.”
Still, Gesford’s been fishing the Susquehanna his whole life,
and competitively since he was 19. He’s now 36. He’s seen the good,
the bad and the ugly when it comes to fishing the river, he
“You’re going to have good years and you’re going to have bad
years,” he said. “Overall, the fishing’s about the same now as it
was when I first started doing tournaments out here. This is one of
the best smallmouth fisheries around.”