No-kill bass regs pondered by PF&BC for Susquehanna

By Marcus Schneck

Contributing Writer

Harrisburg – The summer of 2007 was another disappointing one
for young-of-the-year smallmouth bass and bass anglers in much of
the Susquehanna River, and the future is not currently looking all
that much better.

&#8220There are some challenging times that we’re going to
be facing with Susquehanna River smallmouth bass,” Robert Lorantas,
warmwater unit leader with the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat
Commission, told about 30 anglers, river guides, biologists and
other at a special meeting of the commission’s fisheries
committee.

For the fifth year among the past seven years, the commission’s
2007 survey in the Susquehanna found a below average
young-of-the-year class of smallmouth bass.

Since the turn of the century, only 2001 and 2005 held
above-average for young-of-the-year bass, and then only slightly
above average.

The state’s other major river systems – Ohio and Delaware – are
not experiencing similar problems in their smallmouth populations,
according to Lorantas.

As might be expected, unhappy Susquehanna anglers have called
for the commission to correct the problem.

Prompted by a large-scale kill of juvenile smallmouth bass in
summer 2005, the commission held a forum on the issue in January
2006, which it plans to repeat next year.

At that 2006 forum, commission biologists held tight to the hope
that the kill was a one-time event brought on by a unique
combination of factors.  

The biologists subsequently prepared a white paper, titled
&#8220Factors Influencing Smallmouth Bass Year-Class Strength
and Future Smallmouth Bass Fisheries.”

In that report, they noted, &#8220Commission data and
research conducted on other rivers in North America, show that
environmental factors such as flow have the greatest influence on
year-class strength, no matter which regulations are in place?”

They looked back through the commission’s monitoring work from
1987-2001, finding that

temperature by itself did not seem to have a significant
influence on the young-of-the year densities, although we suspect
that there would be some effect when coupled with river flow.

&#8220We also learned that the greater the river flow, the
lower the young-of-the-year density. It seems apparent from our
research that river flow does affect survival of young bass and
ultimately the adult population.”

They explained, &#8220High river flow and turbid conditions
limit ideal habitat or make some habitat unsuitable because of
faster currents. These difficult conditions force the bass to
select poor or less-than-ideal habitat for nest construction.
Less-than-ideal nesting habitat can reduce the number of eggs or
fry that survive.

&#8220Strong river flow and colder-than-average water
temperature have a big influence on bass eggs and bass fry. Heavy
river flow can displace bass eggs or fry from the nest. Eggs or sac
fry can be covered with sediment. The fry may become disoriented in
the turbid conditions and abandon their nest. Older fry that leave
the nest will have to use a lot more energy to swim and feed in
heavier currents.

&#8220Heavy river flows also reduce the amount of shallow
areas that young bass need to survive. These shallow areas provide
the ideal growing conditions. They are warmer and have fewer
predators.

&#8220In cold water, fertilized eggs take longer to develop,
making them more susceptible to disease and predators. Fry activity
and swimming will decrease at low water temperatures.”

Among the actions that concerned anglers have suggested is the
imposition of tighter restrictions on bass anglers on the lower
Susquehanna, which is already under the more-restrictive Big Bass
regulations from the inflatable dam at Sunbury downstream to the
Holtwood Dam near the Maryland border.

Half of the Fisheries Committee was ready to pursue those
tighter restrictions.

Commissioner William Worobec motioned that the committee
recommend the full Board of Commissioners at the Oct. 1-2 meeting
direct commission Executive Director Doug Austen to issue an
emergency executive order imposing catch-and-release restriction on
all bass fishing in the Susquehanna River and its tributary, the
Juniata River.

Worobec said he wanted the commission to take that action to
call widespread public and legislative attention to the issue.

&#8220We’ve got a biological issue and a visibility issue
right now,” he explained. &#8220We’ve got to get the visibility
to get this done. We need to get the guys down on the Hill in tune
with what we think is the problem just now. We’ve got to get the
visibility to create the critical mass to get this addressed.”

Current regulations impose catch-and-release conditions on the
rivers only from mid-April through mid-June. Through most of the
year, anglers may keep two bass at least 18 inches on the
Susquehanna River, from the inflatable dam at Sunbury downstream to
Holtwood Dam, and on the Juniata River, from Port Royal downstream
to the mouth. On the rest of the river system, the limit is four
bass at least 15 inches for most of the year.

Commissioner Robert Bach-man, who participated in the meeting by
phone and provided the second for Worobec’s motion, as well as the
second favorable vote, said, &#8220We’re saying there’s a
pollution problem that needs to be addressed.”

However, Commissioners William Sabatose and Donald Anderson
voted against the measure, which gave the committee a 2-2 tie,
killing the motion.

The commission, with Penn State, has multiple studies under way
to determine the impact of angling on smallmouth bass in the
Susquehanna, as well as some other factors.

In addition, the commission has taken the lead to pull together
a multi-agency, state and federal, working group to locate and pool
all possible sources of data relating to water quality, pollutants,
weather trends, water flow and more in the Susquehanna.

However, frustration over what they perceive as continued
inaction by the commission was evident among many anglers and
guides attending the meeting.

&#8220We’ve got 50 or 60 miles of the Susquehanna River that
is the worst bass fishing in the U.S., and it used to be the best,”
said Robert Clouser, a nationally known designer of fly-fishing
patterns and a former river guide from Middletown.

&#8220The biota, the things that are out there living in the
river, are telling us that this river is sick,” he added.

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