West Branch fish populations on the rise

Photos courtesy of Slate Run Tackle Shop and WolfÕs General Store and state Fish and Boat Commission Angler fishing a Pennsylvania stream in the fall. Smallmouth bass caught using a streamer on the West Branch Susquehanna River in the fall. Brown trout caught using a streamer on Fishing Creek, Clinton County in the fall. WolfÕs General Store stocks a no-kill section of Pine Creek for year-round action.

A report of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River showing healthy and increasing amounts of smallmouth bass populations, as well as many other fish species, could mean a great spring and summer for anglers in the river. The report, recently released by the state Fish and Boat Commission, shows a rebound of fish populations all over the river.

Thanks to anglers, environmental policies and advantageous natural conditions, smallmouth bass, since around 2012, have formed a robust population on the West Branch, according to biologists and fishermen, who report high catch rates.

“In recent years, we’ve been above average or above the mean for about four of the last 5 years,” said Geoff Smith, a biologist with the commission. “Populations are looking pretty good.”

Much of the electrofishing ­- the means by which biologists catch fish to measure population size and growth – is done below Montoursville, however there are good signs throughout the rest of the West Branch.

“Upstream in Lock Haven, there is significant anecdotal evidence from fishermen of improved fish populations in the past years,” Smith said.

Upriver from Williamsport, Smith said, the health is mainly due to reduced pollution.

“They’ve been restoring mining projects that were introducing abandoned mine drainage. Over the years they’ve made pretty big increases in fixing those problems,” Smith said.

Metals such as aluminum, iron, manganese and arsenic are often present in the riverbed. When the acidity of the river rises due to acid mine drainage, those metals can become dissolved back into the water column. As the toxicity of the water rises, smallmouth bass and other fish suffer from a compromised immune system.

But over the past decade, fish populations have consistently increased around Lock Haven due to the stymied drainage.

Below Williamsport, it’s been the water level which has contributed to the success.

“It’s been primarily due to favorable flow conditions in the spring,” Smith said. “Bass typically spawn well in low-flow years. We’ve had a string of good low-flow years between 2012 to 2015.”

This has created a strong population of smallmouth bass where a single bad year will not affect its overall health.

Though 2017 and 2018 brought higher than ideal waters, Smith said it is not uncommon.

“We’re in a good position, if we have a decent year with low flows, we can probably see a good year-class again,” said Smith. “We just need nature to cooperate this year, time will tell.”

When smallmouth bass spawn, they look for areas with low current. This particularly aids the juveniles, who are born about an inch long and will get flushed away if the current is high.

Also, bass spawn rather late in the year (around late spring or early summer) said Smith. The juveniles face an uphill battle to put on enough size to make it through the winter. Lower water levels are warmer, thus allowing the juveniles to maintain a higher metabolism.

Another killer of juvenile bass is disease. In 2014, a smallmouth bass was caught near Duncannon with a cancerous lesion on its jaw.

Though this cased a media stur around that time, there have been no other fish since found with a similar wound.

The Susquehanna River, in general, has had other diseases, such as viruses, bacterial infections and parasites, but this too has become more rare.

“In 2005 to 2010, there was disease that largely infected juvenile fish; however, it did not affect the larger population of smallmouth bass like it did on the Juniata River,” said Smith. “It was present, but we’ve seen that wane over time, that’s another reason why we’ve seen the population pick back up again.”

Pollution is still a large factor however, said Smith, and some types have only become known to science in the last 10 to 15 years.

Water treatment facilities are only made to take out organic materials – antibiotics and pharmaceutical medications can pass through. Smith said these drugs have unknown effects on fish but it’s presence is linked to a decline of population.

The facilities also fail to filter out estrogen found in birth control. Smith said male bass are more susceptible to hormonal changes than other kinds of fish and can develop intersex characteristics, reducing or stopping their ability to spawn.

Scented antibacterial soap can also find its way into the river. These chemicals are known to disrupt bass pheromones, so they are unable to find spawn sites.

Fertilizer also can runoff from farms and residential areas. Rather than growing plants on land, the fertilizer grow algae in the water, which stop sunlight from reaching the plants and deplete the water of oxygen.

For now, however, the waters are healthy and teeming with life according to anglers.

Stosh Wisniewski, a member of the Washberry Bass Club, said he has seen more and more fisherman come out to tournaments.

“Recently over the last, say, five, six years it’s gotten where you’re looking at 18 to 20 inch bass on a regular basis,” Wisniewski said. “The fishing has gotten so much better as the rivers got cleaner.”

Wisniewski said the increased bald eagle and otter sightings also are evidence the ecosystem at large is healthy.

The bass tournaments help keep tabs on the population, he said, as well as promote catch-and-release policies by subtracting weight totals from people to return with dead fish.

“It gets a lot of people out there with eyeballs on the fish,” Wisniewski said. “When we catch them and we bring them in, we see if there’s something wrong with them. A lot of times the Fish Commission guys are there.”

Jerimie Delcamp, owner and operator of Day and Night Archery, a bowfishing guide service in New Columbia, agreed that fishing on the Susquehanna has improved in recent years.

“This past year was a little rough because the river’s up, but (two years ago) was phenomenal. I mean, you go out one evening during the summer and catch your limit in two hours off of just the top water,” he said.