Knapp 3-24

Jason Venesky displayed a nice Piney Dam smallmouth bass caught and released recently. 

It would be interesting to know just how much smallmouth bass move during the year, particularly when they live in rivers or riverine-type reservoirs.

Take Piney Dam, for instance, a 14-mile long impoundment on the Clarion River. Formed by a hydroelectric dam located southwest of the town of Clarion, this narrow but lengthy reservoir doesn’t see a lot of fishing pressure. During the summer months it’s a popular power boating destination. And though water quality is much improved from that of decades past — when paper mill discharge and acid mine drainage severely impacted it — its fish population does not appear to be dense.

Still, when you hit things right it can be an awesome place to fish, particularly for smallmouth bass. I suspect “hitting things right” means being on the portion of the reservoir where the bulk of the smallmouth bass are at the time.

I recall reading research done by the Minnesota DNR regarding smallmouth bass movement in the upper Mississippi River, where miles of free-flowing river are interrupted by small reservoir sections — mostly for paper mills — that create small impoundments. Tracking studies showed that while the bulk of the smallmouth bass population spend much of the spring, summer and early fall in the natural, free-flowing part of the river, by fall they had moved downriver into reservoir sections where the deeper, slower water provided better wintering-over habitat. Some of these fish moved more than 30 miles.

While bass in Pennsylvania aren’t exposed to the level of harshness as those that endure Minnesota winters, I think smallmouth bass in river sections that flow into reservoirs do the same thing, though perhaps on a smaller scale.

In the case of Piney Dam, during the spring exceptional smallmouth bass fishing can take place in the upper couple miles of the lake, basically the transition zone where the river becomes a reservoir.

It’s not uncommon to catch 20 to 40 nice smallmouth bass during a half day of fishing — again, during the early to mid-spring. Come back in summer and it’s unlikely you’ll have the same experience. I speculate that many of the smallmouth bass have migrated up into the free-flowing section of the river by then, where they find habitat better-suited for the warm-water period of the year.

I’ve had some good days during the late fall in the upper end of Piney, but often it’s been slow. However, miles downriver, along the edges of large, river-bend points, I’ve found smallmouth bass stacked up in large numbers. I recall a trip in late November when Sid Brown and I caught and released dozens of smallmouth bass along one such structure while strong winds howled across the top of the ridge above us. A couple weeks earlier, while targeting the upper end of the reservoir, four hours of hard fishing produced a big zero.

Last week Jason Venesky and I fished Piney with the intent of hitting numerous spots within an 8-mile section of the reservoir. Scouting trips, when the water temperature is around 40 degrees, can be challenging. In such cold water it’s necessary to fish slow as bass won’t be chasing down lures. And just because you don’t catch them doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

We started at the upper end of the reservoir, the river-to-reservoir transition. With the lake level down 4 to 5 feet, this area was a mile or so farther downriver than normal. A 300-yard stretch produced three or four smallmouths, mostly on suspending jerkbaits.

Armed with the knowledge that at least some bass were in the upper end of the lake, we motored several miles downriver to the area where Sid and I had made contact a few months earlier. Here we found decent numbers of bass, not as many as in late fall, but we put a dozen in the boat.

The remainder of the day we worked our way back up the lake, hitting the edges of flats and points that jutted out into the lake. Except for one spot, all produced a couple bass.

Before leaving we again hit the river spot, to see the action was any faster later in the day once the water had warmed a bit. But the result was about the same, three or four smallies.

To me this suggests that smallmouth bass were making their way up the reservoir, that we were contacting fish holding along prime structure while making such a movement. It’s likely that in a month or so many more bass will be concentrated in the upper part of the lake, staging there before making another movement closer to the spawn in May.