Forest County’s Tionesta Lake provides another angling venue in an area teeming with options.
Some of its best action takes place in fall, after the pleasure boating season has tapered off. Smallmouth bass, muskies and panfish are the main attractions.
Located on the extreme lower end of Tionesta Creek — a major cold-water and warm-water fishery in northwestern Pennsylvania — Tionesta Lake covers around 480 acres at normal pool with a maximum depth of 46 feet. It’s one of 16 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Lakes in the Pittsburgh District, impoundments designed primarily to provide flood protection for the Allegheny and upper Ohio River watersheds.
In general, Tionesta Lake is perhaps overshadowed as an angling destination, due somewhat to the other options in the area that include the Allegheny River, Kinzua Dam, and dozens of stocked and wild trout streams. Also, with no horsepower restrictions, the lake is a popular boating and water skiing location. But by fall tranquility will have returned to this winding impoundment.
Tionesta Lake twists its way for 6 miles, from an earthen dam up to where it transitions into the incoming stream, just upstream of Nebraska Bridge. As a flood control lake, it is subject to dramatic and rapid fluctuations in level during heavy rain events. It does not undergo a seasonal fall/winter drawdown. Its normal pool level is around 1,084 feet above sea level.
As mentioned earlier, the primary gamefish species in Tionesta Lake are smallmouth bass, muskies and panfish, all of which warrant attention from the autumn angler.
Regarding the smallmouth bass fishery, the lake has a history of supporting a strong smallie population, but one mostly of smaller fish. In recent years there has been an upswing in the size structure of the bronzeback fishery. When last surveyed (2013) the Fish and Boat Commission, via nighttime electrofishing efforts, collected a total of 165 smallmouth bass in 1½ hours of effort. This is a rate of 110 per hour, which personnel rated as “impressive.” The catch rate was on par with what prior surveys revealed except for smallmouth bass over 15 inches, which was at an all-time high. Anecdotal reports from anglers in recent years have also told the tale of nice smallmouth bass in the 15- to 20-inch range.
Tionesta has a strong history as a quality musky lake, one that continues today. During the most recent netting survey the Fish and Boat Commission collected several adult muskies from 30 to 46 inches. Along with Edinboro and Canadohta, Tionesta was one of the Fish and Boat Commission’s study lakes, where the survival rate of fall fingerling-stage muskies was measured against that of spring yearling-stage muskies. The results of that study were such that the agency has now switched over the stocking of spring yearling muskies.
One of the biggest takeaways from the survey was the surge in the panfish populations, crappies especially. A total of 1,832 white crappies and 154 black crappies were collected in trap nets. While most crappies were in the 7- to 9-inch range, slabs in the 13- to 14-inch range were also found. The yellow perch population was also much better than what was revealed in prior surveys.
Tionesta Lake lies in a heavily wooded, steep-sided valley. The original creek channel swings from side to side. As such, anglers can expect to find areas of sharp, shoreline drop-offs, along with ones of more gentle slopes and flats. While weed growth can occur some years, due to the volatile nature of the impoundment, level-wise, such cover is uncommon. When it does form, gamefish relate to it.
The lake bottom is mostly of rock and gravel. Boulder-sized rocks are more common in the upper end of the reservoir. Following extended periods of stable lake levels, the water clarity can become fairly clear.
The smallmouth angler should fare well working Tionesta Lake’s underwater structure with finesse presentations such as hair jigs and the popular finesse plastics commonly lumped together these days as “Ned Rigs.” For muskies, consider trolling or casting larger crankbaits.
Boat access is available at the USACE site near the dam. There is a launch fee of $3. The Fish and Boat Commission has a ramp and parking area in the upper end of the lake at Nebraska Bridge. The lake is narrow and comparatively shallow in the upper end, not much more than the flooded creek channel, so use caution for the first mile or so when heading down lake.
Save for the area around the access ramps there is little shore fishing opportunity on the lake itself. However, the outflow area, where the tunnel discharge empties back into Tionesta Creek, is a popular shore fishing spot. There’s not a lot of room for anglers, but at this time of year overcrowding is not likely to be an issue. Due to its proximity to the Allegheny River — Tionesta Creek dumps into the river about a mile downriver of the outflow — you never know what you’ll catch here, though during the fall musky anglers favor the spot.
Speaking of the Allegheny, while you’re in the area, the Tionesta Pool of the river is a great spot for fall fishing, walleyes in particular. The boat ramp, located in the town of Tionesta near the old sand and gravel company, is only about 2 miles from the lake’s COE ramp. The pool is a dredge hole where walleyes stack up during the cold-weather months.