by Vic Attardo
You'd think that the business of Harrisburg, the capital of our Commonwealth, is government. But the anglers of Pennsylvania know the truth. They understand that the real business of Harrisburg is smallmouth bass fishing.
Ever since the Fish and Boat Commission placed a 15-inch minimum size on the river between Sunbury and Holtwood, the lower Susquehanna has seen a radical improvement. It truly is a world-class fishery.
But the Susquehanna is not the only liquid legend surrounding the state capital. Almost neglected by anglers are the hundreds of miles of warmwater streams that feed this section of the river. On both sides of the Susky's banks, there are over a dozen flows chock full of the same species that inhabit the Big S. With some exceptions in seasons, and some specific habitats, the stream fish are rarely as large as those thriving in the river. But they are just as feisty and just as eager to hit a lure, fly, or bait as are the river fish.
In many ways, fishing the tributary streams is a more intimate experience. Besides the lack of angler competition, many of these waters can be crossed with a single cast. I know there are some amazing anglers who wade great distances from either Susquehanna shore, but unless my boat is close by, I get nervous in the big river after a few hundred yards. In the smaller streams, it's not uncommon to traverse their full width. During the summer, when the sun is high and intemperate, I can often wade to the shady side of the creek where the UV rays are less hurtful and the fish are in hiding.
My main target in the capital's feeder streams is the smallmouth bass. But depending on the trends, I also find good numbers of either rock bass or redbreast sunfish. Quite a few of the waters also have pickerel.
In many of these streams, you'll find that the lower 5 to 10 miles have the better warmwater fishing. That is certainly true in streams in Area 7 under the watchful eye of Commission Area 7 Fisheries Manager Larry Jackson. Some of these same waters are also stocked with trout in their upper reaches, and they have special regulation sections for trout. In Area 6, monitored by Commission Area 6 Fisheries Manager Mike Kaufmann, the warmwater fishing tends to extend farther upstream, sometimes 20 miles or more. Then, too, some of Mike's streams swing into Maryland and actually flow into the Susquehanna below the Mason-Dixon line.
I said that fish in the Susquehanna streams are smaller than the river fish. In my experience, 9-inch to 12-inch smallmouths are the common catch. But there are exceptions. In the spring, when the river bass are spawning, it's not unusual for large mini-mouths to travel into the streams. When bass are searching for nesting sites, I've caught 3-pound bass in the creeks, at least as far as the stream's first obstruction. I've also learned that in specific big-fish habitats away from the river, it's not uncommon to find larger bass (and larger panfish). You may be walking along, catching a horde of 11-inchers in shallow water. Farther on, the stream bends. There's a pocket as dark as a storm cloud, and it's shaded by a slanted sycamore. You cast to the darkness and POW! A 15-inch smallmouth bass takes your line. Be prepared&SHY;it happens.
When it comes to capital-water fishing, we can divide the streams into two categories&SHY;those that flow into the river on the east side, and those entering on the west side. In this story we'll cover the streams on the east side of the river. At another time we'll explore the west side. I think you'll find a better variety of feeder streams on the east side.
Working down from the northern Dauphin County line, the first major smallmouth stream in Larry Jackson's territory is Wiconisco Creek. Wiconisco enters the Susky at Millersburg and flows somewhat parallel to Route 209. The highway crosses the Wiconisco upstream above Rife. All of this section has a fishable population of bass and panfish, and the stream reaches into some wonderful rural country all the way to State Gamelands 264.
Wiconisco has more of a rocky substrate than some other streams, and it's 50 to 60 feet wide in places. Unfortunately, access on the lower Wiconisco, via crossing roads and bridges, is not as good as some of the other streams we'll discuss, but it's not impossible, either. Farther east of Rife, toward Elizabethville, the crossing roads become more numerous. Jackson gives this one a big thumbs up.
We're getting narrow now. Armstrong is only 20 to 30 feet wide, but it still has good numbers of smallmouths and panfish. It's also stocked with trout.
Armstrong flows into the Susky at Halifax, across from Clemson Island. The best smallmouth fishing is up about six miles to Fisherville. This is agricultural land and the access north of Halifax, from Route 225, is pretty good at the crossing roads.
Powell Creek enters the Susquehanna around Inglenook. You'll find a solid population of smallmouth bass upstream about 10 miles as far east as Enterline.
Powell is a narrow stream, 20 to 30 feet wide, and in the spring it is stocked with trout. It's a low-gradient water, and its pools are mostly sand and gravel.
You'll hear two themes throughout this story. One is that after a moderate to strong rain, the stream gets awfully muddy. The other is that the mouth of a creek can be especially good&SHY;whether you're fishing the river or the stream. Powell certainly gets muddy after a rain, and because it empties into the river at a very good spot across from Haldeman Island, it's certainly a spot worth trying.
Clarks and the next two streams heading south, Stony Creek and Fishing Creek, are really known for their trout. But the lower three miles of Clarks from Route 225 down to the river is not too shabby for smallmouths. Above Route 225 you get into the special-regulation trout area.
Clarks Creek is a narrow stream with a fairly steep gradient in places, but I think you can do better for bass.
Swatara Creek enters the Susquehanna at Middletown-Royalton, and it's one of the better smallmouth waters on the east side with good numbers of bass and slightly bigger fish. The mouth of the Swatara is easily accessible with the Commission's Middletown Access and a nearby municipal park.
From Hummelstown down to the mouth, you can find good smallmouth habitat with a substrate quite suited for their needs. Upstream of the mouth, Swatara parallels railroad tracks. You can find some excellent big-fish water north of Route 283 toward Hummelstown. After Hummelstown, the Swatara bends way to the east toward Hershey. Then it cuts up into Lebanon County and Swatara State Park.
The travel center for the mid-section of Swatara Creek is Lickdale. Above Lickdale, the Swatara runs between Second Mountain on its north bank and Blue Mountain on its south. Route 72 parallels the stream above Lickdale, but access isn't too good until you come to an iron bridge marked "Pittsburgh Bridge Co." Nice bridge riffles.
Upstream of this bridge is the noisy I-81 overpass and another iron bridge, abandoned, marked "Berlin Iron Bridge Company, of West Berlin, Conn." Nice bridge riffles here as well. The Pittsburgh bridge takes you into the state park.
Farther north in Schuylkill County, Swatara Creek is still affected by acid mine drainage, so when you get into the state park, either the smallmouth habitat is not too plentiful or the mine water is causing a problem. With that in mind, I prefer to do my bass fishing downstream of the state park.
A good section of the Swatara lies between Jonestown and Ono, south of Route 22. Also, go south of Ono toward Valley Glen and you'll find excellent water and plenty of crossing roads.
I'm convinced more anglers don't know about this fine smallmouth stream because it can't be seen easily on a map. The Conewago forms the border of Dauphin and Lancaster counties, so dotted lines show the county boundaries, making it tough to spot the stream's thin, blue line. It also doesn't help that there's a "Conewago Creek" on the west side of the river in York County. The west side stream empties into the Susquehanna below York Haven, nearly opposite the east side stream, which empties at Falmouth and the foot of Three Mile Island.
Still, the Falmouth Conewago is wonderful smallmouth and panfish water with reasonable access at many road crossings in Dauphin, Lancaster, and Lebanon counties. It suffers from the same sediment problems as the other streams, but I'm very fond of it.
Overall, the Conewago is frequently deep and unwadable. This is a wide, often slow-paced stream. A canoe or small boat can take you to the good fishing, and you'll find smallmouth bass anywhere from the PA Turnpike crossing downstream to the mouth.
In Lancaster County, Chickies Creek is not very big, but it holds a bunch of small smallmouths and panfish. What's nice about Chickies is the access&SHY;loads of bridges and parallel roads. It has the infamous Lancaster County sediment problems, which means it turns chocolate-brown after a rain. If you live near Chickies, fish it. But if you're visiting, go elsewhere.
Here's a stream (or river) with plenty of elbow room. It's not perfect smallmouth habitat, but you'll find surprisingly good bass from Millersville downstream.
When Kaufmann's team surveyed the lower section of the Conestoga, the stream came up aces.
"I was very impressed with the size of the smallmouth bass," Kaufmann said. "We also found a greater abundance of large bass per electrofishing hour than in my area of the Susquehanna."
The best big smallmouth fishing on the Conestoga in my estimation is downstream of the dam near Route 30. Above that the fish are generally smaller. The Conestoga reaches deep into Lancaster County with its shopping outlets and farms. You won't find much access around the outlets.
The Commission's Rockhill Access, suitable for small boats, is between the villages of Slackwater and Rockhill.
Muddy Creek is a tributary of the Conestoga, east of Napierville, with good smallmouth bass and panfish action.
Here's another goodie. Pequea Creek flows into Lake Aldred on the Susquehanna. Access for a few miles upstream is difficult, but it improves north of Martic Forge. I've found good fishing between there and Route 272.
This stream also has plenty of smallmouths and panfish. Conowingo is mostly in Pennsylvania, but it meanders into Maryland and comes into the river below Pilot, Maryland. This is a major stream, but truthfully, I don't know it well. Those who work it say it's wonderful. Kaufmann says that fishing within a mile of the border is fair.
The last stream on the east side, Octoraro Creek is a real gem, and it also crosses the state border. Octoraro is a long waterway with good fishing above and below Chester-Octoraro Reservoir. This is one I'd definitely head to if I were looking for a new smallmouth-panfish experience.
Below the reservoir you'll find a 30-foot-wide stream with a suitable number of bridge crossings and parallel roads. Above the lake I'd fish the East Branch or Muddy Run.
If you live in the Harrisburg area, these streams are worth learning. And if you're just visiting, go see the capital's capitol building, the state museum, and the governor's mansion. Then grab you rod and reel and find one of these small treasurers.
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