Cool spring temperatures delayed the spawn for some insect and fish species, but not bass. In lakes and rivers throughout the region, smallmouth, largemouth and spotted bass are biologically right on time.
Despite the weather, spring tournament catch rates and weights have been right about where they should be, and some waters are giving up unusually big bass. Some Southwest Pennsylvania bass club members predict a slow regular season opening Saturday, but anticipate a productive summer.
"The water temperature is a couple of degrees off, but it's not drastically different from last year," said Fort Pitt Anglers president Christopher Kimmel of Irwin. "Usually the bite is good in April. This year it wasn't, but in May it picked up."
Cool air temperatures in recent months haven't impacted the water. Sixty degrees is the magic number for the three largest members of the sunfish family -- about three consecutive days at that water temperature combined with typical spring hours of sunlight trigger the spawn.
In lakes, regulations call for a 12-inch minimum and daily limit of six combined species Saturday through Oct. 31. In rivers and streams, it's the same minimum and limit Saturday through Sept. 30. "Catch and immediate release" regulations apply to bass on the lower sections of the Susquehanna River and Juniata River.
While largemouths and smallmouths can inhabit the same lakes and rivers, they're generally found in different habitats. Smallmouths seek moving water, rocks and stumps, and the steep sides of submerged channels. Largemouths like slower or still water and weeds. The spotted bass is not a hybrid pairing of the two, it's a smaller separate species. Growing to about 18 inches, spotted bass can be found in smaller numbers in cloudy, sluggish pools in the Ohio and Beaver rivers.
Results of a 2012 Fish and Boat Commission report on the Three Rivers area showed the continuation of a decades-long pattern in which the lower Allegheny River produced a higher smallmouth catch rate than the Ohio or Monongahela, but the Mon produced more legal smallmouths.
"One thing I can tell you, I went to the Mon and it was probably one of the better days I've had in the last several years," said Kimmel. "Between 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. we caught 60 fish, 30 of them keeper size."
In the rivers, the smallmouths have finished spawning and some largemouths are still on beds, said Kimmel, who recently finished 33rd with two fish in a Potomac River tournament.
On the lakes the largemouths are off beds and transitioning to post-spawn mode, said Northwest Bassers president Steve Hughes of Rimersburg.
"By the looks of things, this week it's still cool and the bites are going to be a little bit off," said Hughes, who in April placed fourth in a Pymatuning tournament with 16 pounds.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that some regional waters that traditionally held big bass may be coming back. In 2007, bass density reports, Fish and Boat ranked Cross Creek Lake in Washington County the top mid-size bass lake in the state, and Lake Wilhelm in Mercer County rated fifth among large impoundments. In recent years, bass in both lakes have struggled, but recent reports are promising.
"The bass bite [at Cross Creek Lake] has been slow for the last few years," said Cross Creek Bait Shop owner Mike Milvet. "But guys are reporting some good-sized bass this year. Not just one or two people -- I'm hearing that a lot."
Cross Creek Lake is managed under special Big Bass Program regulations (Saturday to Dec. 31 15-inch minimum, daily limit four combined species).
A recent Fish and Boat electro-shock survey of Lake Wilhelm suggested that at least some of the reservoir's over-populated gizzard shad are being controlled by the bass.
Several big largemouths were documented, the largest weighing 4 1/2 pounds.
When bass season opens Father's Day weekend, Kimmel recommends taking advantage of the unseasonably cool river temperatures.
"In slightly lower water temperatures, fish are more aggressive," he said. "Use more moving baits -- that's the ticket. You don't have to slow down when the water's cool."
Hughes recommends targeting the post-spawn lake bass with crankbaits and spinnerbaits.
"When it's cool, back off a little bit," he said. "Even in adverse conditions crankbaits and spinnerbaits will get reaction bites. By opening day, smallmouths still fish in the shallow flats and first break lines, but the largemouths should be setting up on deeper weeds and offshore structure. Later, as the weeds thicken, concentrate there."