When some of world's top bass pros hit Pittsburgh's rivers next month in the world's richest fishing tournament, the Forrest Wood Cup, they'll be eyeing the water from the decks of bass boats and casting in to shore.
But from under the bridges and on the post-industrial banks of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers, many Pittsburgh anglers see the rivers from another perspective. Steep dirt banks, overhanging trees, old cement walls, partially submerged barges and the crumbling debris of another era can create obstacles for anglers approaching the water on foot, but it's ideal bank structure for many fish species.
Harry Blackwell, 62, of Wexford has been fishing Pittsburgh's rivers since David L. Lawrence's city renaissance was still a distant dream.
"Back in those days, you were subject to catching anything but you got a lot of carp and catfish," he said. "If you caught a bass or walleye you were doing well."
With the closing of most of the mills, the rivers have grown more accommodating to a wider variety of game fish. Bottom feeders will still find a crawler suspended near the sediment, but largemouth and smallmouth bass, walleyes and saugers are now common catches. Pike-family predators prowl the channels, and even wayward brown and rainbow trout are not uncommon.
"I don't think people in Pittsburgh realize how good of a fishery they have," said Karen Gainey, fishing instructor for the Community College of Allegheny County, host of "Karen's Fishing Corner" on PCTV and staff guide at Venture Outdoors' Downtown Tri-Anglers, an open fishing group that casts Wednesdays at lunchtime on the North Shore under the Clemente Bridge.
"Since Venture Outdoors started keeping records, 28 species of fish have been caught at the Wednesday gatherings," she said. "Muskies, pike, panfish. In the spring we catch a lot of walleyes and saugers. And smallmouth bass and largemouth bass -- I don't care what the Bassmasters say, we have caught 3 and 4 pounders right off The Point, especially when the water is high. And this is Wednesdays at high noon -- not at the best times of day, dawn and dusk."
As in all fishing, the trick is to know the local water and understand how fish respond to changing conditions. In an urban landscape, that means knowing the locations of the best shore structure and where fresh, aerated water rushes into the rivers. Savvy city anglers learn to understand the ways fish adapt to constantly changing water levels and temperatures.
Bridge pilings, wharfs, walls and other abrupt drop-offs provide security for fish and shade from uncomfortable UV rays. Remnants of collapsed wicket dams and lock chambers from a bygone day provide perfect structure. Explore the banks, look for weed beds just off shore and experiment under a variety of conditions.
"Because of the way bridges are built, the pylons get a lot of rocks around them and they're generally very deep there, too," said Blackwell. "You have to find the right bridge. You get a lot of crappie fishing, stretches were rock bass will come, and every now and then a walleye will come in. In night fishing under the bridges, you don't know what you're going to get. That's when the stripers and other big fish come in."
Cooler, clearer water and the aerating action of dams at Highland Park and Freeport provide several advantages for Allegheny River anglers. Fresh water from any clean tributary attracts fish, but substantial flow from Pine Creek can be a fish magnet, particularly during spring walleye spawning runs.
Pittsburgh angler Brian Clements reported great fishing last week from the Highland Park Dam to the 62nd Street Bridge, where catfish were hitting hard at dusk "in great numbers" on nightcrawlers and jig-rigged shiners.
"Tons of smallmouth bass up to 20 inches, most 12-15 inches," he said. "All on shiners and Shad-Rapps. Walleyes and saugers are hungry; [use] green Twister tails on green jigheads. There are some pretty good fishing spots in Sharpsburg. Take a walk down to the bank to find one."
Downstream on the Allegheny, Blackwell likes the bridge structures near the Heinz plant, and anglers share the narrow north side of Herr's Island with paddlers. Find lots of sweet spots in the Strip District and at Downtown bridge pilings.
Last Wednesday, under a hot afternoon sun, Gainey moved her minnow rig out of the Clemente Bridge shade looking for just the right spot near PNC Park.
"It's 5 feet deep here, but there's a drop off out there," she said, pointing at the brown water still high from the previous week's downpour. "What we're trying to do is get between the weed bed and the drop off."
Water at The Point is shallower than some might think with riprap dropping into 10-12 feet channels. When the pleasure boaters aren't crowding the confluence, explore those drop-offs and the unmistakable seam separating the cloudy Monongahela from the clearer Allegheny flow.
"You've got this quiet pocket right in the center of it," said Gainey. "You can actually go down there and catch a lot of fish."
Wall faces and other structure on both sides of the Mon can hold good numbers of bass -- experiment to find the best drop-offs. The Monongahela's long Pittsburgh Pool ends at the South Side above the Birmingham Bridge, creating several hot spots fishable from shore. Wide sandbars off Nine Mile Run at Duck Hollow make it difficult to cast, but find the right spots at the right times and you'll find game fish.
Don't be intimidated by the bigger waters of the Ohio. Shore anglers can find slow water pockets off the upstream and downstream tips of Brunot, Davis and Neville islands. Shore structure of all kinds, bridges and tributaries break up the river bank to the Emsworth Lock and Dam and beyond.
Water conditions vary on Pittsburgh's rivers, but fishing tactics remain about the same.
"There's three main techniques" for shoreline city fishing, said Blackwell. "A sliding bobber set about 5 feet deep with split shot and a fathead is good for any condition, especially on bright, sunny days and at night with a lighted bobber. When the water's cloudy and fish are hiding in the shallows, you can use a sliding sinker with a nightcrawler -- shoot the worm up with air to keep it off the bottom or use a floating jig head. And any time, use [shallow diving] crankbaits fished on the surface -- along weed beds is best."
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission patrols popular fishing spots on all three rivers. Anglers are rarely victims of crime while fishing in the city, even at night, but it's smart to avoid fishing alone. The greater danger, said Blackwell, is the deceptively slow-moving water.
"Don't take the rivers for granted, even in the daytime," he said. "And if you have kids under 12, make sure they have some kind of PFD with them. These rivers are strong. It only takes a second to carry you away."
John Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1991.