ITH the turn of the calendar to June comes the anticipation of bass season. In less than 2 weeks, it will be here. Last year, at 7 a.m. on a Sunday in mid-June, I got up off the camp front porch deck, where I had slumbered through the cool night, grabbed my spinning rig and lure box and ambled down the hill toward the Allegheny. Mists rose above the currents, and the early golden sun was just starting to bronze the hillside forest across the river.
Four common mergansers sped upstream above the surface, their long bills straining in the wind, their red crests sparkling in the sun. I hiked downhill and felt myself straining, too, eager to toss a line into the clean, cool waters of the river. At the shoreline I paused and looked around at the hardwoods and evergreens that rose steeply up the mountainside. As much as I wanted to start fishing, I knew you don’t hurry things in the deep-woods Pennsylvania wilds. You take a moment and enjoy your surroundings before you dig into your plastic box, select a lure, and fling it out over the waters.
I rarely use spinnerbaits, since they’re so big and clumsy-looking, but I’d just spoken the day before to my nephew Marty, an excellent fisherman and a devotee of the lure, so I hooked up and tossed the bug clunker in.
As I reeled in my third cast, the line halted, and I thought I had hooked into a snag in the weedy shallows. But the snag moved, and then it raced upstream, zinging line off my ultralight reel. The fish broke water twice and went on a long run in the gathering sunlight. Ten minutes later, I brought him to hand, all 18 inches and 2-plus pounds of him, a Pennsylvania smallmouth bass.
Growing up in Mercer County, I rarely heard of and never caught a smallmouth bass. My fishing life included trips to the local pond for bluegills and catfish and the occasional largemouth and later crappies at Pymatuning and stocked trout in Venango County and finally more largemouth bass from Wilhelm and Shenango. But no smallmouths for a long time. That changed with a couple of trips to Lake Erie and Ontario, Canada, a discovery of smallies right here in the Shenango River in Sharpsville, and, ultimately, the Allegheny River near Camp F-Troop, where we’ve taken smallies for 30 years now.
Smallmouth bass have always been special to me. The largemouth is a blue-collar commoner, while the smallmouth is royalty, a fish known for its beauty and fighting ability, one of the finest freshwater sportfish out there, admired by anglers in the state and around the country. I associate smallies with cleaner moving waters with rocky bottoms, often rivers or streams, while largemouths thrive in warmer waters of color, mostly brown ponds or gray lakes. There are exceptions, though. The largemouth bass we catch in the spring-fed gravel pit ponds of Grove City come from waters so crystal clear, you can see them by the dozen and not catch any because they can see you right back.
Allegheny River smallmouth color tends toward gray or dark green, to match the rocky river bottom, and are torpedo-shaped for speed and current, while Lake Erie specimens are browner, to match the sandier bottom and more oval-shaped for deeper water. Smallies can also be distinguished by their red or golden eyes and the dark vertical bands along their sides, unlike the horizontal band of the largemouth. The world record is an 11-pound, 15-ounce monster taken from Dale Hollow Reservoir on the Kentucky/Tennessee border in 1955.
We catch them on wacky-rigged plastic worms, the Mepps Comet minnow spinner, Rapala jointed minnow lures, soft plastics, and more. We love to float the Allegheny for miles on a Saturday and stop to fish the spots where fast currents run into pools. Sometimes we take along a fry pan and oil, as long as it’s mid-June or later, and catching and keeping is legal. Fresh smallmouth fillets can deliver an extra tasty shore lunch on a Saturday afternoon.
Don Feigert is the outdoors writer for The Sharon Herald and the Grove City Allied News. His latest book, The F-Troop Camp Chronicles, and his earlier books are available by contacting Don at 724-931-1699 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Browse his web site at www.donfeigert.com. Or visit Leana’s Books at the mall or in the Grove City Outlets.