Most of the anglers on the Susquehanna River spend their time casting for smallmouth bass, but once the hook hits the water it’s anybody’s guess what will strike.
While the river has become a thriving smallmouth fishery, other species are becoming abundant as well.
Rob Wnuk, fisheries manager for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s Northeast Region, said anglers can encounter a variety of species in the river, ranging from catfish to to the occasional trout.
The former, according to Wnuk, is one of several species that is on the upswing in the river.
“The Susquehanna is a fantastic channel catfish fishery during the summer months,” he said, adding survey results indicate the numbers are higher from Kingston to Sunbury.
Channel catfish in the river average 24 to 26 inches and can weigh as much as 15 pounds. Wnuk said those fishing for smallmouth bass may encounter a channel catfish as they are aggressive enough to strike a lure.
Duke Dalley can attest to that occurrence. He was recently fishing for bass near the Market Street Bridge when a channel catfish grabbed his spinnerbait.
“That’s what makes the river so much fun. You don’t know what you’re going to catch,” Dalley said. “You can be fishing for smallmouth bass and hook a big catfish or a 45-inch muskie.”
There are other catfish species turning up in the river, and they can grow much larger than channel catfish.
Wnuk said flathead catfish are present in the North Branch, and they can weigh as much as 40 pounds. When Wnuk surveyed the river in 2014, he said, flathead catfish were found from Kingston to Berwick.
“The flathead catfish is a real brute. They’re here and probably increasing, which is good for catfish anglers,” Wnuk said.
Yet another catfish species could soon arrive in the North Branch. According to Wnuk, blue catfish have been documented in the river in York County and it’s possible they could eventually move up. Blue catfish can weigh as much as 100 pounds but, like flatheads, their presence isn’t necessarily a good thing for the river. Both species prey heavily on panfish and Wnuk said the PFBC will continue to monitor the river for any impact to rock bass and red-breasted sunfish.
Still, Wnuk admitted it will be difficult to manage specifically for flathead and blue catfish if they do prove to be a problem for panfish.
“When flatheads showed up in the Susquehanna River we encouraged anglers to kill every one they caught,” he said. “That didn’t work because anglers like catching them and having them in the river.”
Aside from catfish, the river is home to other predatory fish species that are growing in number.
Despite not being stocked in the river since the 1960s, the walleye fishery is doing very well, according to Wnuk. He has heard of 30-inch walleye being caught in the river and they can wind up as incidental catches by bass anglers in the summer.
Muskies are also doing well in the river as the population remains stable and the popularity among anglers, specifically musky clubs, is on the upswing. The biggest musky to turn up in Wnuk’s survey work was 46 inches, but he said there are reports of anglers catching muskies greater than 50 inches.
Northern pike numbers in the river have been increasing over the last 10-15 years, according to Wnuk. He said pike are coming into the North Branch via the Chenango River in New York, where a wild population always existed.
“In the last 20 years the population exploded there, and pike moved downriver,” Wnuk said.
Carp have been a mainstay in the river and are popular among anglers because of their size. Wnuk said they can reach 40 pounds and more people are bowfishing for carp in the river.
Trout also turn up occassionally, particularly in the spring when the PFBC stocks streams that flow into the river. Once the river warms up in the summer, he said, trout move back into the streams seeking cooler temperatures.
Bob Strunk, whose club Back Woods Bass holds a smallmouth bass tournament on the river in Wilkes-Barre every Monday night, said anglers in his event frequently catch walleye, channel catfish and muskies while competing.
Also, Strunk said, at least once a season one of his anglers lands a striped bass.
“We always release it and it’s good to see stripers turning up because it means the river continues to get cleaner,” Strunk said, adding the tournament anglers enjoy catching other species while targeting bass.
“Tournament or not, we’re out there to have a good time and we enjoy catching anything and everything,” he said. “That’s why a lot of people like to fish the river.”
Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky