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Susquehanna's Lost Smallmouth Fishery

Bob Clouser

Middletown smallmouth guide Bob Clouser has for more than a decade sounded the alarm that Susquehanna smallmouth in the Harrisburg reaches were disappearing. He watched his guiding business  shrink from 75 smallmouth taken per day to 5 or less. Increasingly, he had to inform his customers from as far away as Cleveland, Ohio: "Don't come. It's not worth fishing."

In 2009 Bob, in effect, closed what was left of his guiding business. As he told me 15 years ago, "The whole food chain of the river has been disappearing for many years. The smallmouth that depend on the food are finally disappearing, too. We used to have huge populations of American toads and they sang all night on the river. Now there are none. We had abundant panfish populations. Now there are few. Even the crayfish populations are dying. The river has become a wasted shell of the healthy, vibrant ecosystem that it was when I started guiding 30 years ago."

Ironically, Bob, in the '90s, was the preacher and father of smallmouth catch-and-release fishing and called for slot limits on the lower Susquehanna, to help the smallmouth survive to reach larger sizes. He hoped the change in fishing behavior, and regulations enacted, would prevent the final decline of the smallmouth populations. Unfortunately, fishing harvest has not been the cause of smallmouth declines on the Susquehanna. Manmade influences from industrial farming, to climate change, rapidly increasing introductions of industrial and household chemicals unfiltered by out-dated sewage treatment plants, massive stormwater runoffs that overwhelm sewage treatment plants that are forced to "straight-pipe" unfiltered wastewaters containing untold numbers of chemicals and wastes that over-enrich the river and cause plant and algae blooms that in turn die and consume oxygen as they decay, leaving the shallows where the young-of-the -year bass (and crayfish) live with no oxygen on which to survive. Rain runoff from rapidly increasing areas of asphalt roadways,  parking lots and driveways warm the water and bring other man-made chemicals to the river. Manmade endocrine disruptors in female products flushed down the toilets find their way through sewer treatment plants into rivers and cause male-to-female sex changes in male bass. The list goes on.

The word has been out among smallmouth fishermen for a long time, and especially in the last decade, that the Susquehanna from Duncannon downstream is not worth fishing (the upper reaches of the Susquehanna — including the Juniata — are doing somewhat better, but there smallmouth too are showing signs of troubling lesions and endocrinal changes that are warning signs for fisheries scientists. If the lower Susquehanna is dying, can the upper Susquehanna be far behind?  One of North America's leading smallmouth bass rivers has fallen off a man-made environmental cliff, but the bigger story is that what is happening on the Susquehanna is also happening on most Eastern smallmouth rivers, including the Potomac and other tributaries to the Chesapeake. And, to one degree or another, the same man-made changes (including global warming) are affecting river fisheries throughout the Ohio River drainages and the Mississippi.

The fish scientists are calling for help. They simply do not have enough science to prove whether the smallmouth declines and sex changes are created by one fundamental biochemical culprit (doubtful) or by many. PA Fish & Boat Commission Executive Director John Arway in an April 4, 2012 letter to Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Krancer explains the need for immediate increased scientific research on the Susquehanna's rapid systemic decline. He asked Krancer to list the river as "impaired" under the federal Clean Water Act. The list­ing, known as 303(d), would mean the river would come under cer­tain fed­eral cri­te­ria for dis­charges of pol­lu­tants, and stud­ies would be pri­or­i­tized to deter­mine what is caus­ing dis­ease among the fish.

Krancer rejected the idea of listing the river as impaired in a reply to Arway that in part said "Since we do not know what the stres­sor to the fish is at this point, there is noth­ing to appro­pri­ately or with fac­tual sup­port impair the river for."

Click here to read Arway's complete letter.

Bob Clouser fly fishing for small mouthbass on the Susquehanna River near Middletown, Pennsylvania. Cathy & Barry Beck photo

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