Susquehanna River Bycatch Species

by Chris Gorsuch

  Mention the Susquehanna River to almost anyone and the topic of smallmouth bass is certain to follow. In many circles, the two words are synonymous.  Smallmouth bass remain the #1 targeted gamefish on the Susquehanna River and for good reason–they are plentiful from top to bottom. That said, the river is home to over 20 other freshwater fish species and the popularity of musky, pike, walleye, channel catfish and flathead catfish is growing. 

   Spanning nearly 450 miles from New York to Maryland, the Susquehanna River offers a wide variety of terrain. So much in fact, that depending on where you are in that span, it will look very different. At the headwaters, the Susquehanna is extremely narrow and surprisingly more creek than river for the first 40 to 50 miles. As the river meanders through lower New York state and into the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania, it widens considerably and depth varies from holes that are nearly twenty feet deep to rocky flats that are just inches deep. This series of shallows and deep pools stretch on for nearly 150 miles.  Walleye, pike, musky and channel catfish flourish in this section of the river. 

   Once the river drops below the Shamokin Dam, the river again takes a major terrain change. The river widens in places to nearly three quarters of a mile wide and islands, hundreds of them, create an amazing amount of cover. Thousands of rock ledges rise above the water making it spectacular to view and in low water, quite challenging to operate a boat. Here the river is wide and considerably shallow even by jetboat standards. This area from the dam down 70-80 miles pretty much matches this footprint. Healthy populations of channel and flathead catfish cover both the shallow flats and the deeper water. Find an area near current with a depth of 7’ or more and these gigantic predators are likely there. Walleye and musky as well.

  Clients and guests aboard my boat land between 10,000 and 12,000 smallmouth a year. Along the way, hundreds of walleye, catfish and dozens of musky and pike are caught in the pursuit of bass. It stands to reason, that bass feed on the same forage as these other predators. 

  As fun as these other species are, I do not target or guide for these other species. My old pocket dictionary defines the word byproduct as “a result produced in addition to an intended action.” Byproduct is how I define catching anything other than smallmouth.  Pike, musky, walleye and catfish are indeed fun to catch, and it is difficult to explain to clients that I never target them. 

   While I agree it is exciting to hook into these larger fish while targeting smallmouth, I would rather it did not happen. With the exception of walleye, these other gamefish are too powerful for the medium action rods and reels we use during our bass trips. Fighting these larger, more powerful gamefish on light tackle is possible, but not especially good for these larger fish who can fight to exhaustion. I often wonder if it is better to break them off early, rather than injuring or worse, risk killing the fish due to exhaustion. This is especially true with pike and musky during the summer when water is warm. 

    For clients and readers seeking a guided trip for these gamefish, I would recommend selecting a guide who specializes in the specific gamefish you are seeking. These guides will have the proper gear for safely handling these amazing fish. These expert guides can share the best locations and times of the year for targeting these fish. Here are just a couple who seem to constantly deliver an exceptional experience for their clients.

  Rocky Droneburg is a Musky Guide on the Potomac River. Over the last several years, Rocky’s name has been synonymous with big river musky.  Anglers interested in catching that fish of a lifetime need only to look at Rocky’s weekly reports. Rocky guides for Susquehanna Smallmouth Solutions and is no stranger to targeting smallmouth bass on the Potomac River, or traveling north to Pennsylvania and running trips on the Susquehanna River as well. 

  When it comes to targeting both channel and flathead catfish, few guides on my stretch of the Susquehanna River spend more time on the water than Rod Bates. Rod is the owner of Koinonia Guide Service and he has a passion for catfish. Koinonia Guide Service also guides for smallmouth bass and walleye.  If you are looking to catch a cooler full of channel catfish or to try your luck on a massive flathead, Rod is your man.

Author Chris Gorsuch is a licensed charter guide in the state of Pennsylvania. He started the Reel River Adventures guide service in ‘07 and spends 225-250 days on the water annually. His home base is on the Susquehanna River where he operates 20’ jetboats. Chasing smallmouth is his specialty, however he enjoys catching walleye and other freshwater gamefish on the upper North Branch. He has written 100’s of articles. You can follow his daily fishing reports on Facebook ‘Reel River Adventures-RRA’ & Instagram @Chris_Gorsuch

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