Bank Fishing the Susquehanna

Written by Jack Ries
“Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Don’t teach a man how to fish and you feed yourself. He’s a grown man, fishing’s not that hard.”
-Ron Swanson

All humorous quotes aside, fishing is one of my favorite activities. Whenever I have a chance to sneak off on the weekend or after work, you’ll usually find me at one of my favorite spots, dropping a line in from the bank. While boat fishing is the most popular method of fishing the Susquehanna River, fishing from the bank can be just as rewarding. Boating out to deeper water where the fish tend to lurk during the heat of the day will net you better results when the sun is high, but bank fishing the stretch of the river that we live on between Harrisburg and Safe Harbor can be equally productive if you know when to go and where to look. Now, for all the salty sea dogs who have been at the fishing game for a while, this will all be old hat. But if you’re more of the boating type who is looking to expand your horizons, or a novice angler looking for some tips, feel free to read on.
First off, understanding fish behavior is key to being successful at fishing from terra firma. Fish tend to move to deeper water during the day to escape the high heat of sun-drenched shallow water. Unfortunately, food out in the open water is not as densely available as it is in the shallows. Remember, a fish’s life revolves around two things: spawning and eating, in that order. If they’re not spawning, they will move into shallower water when the weather is cooler to find easy prey such as crawfish, frogs, and small baitfish. This means fishing from the bank will usually be more productive in the morning and evening, or even at night, depending on what you’re trying to catch. Early mornings are also when most fish are at their peak activity level, trying to fill their bellies with food before the water warms up too much. If you can get to them while they’re easy to reach and/or actively feeding, your odds of success are going to go up.
Secondly, while fish aren’t the smartest creatures on earth, they’re at least smart enough to know where to find food, and that staying out in the open for too long will be detrimental to their chances of survival. This is another advantage of bank fishing. Shallow water allows more sunlight to reach the bottom, resulting in more vegetation growth. These patches of underwater greenery not only provide shady hiding spots for the fish we’re trying to catch, but also provide a safe haven for fish fry, small baitfish, and insect larvae. In turn, these little critters will attract the crawfish and panfish that feed on them. Naturally, taking one more step up the food chain, those panfish and craws will attract the trophy hogs that all of us anglers are after. This natural cover also provides great hiding spots that ambush predators, such as smallmouth bass, love to hide in while they hunt for unsuspecting prey to swim or scuttle past. Casting a lure through densely vegetated areas of the shallows can yield high catch rates and huge fish, as long as you don’t get your hook hung up in the weeds, but we’ll cover that when we talk about lures. Another geographical feature you should be looking for is stream and creek mouths. Streams and creeks bring fresh, cool, oxygenated water into the river, along with nutrients that attract all of the little critters that gamefish feed on. If there are good feeding grounds or hiding spots near the mouth of a stream or creek, it’s a safe bet that there will be some catchable fish in the area, too.
Lastly, the seasons will affect how long the fish stay close to the bank. As already stated, fish will quickly retreat to deeper water in the summer, and stay there longer due to the high daytime temperatures. But the spring and the fall usually see fish staying in the shallows for longer periods of time. Springtime brings rain, and rain brings runoff. All of this will bring nutrients and food into the river, but will also make the water high, fast, and murky. Although fishing in those conditions can be quite good, it isn’t really my favorite. In fact, in my opinion, the best time of year for bank fishing the Susquehanna is coming up soon. Fall brings lower daytime temperatures, which will keep the fish out of the deep water and closer to the bank. Also, the fish know that winter is coming (no Game of Thrones jokes, please), so in order to survive under the ice, they need to build up their fat reserves so they have something to live off of over the winter when there’s no food to be found. This means one thing. They will eat anything that moves. I get more catches on fall mornings than any other time of the year. And as the weather gets cold, most fish (with the exception of walleye) will stop feeding, but the big monsters will still be eating their fill. Even as we get into October, the odds of catching a personal best fish are still pretty good, so don’t be afraid to do some late season fishing, either.
What type of fish can you expect to catch around here? Well, the Susquehanna River is home to many different species, but the fish you’ll find gnawing on your hooks most often are smallmouth bass, catfish, walleye, muskellunge, and smaller panfish like bluegills. I’ve heard that snakeheads have been making their way north, but I have yet to catch one above the dams. If you do happen to catch one, remember that there is a kill order on this invasive species. Any snakeheads that are caught must be killed and disposed of (I’ve heard they’re extremely tasty, by the way). If you get caught releasing one back into the water, there’ll be a hefty fine coming your way. There are also shad in the Susquehanna during the spring spawning migration, but these are an endangered fish, so they are under a permanent closed season in the Susquehanna River. If you do happen to accidentally catch one, carefully remove the hook in a manner that causes as little damage as possible, and gently release it back into the water. Getting caught with a protected species in your possession will also result in a hefty fine. Speaking of laws, remember that there are also illegal fish to use as bait in PA. Those fish are round gobies, tubenose gobies, goldfish, comets, koi, and common carp. It’s also worth noting that chumming (the practice of throwing edible items in the water to attract fish) is a gray area in PA. While it isn’t explicitly illegal, you could still get a ticket from a Fish and Boat or DCNR officer if they believe you’re chumming excessively enough to pollute the water or using a chum bait that could be harmful to wildlife.
Since we’re talking about bait, that’s a nice segue into the last thing I’d like to discuss. Every fisherman has his or her own ideas about what baits or lures are the best, and many of them will never change their minds. Trust me, fishermen are more superstitious than hockey players. I have some personal favorites in my tackle box, but sometimes weather and water conditions will make it so that even Nostradamus couldn’t predict what type of lure will work on any given day. Any legal live bait will catch fish. Unfortunately, live bait isn’t always the most practical option. If you want to slap a night crawler on a hook and set it under a bobber, that will work just fine. But for those of us who want to target specific species, in specific conditions, lures can’t be beat. What follows isn’t a definitive list; just some generalizations on lures that I’ve found to be effective while bank fishing our favorite local waterway.
Spinners/In Line Spinners: These work by grabbing the fish’s attention. They create vibrations in the water that hit sensory organs on the side of the fish’s head, alerting them that there may be food swimming nearby. Many times, these will have brightly colored or metallic finishes, which will visually attract the fish. Of course, these rely on the fish’s curiosity and willingness to stalk prey, so their effectiveness can sometimes be limited to smaller fish in clear water. Larger spinners will be more enticing for bigger fish, but still work best in clear water where they can reflect sunlight.
Crawfish Lures: The crawfish is the absolute favorite snack of the smallmouth bass. Crawl these along the bottom, close to heavy vegetation or natural cover. If you get your speed and motion (or lack thereof) just right, no hungry smallmouth will be able to resist it. And don’t worry if you’re fishing an area that doesn’t have any crawfish in it. The fish will still go for it, even if they’re not used to feeding on craws. I’ve never been to France, but I still know that crepes are food. The same thing goes for our fishy friends.
Swim/Football Jigs: There are many types of jigs, but I’ve found that swim jigs and football jigs work best around here. Football jigs can bounce along rocky bottoms without getting caught, and swim jigs can glide effortlessly through the densest grasses. As an added bonus, many of these types of jigs also have brush guards on them so your hook won’t get caught on underwater plants or roots. You can fish these fast and straight, or slow and steady. You can jig them vertically, or use a reel-pause-and-jerk cadence. Their ability to create motion in the water makes them great at attracting big fish. They’re also available in all colors. I’ve found that dark colors that create a larger silhouette work better in murky water, while bright flashy colors attract more attention on the clearer days.
Buzz/Chatter/Vibrax Lures: Just like spinners, these create vibrations in the water that will pique the fish’s curiosity. Using these on topwater can trigger quite an impressive strike. Just avoid using them while the fish are actively feeding at topwater, as they won’t be able to hear or feel the vibrations from your lure over all the chaos of a morning feeding frenzy.
Soft Plastics/Worms: The tried-and-true soft plastic is a jack of all trades. There’s a variety of different ways to load the lure on the hook, and they come in about 20 billion (don’t quote me on that) different sizes, shapes, and colors. Try a wacky rig to get tons of motion and attract attention, or set up a Texas rig to guard your hook against getting tangled in the weeds. You can also use soft plastics as trailers on your jigs to create more motion and attract more fish. They even make soft plastics with attractant scent coatings on them, to try and coax the big boys up from the deeper water. I’ve always got a bunch of these in my tackle box, just because when all else fails, nothing beats the ol’ reliable.
Well, that’s about all I’ve got time and space for in this issue. Plus, the entire time I was sitting on my computer writing this on my day off work, I could have been out fishing. But there is one last thing that I’d really like to mention. Before you go out and toss a line in the river, make sure you’ve got your license, and make sure you’ve read the most current state guidebook for the updated rules and regulations. When you’re out there fishing, don’t trespass to get to a good spot, and make sure you know and follow the size and bag limits. Fishing is an amazing and enjoyable activity for many people all over the world. People who break the rules cause landowners to close their properties to anglers, and force legislators to create new restrictions that ruin the fun for everyone else. Don’t be that guy.
From all of us here at the Marietta Traveler, good luck, and happy fishing. And from me, well, I guess I’ll just invite you to sit back, relax, and go fishing.