There’s nothing quite like the feeling of a big smallmouth bass at the end of your line. The moment a smallmouth hits your lure, bending your rod double and sending a jolt of electricity up to your shoulder, you know you’re in for a battle.
Smallmouth bass inhabit lakes and rivers all over Pennsylvania. Some, like Lake Erie and the Susquehanna River, are renowned smallmouth fishing waters that have established a nationwide reputation as the best of the best.
Others are little-known except to local anglers; and local anglers would no doubt like to keep it that way.
Fishing for smallmouth bass is permitted year-round in Pennsylvania, but bass fishing is strictly catch and release for about two months in the spring (from April 9 through June 10 as I write this). This rule helps protect the fish during their crucial spawning season.
Truth be told, that season offers arguably the best smallmouth bass fishing of the year in Pennsylvania. But there’s also a strong fall bite on most of the waters listed below, and plenty of big bass have also been caught during the dog days of summer.
Bottom line: You can catch smallmouths any time of year in PA, and your best chance to do so will be in one of the following lakes and rivers.
Best Smallmouth Bass Fishing Lakes in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania lays claim to 46 miles of coastline on what just might be the best smallmouth bass lake on Earth.
No other lake in the state gives up greater numbers of smallmouths, and there’s no place where you’re more likely to face off against a 6-pounder or above.
Ground zero for Pennsylvania’s Lake Erie smallmouth fishery is Presque Isle Bay, a relatively shallow 3,700-acre bay near the city of Erie. The bay’s waters warm up early in the year, well before those in the main lake.
Smallmouths arrive here in droves in springtime, and the fishing can be phenomenal as early as mid-April. The bay’s hard-bottomed humps and sandy flats with emerging vegetation are prime smallmouth spawning grounds. Presque Isle State Park provides great access.
Crankbaits like Rapala Shad Raps are great this time of year, and soft jerkbaits are often effective too. Live bait, including minnows and crabs (local parlance for crayfish), will tempt a bite when nothing else will.
Presque Isle Bay is great until around mid-June, when post-spawn smallmouths gradually filter back out of the bay and into the main lake. Some fish, particularly smaller ones, stay behind. But the real action moves elsewhere.
Contrary to popular belief, the smallmouth action on Lake Erie doesn’t stop in summer. It simply moves deeper. On the main lake, smallmouths can be caught anywhere from 10 to 40 feet this time of year.
A lot of Lake Erie’s bottom is fairly featureless, but the lake also has steep lakeshore bluffs, rugged ledges and boulder-strewn rock piles that smallmouths love. Part of the reason the fishing is so good is that smallmouths usually pile up on predictable structure.
The “dream” smallmouth structure is a rubble-strewn bottom beneath a rocky ledge, with depths dropping rapidly from around 10 to 15 feet to around 25 to 30 feet. There’s a lot of that kind of structure from the mouth of Presque Isle Bay eastward to the New York state line.
Bring a good assortment of bottom-bouncing lures like jigs, jigging spoons and blade baits.
Tube jigs, which mimic Lake Erie’s prolific (and invasive) round gobies, usually do the trick. Shaky-head worms and finesse soft plastics on drop-shot rigs are great too.
North East Marina, which the PA Fish & Boat Commission owns, is an excellent place to start on the eastern section of Lake Erie’s shoreline. The pier that encircles the marina also offers some decent shore fishing opportunities.
Presque Isle Bay and other tributary entrances also are among the massive lake’s best spots to catch enough catfish for dinner.
Almost certainly the best Pennsylvania smallmouth lake that isn’t Lake Erie, Lake Wallenpaupack is a productive multi-species lake that supports great populations of walleye, yellow perch and big stripers as well as smallmouth bass.
Lake Wallenpaupack—a lot of Pennsylvania anglers call it Wally, or the Pack—spans 5,700 acres. Its maximum depth is right around 60 feet, but the vast majority of the lake is 30 feet deep or less.
There’s outstanding smallmouth fishing here during the pre-spawn period from April into May, and fall usually brings about some great action too. In summer, anglers find most success targeting deep, rocky ledges and drop-offs.
It’s fair to call Wallenpaupack a numbers lake rather than a trophy bass lake. Expect to catch a lot of hard fighters weighing 2 or 3 pounds.
Lake Wallenpaupack is a man-made reservoir with a long, somewhat narrow shape and a distinct river channel. A depth map is a great tool here; as there’s often productive bass fishing in places where the river channel swings close to the bank.
One such area is the stretch from Ironwood Point to Cairns Island, toward the upper end of the lake. The river channel zig-zags from one bank to the other here, and bass often smack jigs, tubes and diving crankbaits along the drop.
Farther down the lake, Goose Pond Cove and Martins Cove are also great places to try. The latter has several rocky humps and a major point with lots of healthy weed growth.
Try tandem spinnerbaits and Rat-L-Traps in areas where weeds and rocks converge.
A state-owned boat launch and access site is located on Mangan Cove, off State Route 590. The town of Brookfield also maintains several free public launch sites.
Encompassing 8,300 acres in south-central Pennsylvania, Raystown Lake is the largest lake entirely within the state. Located along the Raystown Branch of the Juniata River, it’s a long, meandering reservoir with depths up to 200 feet.
Raystown Lake is frequented by bass tournaments, and pros often come to weigh-in with a mixed bag of smallmouth and largemouth bass. Both species are abundant, and you have a decent shot at catching a 5-pound specimen of either.
For smallmouths, the best action tends to be in the lower end of the lake. This should be considered more of a general guideline than a firm rule, but the water tends to be clearer in the lower end, especially in springtime.
That clarity, along with an abundance of rocky structure, makes this area perfect for smallmouths. There’s a large flat near Mile Marker 3 that is often productive, and a lot of big smallies are caught in the stretch known as Seven Points.
The month of May is the best time to fish Raystown Lake, despite—or perhaps because of—the fact that this month falls within Pennsylvania’s catch-and-release-only season. State law prohibits bass tournaments during that month, so you’ll have less competition.
You’ll also have less competition from pleasure boaters, who are notorious for churning Raystown’s waters to a froth throughout the summer months. As great as this lake can be, on a summer weekend, you’re better off looking elsewhere.
Raystown Lake is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who operate 12 public recreation areas and access sites around the shoreline. Raystown Lake Recreation Area is a great place to start.
Sprawling across the New York/Pennsylvania border, Allegheny Reservoir is a large impoundment fed by the Allegheny River and Kinzua Creek.
Allegheny Reservoir may also be the most underrated smallmouth lake in Pennsylvania. Its steep, rocky banks provide a wealth of habitat for both smallmouth bass and the crayfish they love to gobble up.
Most of the smallmouths you’ll catch will most likely be in the 12- to 16-inch range. Allegheny Reservoir isn’t really a trophy fishery (at least not for smallmouths) but you may very well hook into an occasional 4-pounder.
Smallmouths are most likely to be in shallow water in spring and fall, but many of the reservoir’s banks are so steep that it’s easy to ply a variety of depths without having to move around too much.
Look for places where the irregular cliff faces overlooking the lake crumble down to rocky bottom. Smallmouths use these craggy rocks to hide and hunt, and will frequently dart out to engulf a passing lure.
A Shad Rap is a great lure for covering water, and soft jerkbaits like Zoom Flukes are also highly effective. When smallmouths are keying in on crayfish, try an olive or red-orange colored hair jig, or tie on a diving crankbait in a crawfish pattern.
Bass lures, especially fish imitations, also are likely to hook up with some of the numerous (and sometimes massive) northern pike in the reservoir.
Sugar Bay and the area where the main reservoir and the Kinzua Branch meet are good places to try. The reservoir is located within Allegheny National Forest, which provides an abundance of access and numerous camping areas around the lake.
Best Smallmouth Bass Fishing Rivers in Pennsylvania
There may be no more legendary smallmouth bass river in the mid-Atlantic states than the Susquehanna. Certainly, no river in Pennsylvania has produced more trophy smallmouths.
The Susquehanna has also gone through a well-documented crisis in recent decades. Beginning in 2005, young smallmouths started dying in droves, and adult fish exhibited skin lesions, open sores, or strange black blotches. Catch rates plummeted.
The culprit, based on a report published by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, was a perfect storm of chemicals, pollutants and rising water temperatures, all of which combined to weaken the immune systems of smallmouths in the river.
But here’s the good news. New rules were put in place, cleanup efforts began, and today the smallmouths in the Susquehanna River are well on their way to a full comeback.
The Susquehanna River is the longest river in the eastern United States, beginning in Upstate New York and zig-zagging southward across eastern Pennsylvania before emptying into the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. The best smallmouth fishing is arguably in its middle portion.
The section of the Susquehanna that winds through Wyoming and Luzerne counties includes some truly world-class smallmouth water. The current frequently splits to form midstream islands, and anglers can clean up by targeting waters around each island.
The river here is relatively narrow, and usually easy to float or wade. Farther downriver, the Susquehanna is joined by its West Branch in Northumberland, and broadens significantly as it approaches Harrisburg.
Though wider, this section is still, for the most part, relatively shallow, and littered with islands and rocky reefs.
In summer, when the water is low, it’s possible to wade in many areas, targeting the individual 4- to 6-foot deep pools that lie immediately downstream from many rocks.
A lot of different tactics can be productive, depending on the season. In early spring, fishing slowly with tubes and hair jigs is the way to go. Spinnerbaits enter into the picture as the water warms up in May and bass become more active.
Spinnerbaits are responsible for catching some of the biggest bass in the river, which could potentially mean 5 pounds or more. Come summertime, soft jerkbaits, tube jigs and stickbaits are all on the menu.
Smallmouths in the Susquehanna are notorious for engulfing topwaters during low-light hours. In the morning or evening, run a buzzbait or popper over the grass beds that grow around the river islands.
Bring some bigger gear and toss a few larger lures into deeper pools, and you might just hook into one of the biggest muskies in Pennsylvania.
The Juniata River has long been held up as Pennsylvania’s second-best smallmouth stream, behind only the Susquehanna. This makes sense, considering that the Juniata is one of the Susquehanna’s largest tributaries.
Like its parent river, the Juniata saw a similar decline in smallmouth numbers and overall health in the early 2000s. And like its parent river, it has rebounded in a big way.
On a good day, the Juniata River may be even better than the Susquehanna, at least for numbers. Trophy fish may not be as common, but in May and June when the water is just right, you can catch more than a dozen 2-pounds-and-change smallmouths, with an occasional 20-incher.
The Juniata River is shallow and rocky, which is great for smallmouths but bad for propellers. Motorboat access is fairly limited in all but the lowest portion of the river, but the Juniata’s flat current makes it ideal for canoes and kayaks.
Upper portions of the river are also great for wading. US-22 parallels much of the upper Juniata River, enabling access to a lot of excellent smallmouth spots, like the two mile-long pool at Jack’s Narrows.
PA-103 fulfills a similar function on the middle Juniata, providing numerous access sites along what might be the most picturesque portion of the river. Try fishing above and below the many islands in this section.
The 4-mile run from Lewistown to Mifflintown is popular among canoeists and bass fishermen because there are excellent put-in and take-out sites in both communities. This stretch is loaded with smallmouths, as well as rock bass and the occasional walleye.
Tube jigs are the go-to lure on the Juniata River. Local wisdom has it that any color will work, as long as it’s green.
But don’t hesitate to tie on a topwater early in the morning, or switch to a white spinnerbait if the water is a little high and muddy. High water in spring will draw smallmouths close to the bank, and a flashy willowleaf blade may well tempt them to bite.
In the same watershed, the Little Juniata River is among the best trout fishing streams in all of Pennsylvania.
Long, meandering and packed with picture-perfect smallmouth habitat, the Allegheny River is a 325-mile headwater river that begins in the hills of northern Pennsylvania and eventually merges with the Monongahela River to form the Ohio River in Pittsburgh.
There’s great bass fishing in the 126-mile stretch of the Allegheny River from the Kinzua Dam (which holds back Allegheny Reservoir) downriver to East Brady. This segment is entirely free-flowing, without a single man-made dam or obstruction.
Access is plentiful throughout this section, and you’ll find a lot of classic riffle/pool and riffle/run configurations that are easy to fish. Spots where a riffle tumbles into the upper end of a deep pool are almost always productive.
There are plenty of big bass here, and on any given day there’s a real possibility of hooking into a 20-inch smallmouth weighing around 3.5 pounds. Most fish are smaller, weighing about a pound or two.
The river is navigable by canoe and kayak throughout most of the year, and also offers great wading conditions from late spring to mid-fall. It can be a lot of fun to walk and wade up the rocky riverbank in search of fishy-looking spots.
Fishing can be a little more challenging during the low water period in summer, but there are still plenty of fish available.
Some hardy anglers even catch bass here in winter, when the biggest smallmouths in the river congregate tight together in the deepest holes they can find.
A lot of the biggest bass in the Allegheny River are caught near large, solitary pieces of cover like boulders and bridge abutments. Look for any structure that creates a break in the current.
The free-flowing section of the Allegheny is a designated Wild and Scenic River, and also an official Pennsylvania Water Trail, so there’s no shortage of places to get on the water.
The PA Fish & Boat Commission maintains an excellent boat launch and shore access site in Tionesta that’s close to some prime water.
The Clarion River, which cuts a 110-mile path through west-central Pennsylvania, is a criminally underrated fishery for both smallmouth bass and trophy brown trout. The river’s checkered past may have something to do with its current lack of attention.
Decades of acid mine runoff, deforestation and improper sewage treatment made the Clarion River one of the most polluted waterways in Pennsylvania by the early 1980s. But conservation and cleanup efforts have really turned this river around.
A 52-mile section of the Clarion River was designated a National Wild & Scenic River in 1996, and smallmouth have increased dramatically in both size and numbers. The Clarion gives up quite a few 4-pound smallies, and some that are even bigger.
Trout dominate the East and West Branch of the Clarion River, which merge in Johnsonburg. The farther downriver you go, the more prevalent smallmouths become.
The best bass water is arguably the stretch from Ridgeway down to Cook Forest. With its rubble-strewn bottom and abundant pools, riffles and runs, it’s perfect smallie water.
Come equipped with natural-colored stickbaits and crawfish-colored hair jigs.
Fly anglers also find success with Wooly Buggers and Clouser Crawdads. You never know whether a scrappy smallmouth or a 20-inch bruiser brown trout will take your fly, especially in spring and fall.
Abundant access is available on the Clarion River, and it’s an ideal river for wading and float trips alike. The PA Fish & Boat Commission offers this handy guide to paddling the river.