Regardless of what the calendar says, I consider the day I catch my first river smallmouth bass as the official beginning of spring.
And after a winter I'm all too eager to forget, I'm happy to report that first bass of the season was boated last Tuesday morning on the lower Juniata River while fishing with my good friend and legendary bass guide Ken Penrod.
Fishing for early-season smallmouths with Penrod has become another rite of spring I greatly look forward to each year as well. For more than 15 years, he has guided for smallmouths on the Susquehanna and lower Juniata rivers from mid-March until around the first week of May. I began fishing with Penrod about eight or nine years ago, and from the outset, he remolded my entire approach to springtime smallmouth fishing. Simply put, that approach is to start fishing much earlier in the year and target big fish.
Soft-plastic tubes are the number one lure for big river smallmouths in the spring. Whether the bass think they are a crayfish or some type of minnow or other baitfish, I'm not sure. But one thing is certain, and that is a tube will consistently take big river smallmouths in the spring.
Penrod's headquarters for his Susquehanna and Juniata guiding efforts is the Riverfront Campground at Duncannon, literally at the junction of those two rivers. Campground owner, John Cunningham, caters to fishermen during the spring and summer and maintains a small tackle shop stocked with the essentials for river fishing. He also manufactures his own RAB line of jigheads in a complete range of weights and hook sizes that are perfect for rigging tubes to fit any fishing situation.
Two years ago, Penrod and Cunningham teamed up to create a line of tubes in special custom colors. Calling them Campground Specials, these colors were developed after years of field-testing to prove their effectiveness. There are currently 11 colors available in the Campground Special series in both the standard 3 1/2-inch and the 2 3/4-inch "teaser" sizes.
For the past two seasons, my favorite colors in the Campground Special series have been KP Rose, Juniata Treat and Buzzkill, which is sort of amber with green, purple and black flakes. Typically, I had always preferred darker colors such as green pumpkin for springtime fishing, but during the spring of 2009 and 2010, the Buzzkill really worked well. Last summer and fall, however, I had good success with another interesting color called Troy's Trigger - a medium brown body with amber and orange tails and black and purple flakes.
A teaser-size Troy's Trigger proved to be the winning bait during the two days I fished last week. I fished at least six different colors of tubes on that trip, and every fish except one came on the Troy's Trigger, including my best one, a 19-inch smallmouth that probably weighed a little better than four pounds.
Last week also presented the highest water levels in which I've ever fished for river bass, with some spots four or five feet deeper than is usually encountered during typical springtime flows. Usually a 1/8-ounce jighead works well this time of year, but the deeper water and heavier current required the use of 1/4-ounce jigheads to get the tubes to the bottom and keep them there.
Water temperatures both days were around 41 degrees, along with the off-colored water, also required a slow, methodical presentation. Although the fish probably weren't inclined to chase a bait under those conditions, they certainly could be enticed to take one that was served up right under their noses.
All things considered, we weren't expecting big numbers, but had two decent days of fishing to kickoff the season, not to mention sharing time on the water with good friends.
For up to date and honest fishing reports on the Susquehanna and lower Juniata for the rest of the spring, check out Ken Penrod's Web site, www.penrodsguides.com. For more information on Campground Special tubes and RAB jigheads, contact John Cunningham at 717-834-5252.