Given reasonable weather and water conditions, the biggest problem I find with the fishing during May is deciding what to fish for, as angling opportunities for most popular species in Pennsylvania tend to be as good as or better now than at any other time of year.
I particularly enjoy setting aside a few days each spring to fish for panfish - bluegills, perch or crappies - because the biggest specimens of these species invade the shallows and shoreline cover in preparation for spawning. And not only are they fun to catch on light tackle but also some of the best eating fish in freshwater.
Last week, I enjoyed some of the best crappie fishing I've ever experienced in Pennsylvania at Pymatuning Reservoir in the northwest corner of the state. Located on the Pennsylvania-Ohio border in Crawford County, Pymatuning is the largest lake in Pennsylvania, covering 17,088 acres with 70 miles of shoreline. In spite of its size, Pymatuning is much more "fisherman friendly" than many other large impoundments. All of the shoreline in Pennsylvania lies within Pymatuning State Park, and there are numerous boat launches throughout the 17-mile long lake. Powerboats are restricted to motors with a 20 hp maximum, however, so anglers are not competing with the chaos of water skiers and jet skis. Pymatuning is also a relatively shallow lake, averaging 8 to 10 feet in many places, with a maximum depth of 35 feet.
Walleyes have long been the most popular fish for Pymatuning anglers. Other species present there include muskellunge, carp, catfish, bluegills, perch, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass and, of course, black and white crappies. Ironically, several years of downturn in the walleye population in the lake actually helped create a boom in the crappie fishing currently. Biologists have discovered that young crappies are one of the preferred forage fish for Pymatuning walleyes. While the walleye numbers were depressed for a few years, the crappie population exploded, generating the exceptional fishing for those panfish that Pymatuning anglers are currently experiencing. Fortunately, the walleyes have also rebounded, and many anglers I talked to have found the walleye fishing excellent this spring.
I hate to admit that as much as I've fished in northwest Pennsylvania, I had never wet a line in Pymatuning. Fortunately, my fishing partner last week provided me with a perfect introduction to the crappie fishing there. Bob Mead is a native of Crawford County and has been fishing Pymatuning all his life. As we motored to our first fishing spot, Mead told me he prefers to drift fish for crappies, but there wasn't enough of a breeze for that method at the moment. Therefore, we began by slow trolling over some submerged stumps in 7 to 8 feet of water at the northern end of the lake.
Now that three rods per angler are permitted in Pennsylvania, Mead and I trolled an assortment of lures, including some of his favorite swimbaits along with several types of soft-plastic bodies on Roadrunner jigheads. In about an hour, we boated a dozen or more nice crappies, most of them whites with a few blacks mixed in.
Next, we headed to another of Mead's favorite spots, the shoreline of a small island near the main lakeshore. Here we employed 1-inch white twister tails rigged on tiny gold-plated jigheads and fished below a small bobber. This technique was a familiar to me and one I've often used for crappies, and it quickly produced a couple large black crappies and a few dandy bluegills and pumpkinseeds.
Mead then noticed that the wind had picked up a tad, so we opted to try some drift fishing. That proved to be a good call, as we boated three white crappies before we had gone 50 yards. A few minutes later, the tip of one of my rods dipped sharply, but when I picked it up, I thought I had snagged a sunken stump. That is until my line abruptly changed directions and went under the boat as the drag on my reel whined under the weight of a heavy fish.
As luck would have it, the big fish had attacked the lightest rod in the boat, so I couldn't much pressure on it early on. For the first five minutes or so, we speculated just what species I was attached to. A muskie would have surely sheared the 4-pound line quickly, and even a large walleye isn't as strong as what I felt. I surmised I had hooked a carp until I finally gained some ground on the fish and was pleasantly surprised to see it was a channel catfish of about 10 pounds. Mr. Whiskers had eaten my chartreuse-and-black Roadrunner crappie jig.
By the time we wrestled the big catfish into the net, the wind had subsided again, so we finished the day fishing in a small cove near an old beaver house. The place was simply loaded with nice black crappies, and we caught one after another for almost an hour until I needed to be back at the dock to meet friends for dinner. For any angler who enjoys catching crappies, I heartily recommend a trip to Pymatuning. It is crappie heaven for sure. My only regret is waiting so long to try it myself.