Smallmouth Bass Illness Triggers Fishing Ban
TOM PELTON/CBF STAFF
By Tom Pelton
On a cold day in February, Juan Veruete (left) and Jeff Little (right) fished for smallmouth bass from kayaks in the
Susquehanna River near Harrisburg. For the first time in more than a decade, fishing for smallmouth in much of the
Susquehanna will be illegal this spring because of falling populations of young fish, perhaps caused by disease and pollution.
t was before dawn on a February morning when
Juan Veruete and Jeff Little dragged their kayaks
across frozen puddles and down a garbage-strewn
path toward the Susquehanna River.
Juan and Jeff are friends and kayak fishing
instructors. Even though fishing is a business for them—it also consumes their personal lives as an addiction, in which they
cannot stop themselves from indulging,
even on windy, icy, black mornings in the
dead of winter.
Wrapped head to toe in waterproof, space-suit-like gear, they launched their kayaks from
the muddy banks of a creek near Harrisburg.
Out on the Susquehanna River, stars faded
across a purple-black sky that slowly brightened in the east. Winds whipped up small
waves, which glittered as the sun rose over
skeletal trees. The temperature of the air and
water hovered in the 30s—cold enough to
kill a kayaker who fell in 10 days earlier.
The biting cold, however, was not something
they complained about. As Juan paddled with
one hand and cast with his other, he explained
he is more worried about the survival of the
Susquehanna River, the largest source of fresh
water into the Chesapeake Bay.
“You know, the health of the river is not
good right now,” Juan said, as he reeled in
his hand-made lure and maneuvered to
keep his kayak pointed into the wind.
“We’ve had some serious fish kills, which is
definitely a concern for somebody like me
who has fished his whole life.”
For the first time in more than a decade,
from May 1 to June 15, 2012, the
Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission will
make it illegal to possess, or even try to
catch, smallmouth bass in the lower
Susquehanna River. These protections during breeding season—which follow “catch
and release” rules imposed in January 2011
—are meant to help restore smallmouth bass
populations, which have been plummeting
in the Susquehanna since the late 1990s.
Scientists are still investigating the cause of
repeated fish kills in 2005, 2007, and 2008.
Researchers suspect that low-oxygen levels
in the river may have stressed young smallmouth bass and made them more vulnerable
to naturally occurring columnaris bacteria.
Many of the male smallmouth bass also have
sexual abnormalities, with eggs growing in
their testes, according to State Biologist
Geoffrey Smith. “The Susquehanna River
populations are among the most severe,”
Smith said. “Nearly every one of the males
we’ve submitted has been positive for intersex
Juan has noticed the decline. “Just about every
guy who’s been out on the river for an extend-
ed period of time will tell you that they are
catching fewer fish,” he said.
Suddenly, from across the water, Jeff
screamed. “Yeah! Whoo! Fish on!” Juan
paddled frantically over to his friend, who
pulled from the water a bronze and green
smallmouth, about 20 inches long. They
beamed as they photographed the bass,
then released it and watched it swim away.
The adrenaline warmed them and reminded them why they love fishing.
Their experience illuminates why cleaning
up the Susquehanna is so important not only
for the Chesapeake Bay, but also for people
like Juan and Jeff whose lives and livelihoods
are forever caught in the river’s flow.
Tom Pelton is Senior Writer and
Investigative Reporter for the
Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Read his blog, Bay Daily, at