My latest trip out to one of my favorite bass-fishing waters was largely missing an important element.

Water.

The creek was so low you could cross almost anywhere without getting wet.

The larger stream where smallmouth bass and I often interact was as low as I’ve ever seen it. The smaller tributaries were down to a trickle.

And low water levels is a problem across the region, area experts say – especially bad news for the fish that live, feed and reproduce in those waters.

“It’s been bad,” said Gary Smith, area fisheries manager for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, who is based in Somerset.

“It’s definitely not been a normal year as far as flows and rainfall,” he said. “Pretty much every stream is low, even for this time of year – with below-normal summertime flows.”

John Feerick, senior meteorologist with AccuWeather.com, said that as of Tuesday, Johnstown had seen 1.04 inches of rain in August – most of it from a storm on Aug. 1. The normal rainfall for the first half of this month is 2.17 inches, he said.

Through June for the year, Johnstown was at about 90% of normal rainfall. Nearby, State College was around 70%, Feerick said, while Clearfield County had seen about 53% of its normal precipitation – meaning brown lawns and low streams.

“That’s the case across much of central Pennsylvania,” Feerick said. “Some of the creeks and streams are below the 10th percentile – meaning the lowest 10% of years for level of water. It’s been a dry summer.”

The meteorologist said rainfall and stream levels are running about normal in the eastern third of the state – the Allentown-to-Philadelphia region – and also to the west, around Pittsburgh. But not in between.

“From north-central Pennsylvania down through Clearfield County and Centre County and over into the Johnstown area, a lot of the streams look like that,” Feerick said.

Smith echoed that observation from a Fish and Boat perspective. He’s been hearing reports of good fishing – and normal water levels – in the Allegheny River to the west and the Susquehanna River to the east.

And in good news-bad news scenario, the Johnstown region’s waterways that take in runoff from our mines are running stronger – with colder water more conducive to fish species such as brown trout, provided the acidic content is low enough.

But the fish that inhabit traditional streams – smallmouth bass included – can face stress under warm-water, low-water conditions. 

Low-water levels – and warmer-than-normal water temperatures – can weaken the animals’ immune systems and make them more susceptible to disease, bacteria and fungus, Smith said.

And it’s more difficult under those conditions for the fish to process oxygen through their gills.

“As water levels drop and the temperature rises, the amount of dissolved oxygen that the water holds decreases,” he said. “There’s that potential stress. We’ve heard from biologists across the state who reported some fish kills related to lower water levels, higher temperatures and low DO.”

Bass and other warm-water fish spawn in May and hatch in June, Smith said. But will those hatchlings make it?

Smith said stress on the fish means higher mortality rates, while the rate of “repopulation is going to be down.”

He said the Fish and Boat Commission is urging anglers to avoid keeping fish from low-water areas.

That’s not to say those streams can’t produce some exciting fishing.

When you find a nice open patch – even if it’s just 18 inches or so deep – the bass should be hitting. I had a lucky stretch with a floating lure that brought aggressive hits almost every other cast.

These smallmouth were healthy – if the fights they put up are any indication.

And they’re still out there. I seldom keep fish – and definitely not during a high-stress summer.

“When the streams are low, that sometimes concentrates the fish,” Smith said. “But I definitely hope we get some rain soon.”

Chip Minemyer is the editor of The Tribune-Democrat and TribDem.com, and CNHI regional editor for Pennsylvania, Maryland and Ohio. He can be reached at 814-532-5091. Follow him on Twitter @MinemyerChip.

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