Pittsburgh’s Rivers a Wide World of Fish
By Bob Frye
Rob Walters is not a native Pittsburgher, nor is he old enough to have known Pittsburgh during its industrial heyday, when the mills blackened the skies and turned the rivers orange.
But, he’s heard the stories.
That’s one of the reasons why he’s still amazed at the number of fish anglers routinely pull from the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio.
“To me, coming here from Delaware four years ago, it’s kind of mind boggling the species of fish that live in these rivers,” said Walters, program manager for Venture Outdoors and director of its Tri-Anglers program.
“We keep track of all of our numbers, and it’s pretty spectacular how well people do.”
Indeed, last year, the Tri-Anglers program, which lets people fish at Pittsburgh’s Point from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays, drew 736 anglers over the course of the season. They caught a collective 7,401 fish — or more than 100 per person on average.
The kinds of fish reeled in ranged from those tolerant of a variety of conditions, like carp and channel catfish, to the most popular kinds of game fish, like smallmouth bass, walleyes and white crappies.
Those anglers caught redhorse suckers, too. That’s significant not because they’re terribly popular, but because they’re a sign of how clean the rivers are.
“Suckers, like the five species of redhorse, are actually pretty pollution sensitive, more so than some game fish even, so when you find them, that tells you water quality is pretty good,” said Bob Venturini, fisheries biologist in the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s Three Rivers Ecological Research Center, located on the South Side.
All indications are that the fishing will continue to be good for a while to come, too. Rick Lorson, the Fish and Boat Commission biologist with responsibility for most waters in Southwestern Pennsylvania, recently surveyed fish populations on the three rivers. He sampled the Monongahela at the Maxwell Dam, the Ohio at the Dashields Dam and the Allegheny at the Freeport Dam.
The Ohio was the most impressive this time around, giving up “ample numbers of quality fish,” including numerous walleyes over 15 inches, saugers over 12 and smallmouth bass between 12-19 inches long.
“And we handled lots of small walleyes, sauger and bass, too, which is also a good sign,” Lorson said. “That means the fishing should continue to be good for the future.”
But the Allegheny and the Monongahela, in that order, also showed good numbers of fish, he said. They gave up walleyes, saugers and bass, too, along muskies, hybrid striped bass, channel catfish, flathead catfish, rock bass, and freshwater drum.
Best of all, anglers seem to be having success getting at all of those fish. Reports this year in particular about the fishing on the three rivers has been pretty good, meaning that waters once so fouled people were afraid to go in them are now providing lots and lots of fishing fun.
“It’s been a really good year so far,” said Mike Walsh, a commission waterways conservation officer in Allegheny County. “The rivers have been fishing really well, the Allegheny in particular, so people should come on down.”
What you can eat
So, are fish caught from the three rivers safe to eat? The answer, according to Pennsylvania Department of Health officials, is largely yes.
All recreationally caught sport fish in Pennsylvania are subject to a one-meal-per-week consumption advisory. One meal is considered to be one-half pound of fish for a 150-pound person.
Special considerations apply for the following, however:
There is a two-meals-per-month advisory for walleye for the Allegheny River from the confluence of Sandy Creek to the confluence of Witherup Run at St. George in Allegheny County due to mercury contamination.
There is a one-meal-per-month advisory for channel catfish due to PCB contamination for the Monongahela River from Lock and Dam 2 to the Point in Pittsburgh.
In all cases, the best way to prepare fish is to trim away all fat and broil or grill the fish so that any remaining fat can dip away.
Here’s a look at 10 species common in the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio, along with a few tips on when and how to catch them, provided by longtime river fisherman Edward Kickler of Verona and Fish and Boat Commission biologist Rick Lorson.
Distribution: Walleyes are native to the Ohio River and Lake Erie watersheds, but they’ve been stocked extensively, so you can find them just about anywhere today.
Identification: Walleyes have a long body, forked tail and sharp teeth. They can range in color from bluish-gray to golden yellow, with a light-colored belly.
Habitat: Walleyes prefer areas that are cool and moderately deep (more than 10 feet), with a gravelly, sandy or rocky bottom.
When to catch them: You can catch walleyes year round, but the best action generally comes between January and April and October and December.
How to catch them: Early and late in the year, try jigging with live bait and Twister Tails adjacent to dams and perhaps downstream one-quarter to one mile. In the warmer months, troll and cast diving crankbaits around creek mouths and rock piles.
The odd fact: The walleye — the biggest, toothiest member of the perch family — gets its name from its large, milky eye that reflects light at night. The species name “vitreum” means “glassy” and refers to the luminous eye.
Distribution: Found only in the Ohio and Great Lakes watersheds as late as the 1880s, smallmouth were moved by train all across the country.
Identification: These fish have a bronze cast to their backs, with lighter sides shading to an off-white belly. They have a series of 8-15 broken vertical bars on their sides, too.
Habitat: In rivers, smallmouths prefer rocky bottoms, deeper water and a bit of current. They can be found in pools, pockets, behind rocks and in deeper moving water.
When to catch them: April through September and perhaps October is even prime time for catching these smallies.
How to catch them: Cast and jig around rock humps, behind bridge piers and along rocky shorelines with Twister Tails and minnows. You can also troll near shore with crankbaits and tandem spinners.
The odd fact: If you like smallmouths, pray for moderate river flows each spring. High water can sweep eggs and fry downriver to perish, largely wiping out entire year classes of fish.
Distribution: The state’s largest and fastest-growing fish, the musky is native to the Ohio River watershed and common throughout the state.
Identification: Streamlined like a missile, the musky varies in color from light greenish gray or yellow-green to olive-brown on its back, with lighter sides. In all cases, they boast an impressive mouthful of sharp teeth.
Habitat: Muskies frequent quiet backwaters and slow pools that have plenty of aquatic weed growth where they can hide until ambushing their prey. They are usually found in fairly shallow water, say 15 feet or less.
When to catch them: The periods from January to May and October to December are best, though the fish can be caught in the summer, too.
How to catch them: Early and late in the year, cast crankbaits and spinner blades near eddies and creek mouths. In summer, deeper waters and cast around weed beds.
The odd fact: Muskies are voracious predators, eating everything from fish — including their own young — to mice, muskrats, frogs, snakes and waterbirds.
Distribution: These fish are native to the Great Lakes watershed and most watersheds from the Mississippi west, though they’ve since been stocked nationwide.
Identification: The channel cat’s deeply forked tail is perhaps is most distinguishable characteristic. They’re bluish gray with spots on the back and sides.
Habitat: Unlike some other catfish species, channel cats do not muddy, weed-choked water. Instead, they prefer clean sand, gravel or rock-rubble bottoms in pools and runs in rivers that have alternating pool and riffle habitats.
When to catch them: Channel cats are one of the old reliables in the river and can be caught year round, though they really shine in summer.
How to catch them: Bait fish with worms and chicken livers left to lie on the bottom near structure and creek mouths.
Distribution: They’re native to the lower Great Lakes and the entire Mississippi River watershed.
Identification: Yellowish-brown to dark brown, flatheads have a very wide, depressed head, a tail that’s only slightly indented and a lower jay that extends past the upper jaw.
Habitat: They prefer deep, sluggish pools, with logs and other submerged debris that can be used as cover.
When to catch them: The best flathead action occurs from May through October when water temperatures climb above 60 degrees.
How to catch them: Think big, both in terms of bait and gear. Live bluegills are a good bait, fished on the bottom or under a bobber. Concentrate on fishing around drop-offs, eddies, and creek mouths. And always fish at night.
The odd fact: When a female flathead spawns, her egg sac can contain anywhere from 4,000-100,000 eggs.
Distribution: Saugers are a Western Pennsylvania fish; they don’t occur east of the Appalachians, so you won’t find them in the central or eastern parts of the state.
Identification: Related to the walleye, the sauger looks very much like its cousin. The sauger, though, has three or four distinct saddle marking that cross its back and run down its sides.
Habitat: Schooling fish, saugers seem to need the “wide-open spaces” of big, shallow waterways, which are typically turbid.
When to catch them: The best action generally comes between January and April and October and December.
How to catch them: Look for saugers in the same place you’d look for walleyes: downstream of dams and near creek mouths and rock piles. Catch them on jigs tipped with minnows or nightcrawlers and Twister Tails.
The odd fact: Saugers were recorded in the Allegheny, Beaver and Youghiogheny rivers before 1900, then mysteriously disappeared for several years before suddenly showing up again.
Distribution: Pennsylvania’s biggest member of the minnow family, carp were introduced to the United States from Europe and Asia in the late 1800s and are now widespread across the country.
Identification: Heavily scaled, the carp look a bit like giant goldfish, except that they have two barbells near their mouths.
Habitat: In rivers, carp prefer slower-flowing sections. But they can survive over pretty much anything — from rocky to muddy bottoms.
When to catch them: Another standby, these fish can be caught almost any time, though the months of April to September are the most consistent for action.
How to catch them: Fish on the bottom with doughballs, corn and hot dogs. You can improve your odds by “chumming” — throwing handfuls of bait into the water at the spot you plan to fish — for a few days before actually casting a line.
The odd fact: Carp have teeth in their throat that are adapted for crushing. The larger ones look like human molars.
Distribution: Rock bass are native to watersheds west of the Appalachians, though creation of canal systems eventually allowed them to move east.
Identification: Dark olive to mottled brown, with light undersides, rock bass are football shaped in that they are generally not as flat as other panfish. Anything over eight inches is a good fish, though they can reach 12 inches and weigh more than a pound.
Habitat: As their names suggests, rock bass prefer to hang out around underwater rocks, stones and rubble. You’ll find them near smallmouth bass.
When to catch them: April though October are good months for rock bass.
How to catch them: Toss nightcrawlers or small plugs — Rebel crayfish crankbaits are particularly effective — around rocky points.
The odd fact: This fish’s nicknames include “red eye” and goggle- eye,” both in reference to its distinctive red eye.
Distribution: The freshwater drum is the only representative in Pennsylvania of a family of marine species 210 strong that live in temperate and tropical coastal waters around the world.
Identification: These fish are dark green to olive brown on the back, fading to silvery on the sides.
Habitat: You’ll find drum in many of the same places that you’ll find smallmouth bass: over rocky bottoms and in pools and pockets.
When to catch them: April through October are the best months when the fish are most active
How to catch them: You’re best bet is to use live bait, like minnows and nightcrawlers, fished alone or on a jighead, although the fish will occasionally take a crankbait.
The odd fact: Drum are related to the ocean fish known as “croakers” for the sounds they make and do sometimes produce a drumming sound by using muscles attached to the air bladder.
Hybrid striped bass
Distribution: A hatchery-created cross between a striped bass and a white bass, hybrid stripers are stocked throughout Western Pennsylvania, including in the rivers.
Identification: Dark on the back fading to silvery on the sides, the hybrid striper has seven or eight broken, sometimes indistinct, lateral stripes.
Habitat: They prefer large, open waters where they can prey on schooling fish like gizzard shad and alewives.
When to catch them: A few of these can be caught in winter, but April to September are the most productive months.
How to catch them: Large minnows and shallow-running crankbaits in blue and silver and black and silver are effective, especially in the Pittsburgh pool of the three rivers and anywhere on the Monongahela where you can find a creek mouth or warmwater discharge.
The odd fact: Hybrid stripers can reach weights of 15 pounds or more in some situations, though in the rivers 5- to 7-pound fish are more common.
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