Angling heats up north of Bel Air as fish warm up to Conowingo Dam

OUTDOORS

November 28, 1993|By GARY DIAMOND

Non-boating anglers can get in on some warm-water fishing action at the base of Conowingo Dam, a mile-long, 130-foot-high hydroelectric dam that forms Conowingo Lake.

Relatively warm water drawn from beneath the lake's surface surges through nearly a dozen massive hydroelectric turbines, creating a superb tailrace fishery for a variety of fresh, brackish and at least one saltwater species -- striped bass (rockfish).

Situated approximately 15 miles north of Bel Air on U.S. Route 1, Conowingo Dam is the largest impoundment on the Susquehanna River.

Because water used for generating electricity is drawn from more than 70 feet beneath the lake's surface, its temperature during the winter months ranges from 40 to 50 degrees, considerably higher than water temperatures at the river's surface -- at times 15 to 20 degrees warmer.

Baitfish, especially gizzard shad, swarm to Conowingo Dam's warmer waters to feed on huge volumes of plankton flowing downriver from Lancaster and York counties in Pennsylvania. The nutrient load is so high that 4- to 5-pound gizzard shad are not uncommon; however, it's their smaller offspring that attract large numbers of predators.

Anglers fishing from the rock-strewn shoreline below the dam cast shallow-running crankbaits and plugs imitating injured baitfish to lure 2- to 5-pound walleyes, smallmouth bass and tiger muskies.

It was here where Harford County resident Cecil Keys was tossing a 6-inch jointed plug he hoped would be grabbed by a hefty smallmouth.

After nearly 30 minutes of fruitless casting, his lure stopped dead in the water. Keys thought he snagged a submerged limb or boulder, but when he tried to jerk the lure free, a huge fish exploded to the surface.

After a lengthy battle, Keys landed a 24 1/2 -pound tiger muskie on a light-action spinning outfit.

Although channel catfish are plentiful throughout the warmer months, they seem to vanish in early December.

Anglers fishing from the catwalk of Conowingo Dam use heavy boat rods, large bank sinkers and huge chunks of cut herring to attract channel cats weighing up to 20 pounds.

On a good day you'll catch a half-dozen big cats. On a bad day, you'll enjoy watching bald eagles as they swoop down on foraging gizzard shad. It's a sight you'll never forget.

Caution: Although an elaborate warning system that includes signs, sirens and flashing red lights provides advanced notice of rapid changes in river level, one or two anglers will drown or become seriously injured every year. Most incidents were the result of ignoring warning signals. Sirens and flashing lights mean water levels will rapidly rise or fall. Individuals should seek higher ground immediately.

Carroll Island Power Plant

The brackish waters of the upper Chesapeake hold excellent numbers of largemouth bass, white perch, yellow perch and channel catfish most of the year. However, when winter arrives, a significant number migrate into the heated waters of Saltpeter and Dundee Creeks.

Water from nearby Seneca River flows through Baltimore Gas & Electric Co.'s oil-fired power plant, passes through a series of heat exchangers and discharges into a quarter-mile long canal that eventually empties into Saltpeter Creek.

The heated effluent mixes with the nutrient-rich waters of Dundee Creek approximately 500 yards downstream. It's at the confluence of these two bodies of water where most of the best fishing takes place.

Small killies, grass shrimp and gizzard shad take up residence among dense stands of cattails and partly submerged trees. Anglers casting shallow-running plugs and plastics catch tidewater largemouths ranging to 5 or more pounds.

If you're looking for channel catfish and white perch, fish close to the canal's outlet where a relatively sharp drop-off marks the eastern edge of Saltpeter Creek's channel.

Cut herring and night crawlers produce catties weighing up to 6 pounds. Small pods of white perch often can be found in the same vicinity, and they'll take live minnows, bloodworms and grass shrimp fished close to the bottom.

The only access to this area is via boat, which can be launched at Mariner Point Park in Joppatowne.

Although temperatures may reach as high as 55 or 60 degrees on warmer winter days, water temperatures rarely exceed 35 to 40 degrees.

Play it safe by wearing a lightweight rain suit to prevent a sudden drenching from spray or rain while boating to and from fishing areas. Air temperatures over water are considerably colder than those found over land -- dress for the occasion.

Because most of the fishing centers on small species, perch, catfish and bass, light and ultralite spinning or bait-casting tackle proves more than adequate to land most fish. Heavier gear may be required when a big school of hefty stripers moves in.

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