Fishing at Conowingo Reservoir: More than meets the eye
Ask any fisherman what the largest freshwater impoundment in the state is, and most will confidently say Deep Creek Lake. It’s a good guess—the man-made Western Maryland lake does span 3,900 acres—but not entirely correct. Deep Creek Lake is the largest impoundment fully within Maryland. However, from a fishing access perspective, the Conowingo Reservoir on the Susquehanna River includes more than 9,000 acres of water, and Maryland residents possessing a nontidal fishing license can fish it all!
Although unknown to many, a resident of Maryland possessing a valid Maryland Nontidal Sport Fishing License issued in that resident’s name may fish on the portions of the Conowingo Reservoir lying within the boundaries of Pennsylvania without a Pennsylvania fishing license. Likewise, a resident of Pennsylvania possessing a valid Pennsylvania fishing license issued in that resident’s name may fish in the portions of the Conowingo Reservoir lying within the boundaries of Maryland without a Maryland fishing license. Reciprocal fishing privileges extend from waters’ edge to waters’ edge. The area includes the waters downstream of Holtwood Dam to Conowingo Dam, but does not include tributaries or fishing from shore.
An expansive area
Approximately 14 miles of water run from Holtwood Dam to Conowingo Dam, and it includes a variety of aquatic habitats. The uppermost section below Holtwood is more riverine, with many large rocks at or just below the surface. (Boaters should use caution here.) Below Peach Bottom, the velocity of the current lessens, and the water becomes more lake-like. Far from featureless, the lower section contains shallow, weedy bays, steep rocky shorelines, deep drop-offs and several creeks that provide great fish habitat.
An angler’s smorgasbord
Conowingo’s variety of habitats is the key to its diverse fisheries, and successful fishermen recognize this. Currently, the reservoir supports one of the best smallmouth bass fisheries in Maryland. Few other areas can compare to the abundance and size of fish available. Sixteen to 18-inch smallmouth bass are quite common. They clearly prefer rocky edges and points along the main reservoir and creek mouths where they can hunt one of their preferred prey: crayfish. Anglers target them by hopping weighted, soft plastic baits along the bottom or casting and retrieving diving crankbaits—a technique also used to catch walleye.
Largemouth bass are also abundant, though their numbers are lower than the smallmouth. Largemouth bass tend to prefer more shallow areas with logs, submerged aquatic vegetation or other physical habitat. Successful fishermen target them in these areas with weedless surface lures in the morning and evening from spring through fall. Like the smallmouth, the largemouth bass here can grow to impressive sizes.
Both bass species are popular targets for anglers. Nevertheless, Conowingo has much more to offer. Many panfish species thrive here too, including black crappie, bluegill, green sunfish, pumpkinseed, rock bass, yellow perch and white crappie. Large bluegills are common, yet seldom targeted. They can be found in shallow areas in late spring and early summer where they gather to spawn. Once plentiful and highly sought after—especially in colder months—black and white crappie have seen an inexplicable population decrease, but those caught are generally massive.
A warning to outsiders
Recently, invasive flathead catfish have become established in the lower Susquehanna River and have moved downstream into the Conowingo Reservoir. Native to the Mississippi River, flathead catfish are large, fast-growing predators, which are considered invasive here due to their predatory habits. Anglers have reported catching some individuals exceeding 40 pounds. At that size, no fish is off the menu. The population continues to increase, and it is unclear what long-term effects they will have on the rest of the aquatic ecosystem. The department’s Fishing and Boating Services requests that anglers harvest, rather than release, any flatheads they catch in order to help control their numbers.
From land or water
Access to the reservoir is excellent for boaters but somewhat limited for those casting from shore. Concrete ramps are located at Conowingo Creek in Cecil County and Glen Cove in Harford County. Broad Creek also provides a ramp, however, low reservoir levels can hinder access for larger vessels. Although most of the shoreline is open to the public, steep banks and thick vegetation can make access difficult. Broad Creek, Conowingo Creek and Funks Pond all offer some decent options.
Whatever your preference, the fish are ready to bite as soon as you get there.
Article by Brett Coakley and John Mullican—eastern region freshwater fisheries manager and regional operations manager for freshwater fisheries.
Appears in Vol. 20, No. 4 of the Maryland Natural Resource magazine, fall 2017.