Pay lake fishing has been around for decades. In different areas it has taken on different characteristics. In Ohio, pay lakes are known for their giant catfish. In Southwestern Pennsylvania, pay lakes are known more for their carp contests.
To be sure, the style of fishing used in the pay lakes of Southwestern Pennsylvania are unlike those you’re likely to encounter elsewhere. Whereas in another state or country you’re likely to see hi-tech rod pods, in Southwestern Pennsylvania pay lakes simple sets of metal pole holders are the norm. And whereas anglers elsewhere are keen to use several different types of baits and rigs, anglers in the pay lakes in question stick almost entirely to variants of doughball, with the occasional exception of a live crayfish or nightcrawler. But none of this means that pay lake anglers in Southwestern Pennsylvania take their fishing any less seriously.
Contests usually start in May and last into the fall. At most lakes, contests last around 12 hours. During the week, there is one daily contest. During each day of the weekend, there is a day contest and a night contest. There are also some three-day-long contests, typically on Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. Of course different lakes have different procedures.
While the terminal tackle used is pretty standard – two spinning rods of apt size and action equipped with mono ranging from six to twenty pound test – the doughball recipes vary widely. One has but to visit a pay lake in the area to see how secretive the majority of anglers keep their recipes, going as far as to hiding their bait-box so no one can even get a peak.
The ingredients used range from the predictable to the strange. My grandfather, who used to fish the now-closed Lake Joann in Washington County, assures me that his bouncing-ball flour and toothpaste mix was king at one time. More modern anglers mainly use wheat germ, cornmeal, bulgur wheat, flour, oats, potato meal or pet food with a variety of flavors and/or other additives mixed in. As mentioned earlier, live bait does have its place as well. I’ve seen anglers using crayfish and nightcrawlers take home large pots, to the dismay of dozens of anglers with “can’t lose” secret recipe dough baits. My personal best came on a nightcrawler cast a few feet off the bank in the middle of the day. It should be mentioned that for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained to me, corn, hog mash and soy are banned for use at most pay lakes in the region.
While anglers in Europe and (increasingly) other parts of the United States are more likely to rely on self-hooking set ups, pay lake anglers in Southwestern Pennsylvania take a more proactive stance. Markers, in the form of a small piece of Playdough or something similar, are affixed to the line for added visibility. Attempts at hooking fish are made on pick-ups, drops and, in difficult conditions, even very light taps. Float fishing of any type is banned at every lake I’ve fished at.
While the possibility of taking home a nice sum of cash is likely a main draw for many carp anglers, what brings folks like me back to the pay lakes is the knowledge that big fish are definitely there. By their very nature, habitats such as large public lakes and rivers can’t offer that guarantee.
But prize money does seem to be taking on increasing importance at some lakes. While it was at one time possible to fish a whole night for a few dollars, it can now cost close to 50. When combined with your fuel and bait expenses, the fees can add up to an expensive outing to say the least. For this reason, anglers who don’t do well are much less likely to return than those who do. I know a few veteran anglers who have been forced to give up on the hobby.
And where there is money there are problems. I have personally witnessed a number of arguments and disputes around catches and contests. Anything from an accusation of “illegal bait” to an improperly hooked catch can lead to a heated argument, or worse. In one incident I remember, an angler was banned outright from the facilities. Other similar stories abound.
Carp aficionados may balk at this, and the treatment of fish. You won’t find many fish mats at the pay lakes, and its not uncommon to see them dragged over the rocks or kicked back into the water.
Still, if you have the time and money, pay lake fishing in Southwestern Pennsylvania can be quite an experience, whether or not you win. A 25 pound fish that brings you a victory can be great, but so can a 24 pound fish which missed third place by only an once, thus giving you a fishing story that will last for years.
The following is a short list of pay lakes in Southwestern Pennsylvania: