Non- native species are alluring for fisherman.
Monster Catfish, bigger than most of us imagine, are cruising the waters of the Susquehanna River.
Although larger flathead catfish likely live in the river, the largest recorded to date was a 56.6 pound, 44-inch fish pulled from a hoop net by a fisheries survey crew from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources of the Pennsylvania- Maryland state line.
That's more than 8 pounds heavier than the largest flathead catfish record by an angler in Pennsylvania.
According to the Pennsylvania Fish and Game Commission, James Shabach JR., of Boyertown, certified a 46-pound-6-ounce flathead caught in 2006 in the spillway of the dam at Blue Marsh Lake in Berks County.
The flathead caught by the Maryland survey crew also is heavier than the largest record in the books maintained by the commission, which ranks angler record by the weight of the fish. That was a muskellunge weighing 54 pounds 3 ounces caught in 1924 in Conneaut Lake in Crawford County by Lewis Walker Jr., of Meadville.
Reports of the monster catfish sent us out on the river in search of a big dish story of our own.
With water temperatures in the river now in the low 40s, the flathead catfish are doing less cruising and more hanging out, conserving their fat reserves in preparation for winter. But they are there, huge apex predators capable of swallowing nearly every living thing they encounter.
Even at the beginning of November, the flatheads were actively feeding, as Rod Bates of Carlisle-based Koinonia Guide Service hosted my son Casey, photographer Dan Gleiter and Me to a morning of hefty flathead catfish eager for our baits -- sunfish large enough that other anglers might consider a fillet off the fish worthy of the frying pan.
We didn't hook any record flatheads, but Casey did connect with a 20-pound 34-incher, which was the largest fish for an angler who spends most of his time on the water pursuing trout in the 9-18-inch range. We also brought nine other flatheads, ranging from 7-11 pounds, to the boat.
Bates has been chasing the flatheads on the Susquehanna and guiding others to exciting adventures with the monsters about as long as anyone. He began guiding professionally on the river in 1999, focusing at first on the world-class smallmouth fishery, but adding the non-native flatheads to the client menu as the monsters proliferated and spread upriver.
Flathead catfish are native to southern and western waters, and in Pennsylvania occur naturally in the Great Lakes and Ohio River drainages.
Anglers have been introducing the species into rivers of the eastern two-thirds of the state, and the species spread quickly through its new home, where it becomes the top-tier predators.
The fish began showing up in the Susquehanna River around the year 2000. According to the commissions, in 2002 several small flatheads were reported down river of Safe Harbor Dam, upriver of Pequea, Lancaster County. The species was confirmed in the tailwaters of York Haven, York County, in 2005.
A flathead caught at the Dock Street Dam at Harrisburg in 2009 was the first confirmed catch of the species that far upriver. And, since then, the species has been caught as far as Sunbury and into the Juniata River.
The flatheads grow to more than a hundred pounds in some southern and western waters, but 20 to 30 pounds is more common in Pennsylvania. The largest caught by one of Bates' clients was 39 pounds, 15 ounces. The largest this year was 38 pounds, 3 ounces.
In comparison, a large channel catfish -- a species native to the Susquehanna. -- might come close to 36 inches in length, and the "large class" begins as a fish tops 20 inches.
While the average strength of monofilament line used by anglers on the Susquehanna likely averages 6-12 pound- test, Bates spools his flathead reels with 63 pound-test line, tipped with 80 pound- test leader, because "that's the thing that's down in the rocks" being dragged and scuffed along every but of underwater obstruction.
Marcus Schneck - [email protected]