It was a big year for big fish
It was only about 5 a.m., but on a June day when the temperature would soar to a humid 95 degrees, Perryopolis' Elijah Rach was already sweating.
Little did he know that his real workout was yet to come.
A 6-foot-4, 315-pound 25-year-old college student, Elijah was fishing Raystown Lake in Huntingdon County with his father Ed and Matt Davoli of Lunker Guide Service. They had just set out, trolling four-inch minnows behind planer boards in a shallow cove, when a fish hit.
"You really can't tell if you've got a big fish or not right away," Rach said. "It's sort of a mystery up until the point you can actually see it."
This fish, which he got in after a 50-minute fight, turned out to be a dandy -- a 41-inch, 37-pound striped bass.
"When I finally got it up to the boat, it sort of turned over so that I could see the whole fish, could see it shine, and that's when I got excited," Rach said.
"It was a heck of a catch," agreed his father Ed. "He was kind of on the exhausted side when he brought it in, but he had a good time on that one."
Rach's catch also put him in some exclusive company. Each year, Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission officials compile a record of the biggest fish reported to them in the preceding 12 months. The list is broken down by species, identifying the five heaviest in each category.
The list of the heaviest fish of 2005 -- which just became available -- shows western Pennsylvania waters and fishermen represented themselves very well. Rach made the list, for example, because his landlocked striper was the biggest of the year.
Daniel Tonini of New Eagle made the list, too, for catching a 12 1⁄2-inch, two-pound bluegill from the Monongahela River last May that turned out to be the tops in the state.
"It blew my mind when I pulled it out of the water," Tonini said. "It put up a heck of a fight. Honestly, I thought I had a nice-sized bass on."
Amazingly enough, Tonini's friend, Ricky Bartman of New Eagle, caught last year's biggest channel catfish from the same spot on the Monongahela just four days later. That fish weighed in at 25 pounds.
Brent Ross, 25, of Greensburg, made the list of 2005's biggest fish not once, but twice. He caught the largest bullhead catfish, a two pound, nine ounce fish. It came from Loyalhanna Creek on May 8.
Less than two months earlier, on March 31, Ross caught what turned out to be the third biggest carp caught in the state. That fish, which came from Lower Twin Lake, tipped the scales at 31 pounds. He was fishing with his friend, Dave Kester of Greensburg, when he caught it on four-pound test using corn for bait.
"I didn't realize how big it was at first. But then we got it close to shore and Dave said, 'Brent, this is huge,' " Ross said. "I was shocked. I thought, man, this is awesome."
Ted Kelly of Pittsburgh's North Hills was shocked with the big fish he landed last year, too, but for a different reason. He was trolling the Allegheny River near Tarentum with his twin sons, Ryan and Brian, for muskies. The 12-year-old boys each caught 40-inchers that day.
At one point, though, Kelly was trolling with a seven-and-a-half-inch fire tiger Rapala Huskie Jerk when he hooked and landed what turned out to be a 22 1⁄2-inch, six-pound, 12-ounce smallmouth bass. Only two bigger bass, both from Lake Erie, were reported last year.
"I almost killed it. Almost," Kelly said. "It was the largest smallie I've ever taken. and I've been fishing since I was a little boy. But I knew she was putting a lot of smallmouths back into the river."
The biggest fish don't always fall to the most dedicated fishermen, however. Roy Fatur of Greensburg admits to being a more serious hunter than angler. In fact, he only traveled to Lake Erie last summer because of a night out with friends at a Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation banquet in Indiana.
"We saw they had a trip for six to Lake Erie with Road Runner Charters, and when sat down, we thought that might be fun, so we decided to bid on the trip and we got it," he said.
What they expected would just be a nice weekend turned out to be extra special when Fatur caught the biggest brown trout recorded in Pennsylvania last year. His fish was a 13-pound, nine-ounce beauty.
"When I reeled it in, the guide told me that he wasn't saying I'd caught biggest brown trout to ever come from Lake Erie, but it was the largest ever caught on his boat. It was a beautiful fish, it really was," Fatur said. "And it was a fun day."