Monsters in the dark
The Rochester bank of the Ohio River looked as if it had been taken over by a giant, on-guard, nuclear-irradiated porcupine Friday night.
Over a stretch of 100 feet, quills bigger around at the base than your thumb and as long as 12 feet stuck up in the air. The last six inches or so of most glowed a neon green. All were rigid.
The end of one of those quills — heavy-duty catfishing rods with glow sticks on their tips — would bob a bit, and the clicker on the attached reel would start to chatter. Immediately, the heads of the assembled fishermen would turn as one, the swinging beams of their headlamps proof of that. An anonymous query would ring out.
“Does someone have one?” you'd hear.
If the answer was yes, the next question was always the same.
“Is it a big one?”
Size matters here.
When you've caught toddler-sized, heavily muscled flathead catfish from the Ohio — or any of Pittsburgh's rivers — “everything else is just bait,” said Matt Crowe of Bellevue, who has two 36-pounders to his credit.
“With flatheads, it's go big or go home,” Crowe said.
“There's no other fish that can compare to how it pulls,” added Dormont's Mark Mariani, who counts a 32-pound flathead as his best. “It feels like you have a locomotive on the end of your line.”
More people are finding that out.
Interest in catfishing has exploded locally in the past five to 10 years.
“It used to be that if you saw two or three other guys fishing for flats, that was a lot,” said Pat McGarry of Bellevue, a flathead fisherman for 35 years whose biggest fish nearly was 39 pounds. “Most people used to make jokes about it. If you went down to the water with your saltwater gear, they'd ask, ‘What are you fishing for, sharks?' Now it's really taken off.”
Pittsburgh even has a new 3 River Catfish club. Joe Gordon of Kennedy Township, who got started in flathead fishing while stationed with the Army in Missouri, started it in late 2010.
“I'm hoping we can bring some attention to the species and maybe get some recognition for these fish that were once labeled a junk fish or not that sought after. They're really fun to catch,” Gordon said.
“And they're like a pit bull in the water. They're so big and strong. It's akin to being able to catch an ocean-sized fish but do it here in our rivers.”
The state record flathead is a 48-pound, 6-ounce fish caught in Berks County in 2006. That topped the 47-pounder caught by Vic Zendron of West Sunbury from the Ohio River less than a year before. Prior to that, the record had been a 43-pound, 9-ounce flathead from the Allegheny in 1985.
The hunt is on to bring the record back home.
Some have come close. Last year, Shawn Kurtz of Springdale caught a 42-pound, 2-ounce flathead from the Allegheny River. Alyssa Smith of Jefferson Hills pulled a 41-pound, 7-ounce flathead from the Monongahela.
Still bigger fish are out there.
California (Pa.) researchers looking for paddlefish in 2005 caught a 45-inch, 50-pound flathead in one of their nets near Neville Island on the Ohio River.
It takes heavy gear to tangle with fish that size. Reels spooled with 50- to 100-pound test line and rigged with size 8/0 hooks and 8-ounce sinkers aren't unheard of. Big bait — sometimes suckers, bluegills and carp so large they can't be cast but have to be rowed to the river channel and dropped from a kayak — is a requirement, too.
That's because flatheads aren't dainty nibblers. Biologists have had them burp up legal-sized sauger — fish at least 12 inches — when netted, said Bob Ventorini, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's biologist in charge of Pittsburgh's three rivers. One had swallowed an 18-inch channel catfish.
“A flathead will eat anything it can fit in its mouth,” Ventorini said.
They most often prowl at night. Several species of fish are nocturnal, said Bob Lorantas, the commission's warmwater unit leader. But catfish especially are so.
“They're very much a tactile or scent predator rather than a sight predator,” Lorantas said. “They tend to be more stealthy, hovering toward the bottom. They are adapted to be effective in low-light conditions.”
All that lends a social aspect to chasing them. Catfish club members often meet in the last hour of daylight, when they can see to set up, then sit in lawn chairs long into the night, swapping stories and catching fish.
It makes for a fun evening, said Gordon, whose top flathead weighed 31 pounds, not far off the size of his 40-pound, 7-year-old son.
“A lot of people, they see you throwing live bait as big as the fish they're fishing for, and they're amazed. They don't know there's anything in the rivers big enough to be eating something like that,” Gordon said.
“But they're the apex predator of these river systems. There's not another fish that's bigger or badder, really.”