W. Pa. anglers recorded many top-ranked catches from 2013
Mark Nicholas is used to big fish. But this was exceptional.
He was fishing the Allegheny River last March — he won't say exactly where, other than upstream of Pittsburgh — casting a jerkbait. His dad and a friend from high school were with him.
He was targeting one of his favorite habitat types.
“As far as areas, we always look for anywhere the bait is. We look for suckers, which are in the warmer water, and then throw baits that mimic them,” said Nicholas, 20. “It's a pretty simple tactic, really.”
Simple or not, it paid off.
As soon as his lure hit the water on one cast, a musky hit it.
“It was a good fight. It came up to the boat a couple of times, then ran back out a couple of times. We were afraid we were going to lose it,” said Nicholas, a third-generation musky fisherman and budding guide at bigpamusky.com.
He didn't, and that turned out to be special. The fish measured 51 inches long and weighed 43 pounds.
That was enough to rank it as the biggest musky, by weight, caught last year, according to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's list of the “biggest fish of 2013.”
The commission annually ranks fish reported to it via its Angler Awards program. It identifies the top five fish, by weight, for 31 species of fish — all those for which state records are maintained except for coho salmon. It's all more fun than scientific. The commission accepts fishermen at their word. Details on lengths and weights are submitted on the honor system, with no verification required.
The list only accounts for fish submitted to the commission.
None of that takes away from the behemoth that was Nicholas' fish, though.
“It was a heck of a fish,” he said.
A good number of area anglers can relate. Seventy-one of last year's 119 biggest fish — 60 percent — came from Western Pennsylvania waters.
Lake Erie and its tributary streams are a big reason. They produced 29 percent of all fish on the list: all five lake trout, all five steelhead, all five sheepshead, four of five walleyes, all four white bass, three of five brown trout, three of five yellow perch, two of five smallmouth bass, two of five channel catfish, and the list's one Atlantic and one Chinook salmon.
One of those big Erie fish was the top-ranked steelhead caught by Joe Walton of Mt. Pleasant. He was on a charter trolling for walleyes when he caught the 16-pound, 8-ounce fish. It was 34 inches long by 19 around.
“We saw we had a fish on, so I set the hook, but we couldn't really tell what it was at first,” Walton said. “Then he came out of the water. That's when we knew we had something nice.”
The fish jumped on three occasions before Walton landed it.
“It's the biggest fish I've ever caught,” he said.
A number of other local waters put fish on the list. Lake Arthur accounted for two of the top five bass, two of five hybrid stripers and one crappie. The Allegheny River produced Nicholas' musky, the heaviest walleye — a 13-pound, 11-ounce fish caught by Pittsburgh's Austin Ramsey — and a golden palomino trout. Also showing up the list were Pymatuning Lake, Deer Creek, Chess Creek, one of the three Deer Lakes, Fourmile Run, Mahoning Creek, Laurel Hill Lake, Yough Dam, Keystone Lake, Tenmile Creek, Dunkard Creek, Crooked Creek Lake, Shenango Reservoir and the Beaver River, among others.
It was from the Beaver, near New Brighton Dam, where Ronald Krachinsky of New Galilee caught the state's second-biggest flathead catfish of 2013. It was 40 inches long and weighed 42 pounds.
Krachinsky caught it in late August on one of the bluegills he and his daughter had caught for bait earlier in the day.
As with Nicholas and Walton, his fish was the largest he's caught. Not that he has a lot to compare it to. He just started fishing for big flatheads last year, he said.
“Now I'm kind of hooked on it,” he said.
A friend who is into pursuing big catfish got him into the sport. Krachinsky was fishing on his own on the evening the big fish hit. It took 45 minutes to weather the several wild runs the fish put on and get the big flathead in, and then only after it snapped the tip off his rod.
“I got it close to shore about three times, and every time it flipped out,” he said.
In Feller Heider's case, it was releasing one fish that set him on the path of another even bigger.
Heider of Butler was fishing West Branch Millstone Creek in Forest County late last April. He had caught one brook trout and was turning it loose when he saw a larger one.
“I saw him scoot, so I hurried up and grabbed my stuff. I think he hit on my third cast,” Heider said.
He was using a Lyndora lure, a spinner so named because it was made by a now-deceased man who lived in that area.
“I think my buddy bought 800 of them off the guy, so we fish them a lot,” Heider said.
The brookie ultimately measured 19 inches and weighed 4 pounds, 10 ounces. It's the largest Heider said he's ever caught, or at least ever measured, and the largest reported across the state last year.
Big enough to get him on the list.