Pittsburgh’s big flathead catfish rule the rivers

L.last eaten one August night That year, Dusty Learn, an Indiana County farmer and factory worker, caught perhaps the most spectacular catfish that Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers have ever produced.

While not the VW Beetle-sized beast of urban legend, Learn’s flat head – caught on a piece of cut bluegill – may have beaten the 56-pound 3-ounce record set just months earlier on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia .

But with his live well pump on the Fritz and no fishing shop with certified scales open at midnight, Learn, 38, decided to weigh the behemoth on his boat – where it was a whopping, if not checked, 60.56 pounds – and give it back to the Ohio River unscathed instead of trying to keep it alive until morning.

Learn reported on Facebook that, as much as he hated letting the fish go, he was doing what he thought was “right” by getting praise from eco-friendly cat anglers.

“The benefit of keeping it alive outweighed killing it just to get into the record books,” he later said. “The important thing is that people can see what’s possible near downtown Pittsburgh.”

While Learn’s mega trophy is undoubtedly rare, it’s emblematic of a fishery changed, say anglers who hunt big bruises in Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio.

This age-old native with the whiskers and smooth, flaky skin has long been insulted as a river bank and has established itself as a sought-after sport fish that has grown in size, number and popularity with the greening of local waterways.

Old metals still remain in the sediment, but the water quality has improved dramatically, creating an increasingly robust food chain with Pylodictis olivaris (olive colored mudfish) on top.

“They’re the top predators,” says Monaca-based tournament angler Joe Granata, 38, of his obsession with monster cats, which he released up to 47 pounds on the spot. “They are so impressive in size and strength, and nothing pulls or fights like them.”

Joe Gordon, 40, another angler who’s knee-deep in giant cats, compares Flatheads to a train going full steam ahead. “There’s no acrobatics or head shaking when you check the box. No twists and turns, no back and forth. They’re not even very fast, ”he says. “But they are pure power.”

Gordon founded the 3 Rivers Catfish Club in 2010 as an online information exchange hub and to generate interest in tournaments that have also taken place the end. Similar sites like Northeast Catfish Addicts and Pennsylvania Catfish Hunters have since proliferated and are helping fuel the flathead fever.

“You took a picture of your fish on Facebook to show a few friends,” says James Swearingen, 39, of Steel City Anglers. “Now you can publish it online for everyone to see. That arouses people’s interest. “

And there’s a lot to brag about these days.

“Twenty years ago, a 30-pound flathead was rare,” says Gordon. “Today you’re depressed if it’s not over 30 pounds. The fish gradually got bigger. The standards have changed. “

Although catching a 20-pound flathead anywhere in the state deserves an Angler Award from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, recent polls show it is common in Pittsburgh and fishermen say they are light enough to be taken in old-school Style of landing on a chunk of cut bait thrown from every river bank.

However, finding 40 pounders requires a deeper level of commitment and usually a boat.

“I’ll start scouting the riverbeds in early spring to see how they’ve changed over the winter and to map spots that I’ll put to the test once the bite pops,” says Granata. “We use electronics just like the bass guys – the fish finders with structure scans that are becoming more and more sophisticated.”

Quality baits – not the store-bought ones – are the other key to a fantastic catch, says Gordon, who fishes with gizzard fish he catches himself or hooks and line from unknown waters with suction cups, mooneyes or brook chub. “I’d rather tell people where to find flatheads than where to get my bait.”

The boom in catfish fishing prompted the Fish and Boat Commission to launch an extensive study of flatheads and their smaller cousin, the Channel Cat, in the rivers around Pittsburgh.

“The results were pretty eye-opening,” says fisheries biologist Mike Depew, whose findings corroborate the anglers’ reports. “It’s not uncommon for us to handle £ 20 flat heads on our nets, and we even had one on a trotting line last year that could have pushed £ 50.”

Learn’s catch is the biggest he knows locally, although he says, “I’ve heard of two or three others over 50 pounds caught last year and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a few more in the 50- to There is also a 60-pound range lurking in the Three Rivers. “

Because the waters in western Pennsylvania are colder and less fertile than those in the Midwest and South, the local flatheads are among the slowest growing ones in history, typically reaching 30 years or more, Depew says.

Prior to his studies, the oldest Flathead known was a 34-year-old from Lake Wheeler, Alabama, but Depew caught three in a network even older, including a 45-year-old. “Then we broke that record with a 52-year-old!” He says.

Survival can in part be attributed to how few catfish anglers – only 3 percent – reap their catch. Although there are limited consumption recommendations for all sport fish, including walleye, at the Allegheny, Mon, and Ohio, bottom-dwelling flat-headed fish have never had a table-top following due to the contaminants they are likely to accumulate from eating other fish during their long lives and dig in the mud in winter.

But her reputation as a scavenger is undeserved and “even disrespectful to a species that is unmatched in the river,” says Depew, who is himself a recreational flathead enthusiast. “You take freshly cut bait, but you will crush live bait. They’re looking for live prey, and anything that swims is pretty much on their menu. “

For Flathead fanatics, Catch and Release is a conservation strategy.

“When you realize how long it takes to grow a good quality flathead, you don’t want to remove it from the gene pool,” says Gordon, who uses circle hooks to prevent his gut from being hooked.

“If I can’t weigh and measure a fish quickly, I put it back in the water. I wouldn’t risk it dying even if I thought I had an act of state. “

Learn obviously agrees: “We have to protect the resource, because who knows where it ends here in terms of size?”

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