Pennsylvania fisherman lands 65-pound beast of a catfish

JOHN HAYES
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
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Joe Granata of Monaca kept his mouth shut about the giant Ohio River catfish that chomped down on his bait in September.

Few people knew anything about the Beaver County man’s 64.8-pound catch – heavier than a 9-year-old child – until he posted a video on YouTube on Sunday.

The big fish turned up near the Pike Island Lock and Dam, about 84 miles downstream from Pittsburgh near New Cumberland, W.Va. Hefty as it was, it didn’t quite measure up to the West Virginia state record flathead caught in 1956. That one was recorded at a massive 70 pounds, 52 inches.

Had Granata’s monster been caught in Pennsylvania, it would have destroyed the 56-pound, 3-ounce record set last year on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.

“I’m pretty pumped,” says Granata in his video. “I spend a lot of time out on the river and that’s the biggest flathead I’ve ever seen, let alone caught.

“I knew he was big, but you never know.”

Granata is a veteran flathead hunter. He targets big fish on the Ohio and Allegheny rivers, and his catches have topped 50 pounds before. Check out the man-vs.-catfish match on his YouTube channel, Hammer-Down Catfishing with Joe Granata.

On a dark night with eight lines baited, he and friends Alex Preaux and Steve Reis are seen boating two 20-inch catfish. Then one of the rods abruptly bends and Granata wrestles his catch to the boat. Still in the water, the fish fills the net and it’s apparent that this one is more than the fisherman expected,

The men lift the fish to weigh it.

Checking the scale, they measure it again – a brownish beast with a shovel-shaped head, substantial girth, lightly toxic dorsal and pectoral spines and cat-like whiskers or barbels.

Granata hoists the big fish into an aerated livewell trough to let it rest and recover from the fight. Later in the video, he lifts it once more, for additional photos and to check the scale one more time, before carefully sliding it back into the Ohio River.

Flathead catfish are native to the Great Lakes and waters west of the Appalachian Mountain range. An apex predator of the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio river basins, flatheads are perfectly suited to their environment.

Fossils show they have remained anatomically unchanged for 15 million years. As the rivers became cleaner, prey fish returned followed by catfish, muskellunge, walleye, bass and other predators.

Pennsylvania waters are home to 13 species of catfish and madtoms – tiny relatives that evolved through the same genetic line.

Only a few of the larger cats are considered gamefish. Several types of bullheads are common in lakes, streams and wetlands and rarely grow larger than about 18 inches. With a distinctive forked tail, it is not uncommon for channel catfish to reach 30 inches – the state record is 35 pounds.

But with size, strength and a tough reputation, flatheads are the species most often targeted by regional river anglers.

In the last five years, Pittsburgh-area flatheads have grown bigger – or anglers have gotten better at catching them. Tim Reddinger, owner of Reddi Bait and Tackle, the Bridgewater shop that has become Ground Zero for the regional catfishing crowd, said local anglers are spending more time on the water.

“The skill level is like I’ve never seen before,” he said.

In addition, water conditions continue to improve, and manufacturers are responding to consumer demand for better high-end catfish-specific gear. Supporting these anglers is a growing business.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation showed that catfish have become the fifth most sought species group in Pennsylvania. Angler days spent fishing for catfish in Pennsylvania increased 24% from 1996 to 2006.

The state Fish and Boat Commission’s catfish management strategy relies on natural reproduction, minimal harvest regulations and the conservation ethic of flathead anglers. In Pennsylvania, catfish angling is regulated in a category with bluegill, crappie and other panfish. There is no closed season for catfish, no minimum harvest length restrictions and there’s a possession limit of 50 per day.

“A portion of avid, flathead catfish anglers in Western Pennsylvania are trophy catch-oriented and release most or all of their catch,” says the state’s management plan.

“… Flathead catfish recruitment rates apparently compensate for fishing mortality or angler exploitation. As a result, their populations are considered self-sustaining and remain undeterred by the liberal harvest regulations.”

Granata said parts of the Ohio River that were once quiet at night are getting more angler pressure as hotspots are discovered. Five years ago, he saw few boats on the river at night.

“Now they’re everywhere and eight out of 10 are catfish boats,” he said.

One of the biggest misconceptions about fishing for flatheads, said Granata, is that they only come out at night.

“Actually, I prefer fishing for them in the day,” he said. “It’s safer because you can see, and I like the wind and the sun overhead.”

Granata said it’s easier to find flatheads in daylight.

“They lay up under the cover of ship wrecks, old industrial structure and debris. Anything that breaks the current,” he said.

Most experienced flathead hunters practice catch-and-release for the purposes of conservation. Although a catfish dinner is considered good eatin’ in the South, the best fillets are taken from fish on the short side of 18-20 inches.

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has a general statewide consumption advisory to avoid eating more than one meal of recreationally caught sport fish per week. While the water in Pittsburgh’s rivers is relatively clean, it flows over 150 years of industrial waste. For many, fish pulled from Pittsburgh’s rivers don’t pass the ick test.

Since that big September catch, Granata has continued hunting for flatheads.

Last week he released a 42.3-pounder taken in the Ohio River section of the Pittsburgh Pool, the consistent water level in the space between dams on the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela rivers.