Drowning crawlers, as he's done many times on the Butler Street side of the Highland Park Bridge, Wayne McNeill knew he'd hooked into something special. At the other end of his 12-pound line, 14 pounds of flathead catfish muscling to stay in the Allegheny River.
"It took me 15 minutes to get him in," said McNeill of Homewood, who hauled in the 20-incher the evening of June 30. "I had my net but the wall's too high to lift him up -- I was afraid I'd break the line. It's challenging there. If you get them in, you're lucky."
Wisely, McNeill walked the fish along the wall until it could be netted.
A generation ago, about the only gamefish in those waters were pollution-tolerant carp and brown bullheads. But as the river changed so did the aquatic neighborhood, and bigger, bolder catfish species crowded out the smaller bullheads.
Catfish are now common near urban centers with clean, easy access to the water, a fact that has been noticed by the state Fish and Boat Commission. The agency is considering a draft catfish management plan that calls for further research of data on aging, growth and catch rates, and a re-examination of continued stocking of channel catfish.
Thirteen catfish species are native to Pennsylvania. All bear the distinctive leathery skin, whisker-like barbells on the chin and upper jaw, and pectoral and dorsal spines that can inflict a mildly stinging poison. Two of the miniature madtom species are endangered in the state and found only in French Creek. Another madtom is considered threatened.
But few catfish species grow large enough to be targeted by anglers. Among them, the white catfish grows to 24 inches, is native to the Delaware and Susquehanna rivers and was introduced to the Ohio watershed. The yellow and black bullhead grows to 19 inches and are less common in the state. Big blue cats that can reach 150 pounds in southern climates have moved up the Mississippi River and have been reported in the Ohio River watershed.
Pennsylvania anglers, however, are more familiar with brown bullheads, flatheads and channel cats, all of which reproduce easily in most lakes and rivers. They're so abundant, in fact, catfish are managed under panfish regulations: open season year-round, no minimum size, daily creel limit 50.
Small cats are relatively easy to hook, and beginners often count them among their first catches. Big cats are wily and voracious predators, and successfully catching one is a challenge -- landing it is a thrill.
And as people around the world have long known, catfish are fleshy and delicious on the plate (note consumption advisories for fish caught in the lower Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, and Ohio River).
Catfish species differ in habitat preference, and knowing which fish is where can make all the difference in catching them.
"Brown bullheads are the most ubiquitous and can be found in almost any lake, pond or river, but they have the lowest abundance among catfish in the Three Rivers," said PFBC fisheries biologist Rick Lorson, who authored the new catfish management proposal.
Brown bulls average 12 to 15 inches -- an 18-incher is a trophy. They like standing water including wetlands, ponds and lakes, as well as slow-moving stretches of rivers and streams. Bullheads are bottom dwellers, tolerant of warm water, low oxygen and pollution levels higher than most fish can stand. They'll take live bait but often go for anything smelly including pastes, cut bait and human foods such as chicken livers, salami and hotdogs.
"Channels are the only catfish stocked in the state. Most of those lakes have some natural reproduction; they're supplementally stocked to boost their numbers for various reasons," said Lorson. "[Channel cats] are more common in flowing waters at 5 to 10 feet, and are more likely to take live minnows."
McNeill caught his flathead on a nightcrawler fished deep near structure. Lorson said the big fish congregate near structure more readily than channel cats, and are often found at 10 to 20 feet or in the deepest pools.
"The Three Rivers hold fewer flatheads than channel cats," said Lorson, "but the flatheads are more voracious. They're omnivores, but it's best to think of them as predators. We're told by anglers the best way to catch big flatheads is with a live bluegill 4 to 5 inches. Other folks fish with a creek chub."
Catfish experts aren't sure if the warm winter and spring have anything to do with the slow start to this year's catfishing. Cavity spawners triggered to reproduce by 80-degree waters, catfish deposit several thousand sticky eggs among submerged logs and rocks and under embankments. It's been suggested that this year the spawn may have arrived early -- egg-guarding males were gone before anglers got to the water.
Despite a slow start on the Monongahela, Ed Vaccari, owner of Tackle Unlimited in Jefferson Hills, said angler interest in catfish is up, and the cable TV series "River Monsters" may have something to do with it.
"I've been selling a lot of bait for catfish, but not too many have been caught yet. They're catching a few, but none of the really big ones," he said. "I just had a guy buy two dozen big suckers -- he's going to try for catfish all weekend."
The best baits, he said, are large shiners 3 to 6 inches, silver or golden.
"Those big shovel heads will hit big live bait more than they will a stink bait," said Vaccari, a longtime catfish angler who once landed a 45-pound flathead in Ohio. "Channel cats will hit a stink bait. They'll also hit a bloody bait -- put a bluegill on and run a knife against it."
Use a 7-foot heavy-weight spinning rod for big cats, a medium-weight rod for smaller fish. A whopper may snap lines lighter than 30 pounds.
Vaccari shares a preference for the most common catfish rig. Run the line through a slip sinker (weight depends upon the current, 3/4 ounce is common) and tie on a swivel to prevent the line from running back through the sinker. Tie another yard of line to the swivel. Vaccari prefers a big wide gap hook in 4/0 to 6/0.
"Push the hook through the [bait's] mouth and out the skull cavity, but not through the brain," he said. "They stay on and swim good. I like them to move."
Ryan Radovitch at Lock 3 Bait and Tackle in Cheswick said the catfish bite is tepid on the Allegheny River, as well. Those who are catching the bigger fish, he said, are using big suckers fished deep near the dams at night.
"It depends on what type of catfish you're trying to catch," he said. "Flatheads prefer live bait, the others prefer something stinky and rotten."
Radovitch said the Lock 3 and Clyde & Patti's Allegheny River Tournament, accepting all species Friday-Saturday, was expected to bring in some hefty catfish.
Big cats have been more active on the Ohio. The June 16 installment of the Chester Newell Sportsmen's Club Catfish Tournament, held on the Ohio River from Wheeling, W.Va. to Pittsburgh, was won with a 41 1/2-inch monster. The next tournament is July 14 (details at 304-387-3982).
"Here's one good tip," said Vaccari. "At night is when you get them, but don't turn on any light or lantern or light a fire. Those fish don't get big because they're stupid. They can see a light from 100 yards out."