Find big fish in the big city

The Associated Press

PITTSBURGH — While speeding over the bridges that cross the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers, have you ever peeked over the railing and wondered what’s down there?

Just a few decades ago, the rivers ran orange and smelled like rotten eggs. Only the most pollution-tolerant wildlife could survive there. Not anymore.

Big fish, some long enough to stretch across your car’s front seats, are being caught by anglers with growing regularity. And since 2015, the biggest fish in Pittsburgh-area rivers are getting bigger.

“Caught this giant 42-inch, 33-pound flathead (catfish) this morning on the Allegheny River near Pittsburgh,” Michael Purcell of the North Shore said in an email message Friday. “Lots of big cats are being caught lately. Way to kick off the summer!”

Once called the Smoky City, Pittsburgh has gone green and is now home to species that biologists look to as indicators of water quality, evidence that while muck at the bottom still contains 150 years of industrial waste, the water flowing over it can support a healthy food chain.

At the top of that cycle, the apex predators of Pittsburgh’s rivers are thriving. Five years ago, catfish that stretched longer than a yard were rare, and whispers of 4-foot muskellunge were just fish stories. Already this year, a flathead catfish in excess of 50 inches was caught on the Ohio River, and confirmed catches of muskies longer than 48 inches are taken seriously. A 52-incher was boated on the Allegheny River. It all starts with the water.

“Water quality will have an effect on the entire river ecosystem,” said Miranda Smith of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. “Poor water quality will affect not only the number of fish available for larger fish to prey upon but overall species richness as well.”

Henry Kacprzyk, a biologist at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium in Highland Park, said that when he was a boy in Lawrenceville, the only fish to catch were catfish, carp and suckers.

“Now the mines are sealed and the dams and aeration help quite a bit,” he said. “Some species require a lot of oxygen. Others require depth and the dams help with that.”

Trouble remains in many tributaries throughout the Ohio River system, which stretches south into Maryland via the Monongahela and Youghiogheny rivers and northward into New York through the Allegheny. But there’s good news from upriver, too. Starting in the 1970s, the federal Clean Water Act ended the practice of dumping household sewage directly into waterways. The closing of mills and mines in the 1980s was followed by further pollution reduction in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Diversity of species began with plant and bug life in the smaller tributaries and worked its way downstream. Crayfish, minnows and other prey species that couldn’t tolerate industrial waste followed. Fatheads, emerald shiners, freshwater herring, shad, mooneyes and panfish — including bluegills and sunfish — have proliferated.

As the rivers lost their foul, orange complexion, many native predator species followed their food into Allegheny County.

Among them is the hard-to-catch muskie, respected among anglers as “the fish of a thousand casts.” To help the species return to its native waters, Fish and Boat stocks 5- to 8-inch fingerlings in the Allegheny and Ohio rivers.

In nine years, a muskie can grow to 40 inches. A 50-incher has been in the river for about 17 years. The ongoing muskellunge program is one of Pennsylvania’s greatest conservation success stories.

Flathead catfish may be the perfect predator for the Ohio River system. Fossils of the fish from 15 million years ago are virtually identical to today’s flatheads.

Northern pike are common to northern Pennsylvania and higher elevations southeast of Pittsburgh. But big northerns in the 30-inch range are caught in the spring near the Ohio River’s confluence with the Beaver River in Beaver County.

Other predator species, including largemouth and smallmouth bass, can top 20 inches in the waters of southwestern Pennsylvania. Walleye can surpass 30 inches.

Anglers might scrape their skin on a fish’s toothy mouth, but there are no wild animals in Pittsburgh’s rivers that present a serious danger to boaters, swimmers or people using those waters for recreation.

As table fare, Fish and Boat has a statewide consumption advisory of no more than one meal of angler-caught fish per week. Less is recommended for fish caught in cities.

Tim Reddinger, mayor of Bridgewater in Beaver County and owner of Reddi Bait Shop near the juncture of the Ohio and Beaver rivers, said he watched polluted waters transform into fisheries that hosted two world bass tournament finals early in the 21st century. In the past five years, he said, the waters of the Three Rivers have crossed another angling benchmark.

“Five years ago, I saw one 40-pound flathead caught. It was such big news in the cat world,” said Mr. Reddinger, whose shop has become a home base for serious catfish anglers. “The next year, two were caught less than 100 yards apart in Monaca. This year so far, it’s six or seven. Fishing for big fish is better here than it has ever been.”

There’s no doubt that water quality keeps improving, he said, but other factors contribute to the recent growth of Pittsburgh’s biggest fish.

“People have better equipment now,” Reddinger said. “Rods, reels, lines and electronics are better for finding and actually landing big fish.”

The catch-and-release culture gives big fish the chance to get bigger, and most anglers who intentionally target big fish return them. Anglers reported that six flathead catfish in the 25-pound range were caught and released last week near Braddock on the Monongahela River. In three or four years, those fish could grow into about 40 pounds of muscle.

“Catch and release has certainly affected all fishing,” Reddinger said. “Twenty years ago, if you caught a 30-inch walleye or a 20-inch bass, you kept it so people would believe you. Now that everyone has a camera in their pocket, it’s possible to prove that you caught a really big fish.”

In recent years, more people are learning about and hunting for big fish. Nick Colangelo, of the Strip District, targets flatheads and muskellunge in Pittsburgh-area waters. His best catches, he said, have been a 35-pound flathead and a 50-inch muskie taken while ice fishing.

“Ten years ago, when I was a little kid, there was nothing like that,” he said. “(Anglers) have to learn about big fish, because big fish act totally different than smaller fish. Your bait, your techniques, everything is different.”

Colangelo said big-fish hunters look for little things that might make a difference.

“This year, I’ve noticed the emerald shiner population has seemingly exploded, more than I’ve ever seen,” he said.

The shiners aren’t his bait. They are eaten by the fish he uses for bait, suckers and chubs in the 12- to 14- inch range.

To back up bragging rights, some anglers take their lunkers to be weighed on certified scales like those at Lock 3 Bait and Tackle in Cheswick, just off the Allegheny River. Co-manager Cole Bishop said the biggest he has seen is a 45-pound flathead pulled out of the Allegheny River.

The many big cats caught in Pittsburgh waters in recent weeks, he said, were gorging during the pre-spawn and post-spawn feeding binges that occur in late spring and early summer.

Some of the biggest fish in Pittsburgh waters are not game fish. Native shovelnose sturgeon, which eat aquatic insect larvae, crustaceans and small fish, were stocked as fingerlings several years ago in a joint project of Fish and Boat and the Pittsburgh Zoo. None have shown up so far in Fish and Boat electroshock surveys, but in New York it is not uncommon for shovelnose sturgeon to grow to 6 feet.

There may have been more success in the reintroduction of the American paddlefish, which despite its long bill filters microscopic invertebrates from the water. Mr. Bishop said dead paddlefish as big as 70 pounds have washed up along the Allegheny River near Freeport. There is no evidence of natural reproduction.

Spotted gar, another native of the Ohio River system, uses its long, toothy mouth — about one-third of its 2- to 3-foot body length — to catch crustaceans and small fish.

A bigger aquatic predator is on its way to Pittsburgh. Blue catfish, the largest catfish species in North America, is native to the Ohio River and typically exceeds 40 inches in northern waters.

Following a reintroduction program in West Virginia, big blues have been confirmed in the Ohio River near the Pennsylvania border. The West Virginia state record is 43.9 inches, 44.5 pounds, caught in the Ohio River.


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