Fish and Boat Commission biologist Mike Depew with the 52-pound, 5-ounce flathead catfish caught from Donegal Lake.
It’s the state record that isn’t.
On April 30, Pennsylvania’s best-ever flathead catfish was a 48-pound, 6-ounce fish caught in 2006 from Blue Marsh Spillway in Berks County. It remains the official record today.
That’s true even though on May 1 a Bentleyville angler fishing Donegal Lake in Westmoreland County – which isn’t even supposed to have flatheads in it – caught one that weighed 52 pounds, 5 ounces on a certified scale.
Why isn’t it the new top dog, or, in this case, cat?
The story is twisted.
According to Matt Kauffman, a waterways conservation officer with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the Bentleyville man – who didn’t want to be identified – hooked it while fishing for bass with a green chatterbait. He was in a single-person inflatable pontoon. The catfish proceeded to drag him around the lake for about 30 minutes.
Ultimately, Kauffman said, he asked two anglers on shore – Craig Selinger Jr. and Cody Pierno, both of Mill Run – to help him land and release it. They agreed. When they had it in hand, though, they asked if they could keep it to eat, Kauffman said.
Instead, according to Tom Crist, manager of the commission’s southwest region office, they immediately left the lake and took the fish to get weighed on a certified scale. That confirmed they had a record on their hands.
They then decided to take credit for it.
The next day, Crist said, they had a relative take the fish to the commission’s Somerset office so that biologists could identify it officially as a flathead and confirm its weight as legitimate.
That done, they applied to have it recognized as a state record. Selinger listed himself as the man who caught the fish; Pierno signed off as a witness to the catch.
They even posted photos of the fish with their story to Facebook.
“They were instantly famous” Kauffman said.
That attention proved their undoing.
Two days later, while stocking trout at Donegal, Kauffman said he was approached by other anglers who’d seen the fish landed. They told him Selinger and Pierno hadn’t in fact caught it.
Shortly thereafter, the Bentleyville angler who had saw the Facebook posts about his fish and reported his story to a state park official at Shawnee State Park. That ranger contacted Kauffman.
With all of those witnesses, he investigated. The result was that, in the end, Selinger and Pierno each pleaded guilty to filling out a false application and making false reports to law enforcement. According to documents at district justice Ronald Haggerty’s office in Connellsville, each agreed to pay $500 in fines, plus court costs.
Crist said the commission pursued the case out of a desire to maintain the honesty of its record program.
“Fish that big are rare. They’re special. So we don’t take these things lightly,” he said. “Some of those records have been around for a long time.”
Kauffman said area anglers support that action.
“A lot of guys were very upset by the whole thing,” Kauffman said. “The ones I talked to felt it really violated the integrity of the sport. They were offended someone who hadn’t caught the fish was trying to take credit for it.”
As for how the flathead ever got into the lake, commission officials believe some angler at some point caught it in one of Pittsburgh’s three rivers, transported it to the lake, then dumped it in.
That’s not only discouraged, it’s illegal.
“Most times scatter stocking by the general public disrupts the fish management already in place at a water body,” said area fisheries manager Rick Lorson.
“Yeah, it may be one, but what if everybody stocks one? It’s the multiplying factor that comes into play.”
The release of gizzard shad into some lakes by anglers has caused populations to explode, at the expense of good panfishing, for example, he noted.
No matter its origin, the big Donegal Lake flathead won’t be listed as the new state record. The angler who actually caught it was not interested in pursuing a record claim, Kauffman said. It’s not definite he would have gotten credit for it anyway, since he did not actually land it either, he added.
So the old record stands, and the chase to break it goes on.