Records are made to be broken, and a Pennsylvania man may have done just that earlier this month, landing a catfish that might top them all in the Keystone State. And since the angler released the big flathead catfish, the behemoth nearly broke an existing International Game Fish Association world record too.
What appears to be secure is state-record status for the flathead, pending acceptance by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. Michael J. Wherley’s 66-pound, 4-ounce flathead caught May 14 in the Susquehanna River weighed more than 10 pounds heavier than the existing record. The Fayetteville, Pa, angler reportedly caught the fish on a rainbow trout in the late-morning hours as Wherley fished near the Lake Aldred area.
Columbia Bait and Tackle, which weighed and measured the flathead, reported the fish measured 50 1/4 inches long, and had a girth of 35 inches. According to the bait shop, the fight reportedly lasted nearly a half-hour before Wherley was able to get the big fish wrestled into the boat.
If approved by the state agency, Wherley’s potential record would break the existing flathead record caught during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic on May 24, 2020. That flathead came when Philadelphia angler Jonathan Pierce pulled the fish from the Schuylkill River near East Falls, Pa.
When Wherley’s big fish reportedly bottomed out his 50-pound scale, he sought assistance elsewhere and went to Columbia Bait and Tackle where owner Matt Musselman weighed it. “I knew it was the record as soon as I saw it,” Musselman told Lancaster Online. “I see these big fish all the time, and this was the biggest.”
At first glance, Wherley’s big flathead would fall well short of the current IGFA world record flathead catfish benchmark of 123 pounds. That world-class flathead was caught on May 19, 1998, by Ken Paulie) as he fished the Elk City Reservoir in Kansas.
But Wherley’s monster also comes within a whisker or two of breaking another IGFA world record for the species (Pylodictis olivaris). The length of 50 1/4 inches converts to 128.016 centimeters, which is a little less than three centimeters (a little more than an inch) shy of the existing IGFA catch-and-release length record for flatheads.
According to the 2023 IGFA World Record Game Fishes record book, the current catch-and-release world record flathead was a 131-centimeter fish caught just last year, on Aug. 24, when angler Jason D. Atkins caught and released the current benchmark while fishing on the Missouri River near Kansas City, Mo.
Flatheads aren’t native to the Pennsylvania river, although they have been in place for many years. The first documented flathead to be caught on the Susquehanna was back in 2002.
The IGFA notes that the flathead catfish—which often prefers to eat fish for its diet and is considered excellent table fare—is “native to the large rivers of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio basins from southern North Dakota, south into northern Mexico, and east as far as Lake Erie’s southeast coast and the western most tip of the Florida panhandle. It occurs broadly over this entire area and has now been widely introduced outside its native range.”
But excellent table fare or not, once Wherley’s big flathead was weighed on Columbia Bait and Tackle’s certified scale and measurements were obtained—with a Pennsylvania Waterways Conservation Officer present during the process—the angler promptly released the big flathead back into the river. “The fish got that big by living a long time, so I wanted him to keep on living,” Wherley told Lancaster Online.
While the state-record paperwork and application process is still pending, it would also appear that Wherley accomplished something else of note. Just like the great New York Yankees slugger Babe Ruth once did in a baseball game, the angler apparently called his record shot.
“I’ve told everybody in my family I was going to catch a state-record someday, and here I did it,” he told Lancaster Online. “That’s incredible.”
Indeed it is, and all because of a flathead like few others, caught and released in one amazing fish tale.