Angler hauls in record catfish

On New Year's Eve, Shawn Wetzel went from his home near Gettysburg, Pa., down to his favorite fishing spot on the Potomac River at Fort Washington Marina.

Wetzel, who goes there every weekend, has caught around seven catfish weighing more than 60pounds each over the past two years. Then on New Year's Eve he reeled in one that he weighed in at a little more than 79 pounds.

It would have broken the Maryland record for blue catfish, except for one small problem.

"Being a holiday, there was nobody [from the Department of Natural Resources] to verify it," Wetzel said.

On Feb. 23, Wetzel took a day off from working for his father's heating and plumbing business and headed for Fort Washington with a friend.

"The first fish my buddy caught was 61 pounds," Wetzel said.

Several fish around the same size followed, and then came the biggest catch of the day. After a 20-minute tussle that Wetzel likened to hauling in a 4-by-8 sheet of plywood, he pulled what turned out to be his biggest catch ever into his boat.

Even before the DNR's biologist showed up for the official weigh-in, Wetzel knew he had broken his friend Ron Lewis' state record of 67pounds, 10 ounces, caught in 2008. He knew he had broken it by more than a dozen pounds. Wetzel's catch, which he put in a decoy duck bag, weighed in at 80 pounds, 12 ounces.

The first call went to Lewis, with whom Wetzel fishes regularly at Fort Washington.

"He's a big BS'er and he'll call me all the time telling me he's caught one [for a state record]," Wetzel said. "I told him, 'I've got a state record,' and he said, 'You're [kidding] me.'"

Not that Wetzel's record catch is being celebrated on all fronts. A new state policy has recently been adopted to stem the spread of the blue catfish by encouraging anglers to remove and kill any blue and flathead catfish they catch. The practice of catch-and-release is particularly discouraged for large fish.

According to the DNR's Fisheries Service, blue and flathead catfish, which are native to Mississippi, were introduced to a couple of Virginia rivers in the 1970s. The invasive, non-native species are long-lived, fast-growing and opportunistic feeders.

As a result, state and federal fisheries managers are concerned about the impact these fish have on the ecosystem and have worked to develop strategies "to mitigate their impact." Though recognizing how abundant the blue catfish have become in Maryland waters, DNR Fisheries Service director Tom O'Connell said, "We don't want to encourage the development and spread of this species. As top predators, they are a serious threat to native species, which provide ecological and economic benefits to the region."

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