They come to the Susquehanna River to fish for something they’ve only heard about.
The biggest fish in the river, the biggest in Pennsylvania – the kind of thing that almost doesn’t seem like it should even be here.
The flathead catfish phenomenon continues to grow.
It’s common to catch them from 20 to 30 pounds each, though they easily get twice that size in the lower third of the river.
“It’s about catching the biggest fish I can catch,” said Mark Kraemer from Tamaqua, Pa. He and his 17-year-old son, Riley, grew tired of the expense and three-hour trips to the New Jersey shore for saltwater fishing.
That’s what drove them to the stretch of the Susquehanna between York and Lancaster counties in September. They hooked up with Rod Bates and his Koinonia Guide Service business.
They caught nearly two dozen smaller channel catfish as early evening turned to dark.
Things quieted until about midnight.
The hits then exploded, three flathead catfish in 20 minutes.
The first was truly a giant – 42 pounds, 3 ounces. It was the largest flathead a customer had pulled in during Bates’ 21 years of guiding on the river.
Certainly, though, there are even bigger ones out there.
In 2018, a fisheries survey crew from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources caught a 56.5-pound, 44-inch flathead from a hoop net in the Susquehanna less than a mile downriver of the Mason-Dixon line.
Last year, a Lancaster man pulled in a flathead weighing 50 pounds, 7 ounces.
In May, a Philadelphia man landed a 56-pound, 3-ounce flathead in the Schuylkill River.
Guides believe there easily could be fish in both rivers pushing beyond 60 pounds. Flatheads in the southern and western parts of the United States have grown to over 100 pounds.
Though the fish is native to western Pennsylvania waters, viable population numbers did not appear in the Susquehanna until about 20 years ago. Anglers probably released these fish into the river over the years until they began proliferating in its lower sections. Since, the quick-grower has gradually expanded its population, size and territory north to Sunbury and into the Juniata River.
Guides such as Jaime Hughes of Breakline Charters said 60 to 70 percent of her varied business is now strictly for flatheads on the Susquehanna. A small stretch of river now may feature the lights of 10 to 15 boats at night fishing for flatheads “and you never saw that 15 years ago,” Bates said.
The Kraemers’ stunning Sept. 11 catch came on their first flathead venture. They netted it after about a 20-minute fight.
Riley Kraemer described it as the size of a dog and said he could have fit his own head in its mouth. They released the fish back into the river after a few photos.
“It’s kind of like a mystery almost,” Mark Kraemer said. “At night, you don’t see what’s on the end of the line, and out of the abyss comes this giant catfish.
“It’s an adrenaline rush. … It’s like a trip of a lifetime. We’ll probably never catch a fish like that again.”
Chris Axe has been guiding on the Susquehanna for five years, catching flatheads for at least 15.
He recently pulled in one that weighed more than 41 pounds during a personal day of fishing.
“You really have to fight this thing. Nothing like any other river fish I’ve ever caught,” said Axe, who runs Anchor Down Charter near Marietta in Lancaster County.
“It feels like it’s going to pull you in. Then it kind of gives up a little bit until you get it to the boat, then dives straight down. Your knees are banging the side of the boat and you get it (close) and see it and your heart goes into your throat.
“Then it dives down again. Something that big seldom cooperates and goes right into the net.”
Flatheads can be caught from the shore as well as by boat. But they can be more difficult to land than other river fish, in part, because they rarely are active, Bates said.
Most of his flathead trips run at night and often include hours-long waits before a flurry of bites.
“They’re the most frustrating thing I guide for,” Bates said. “They’ll come up and mouth the bait and just leave. The fish will play with a bait for a half hour before they take it.”
Fishermen pull in flatheads using live bait, such as hand-sized bluegills. Axe said he once caught a 15-pound flathead while in the midst of eating a foot-long channel catfish.
Flatheads, though, are not particularly sought by fishermen to be eaten. Which means they throw them back, no matter the size, to potentially let them grow even bigger.
“A lot of these fish being caught,” Axe said, “live to swim another day.”