On October 28, Rick Nicholson went fishing with his son on the Youghiogheny River. A typical outing for the residents of Connellsville, Pennsylvania, quickly became a once-in-a-lifetime experience when he hooked into a fish that broke the state's walleye record that stood for 41 years.
Nicholson, who often goes by his nickname "The Breeze," has fished this river for most of his life—his father taught him there, and he now frequents the area with his own family.
“Our dad taught us this: big hook, big bait, big fish,” Nicholson told MeatEater. “And we've been fishing like that here for 50-some years.”
Putting that advice into practice is exactly how Nicholson hooked into this whopper walleye. Around 6:00 p.m. Nicholson caught a 27-inch walleye. His son, Rick Jr., was reeling in a nice smallmouth soon after and alerted him that there was a bite on one of the other bait rigs.
“I hooked it and said, ‘you better reel your poles in, son. This is bigger than the one we just caught,’” the elder Nicholson recalled.
The duo thought the fish must be a muskie at first. It fought for 20 minutes and made a few good runs before coming close enough to Rick Jr's net. The walleye actually broke the net into a few pieces, but the men managed to wrestle it to shore and get it on their stringer.
“I really just got lucky,” Nicholson said. But he credits his "luck" to his big bait, big fish mantra.
“I’m a live bait man,” Nicholson said. “I caught it on a big creek chub in about 10 feet of water with a 10-foot noodle rod on 6-pound test.”
Nicholson catches his chubs in a nearby creek and keeps them in an old clawfoot bathtub filled with water from a nearby spring. When he’s got too many fish to fillet in one night, he uses the tub as a livewell until the next day—which is what he did with his behemoth walleye after returning from the river.
However, Rick Jr. happened to look up the state walleye record before they cut into the fish. Seventeen pounds, 9 ounces seemed well within reach for the current occupant of the bathtub, which they measured at 34 inches long with a girth of 21.5 inches.
So, they decided to take the fish into the butcher department of a local supermarket, where weighed in at a whopping 18.14 pounds.
Sgt. Mike Walsh of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission confirmed the size of the walleye. "Right now it does beat the record," he told Go Erie. However, Nicholson just submitted the paperwork for the record this week and it has to be verified before the ruling is official.
The walleye is now residing in Nicholson’s freezer, ready to become a wall mount. “I’m hoping the taxidermy guy can just take a mold of it and I get to bring the meat home so we can have a big walleye party,” Nicholson said.
All of us at MeatEater appreciate Nicholson keeping his priorities in line. Taxidermy is cool, but a fish fry is better. While some walleye anglers choose to release large, mature fish, Nicholson's harvest was legal.
“I still can’t believe I caught that big fish," Nicholson said. “But I don’t think it’s a fluke. I think there are definitely more fish of that caliber in that river.”