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Reel Experts: Celebrating state fishing records

Fishing at Gunpowder Falls; photo by Yudong Song

It was nearly noon and bitterly cold on the second day of a new year when the state cell phone, affectionately called the bat phone, indicated an incoming call. One might ask who would be fishing on a day like this and the answer is simple: Maryland anglers! The Department of Natural Resources maintains a program to celebrate the state’s amazing fisheries resources by recognizing large, trophy-sized game fish species and keeping records based on weight.

To report a potential state record catch, please call 443-569-1381 or 410-260-8325 and complete the application process.


Lee Haile with record chain pickerel

A record day for record fish

On the other end of that midday January phone call was veteran angler Lee Haile of Towson, who traveled to the Eastern Shore with his son in pursuit of a trophy chain pickerel. Recalling the eight-pound fish’s impressive aquatic acrobatics, he had told his crew, “We need to go in—this could be a record.” Confirming their suspicion, they managed to catch the largest specimen ever recorded in Maryland history.

Later that same afternoon, a second call came from a charter boat captain in Ocean City. He was on his way back to the dock with a group of anglers from New York and what they believed to be a state record tautog.

At 28.8 pounds, this mighty fish not only broke the state record by more than five pounds; it also became an International Game Fish Association world record. For angler Kenneth Westerfeld, it was a lifetime achievement. “Ocean City is the best place for big tautog,” he said. “The water clarity is good and the offshore wrecks hold some really big fish. I’ve been fishing hard for over 20 years to catch a 20-pound tog.”


Divisional categories

The department has been keeping records of noteworthy fish as a way to celebrate the diverse resources in Maryland for decades, recognizing species from warmouth to blue marlin. The earliest goes back to May 19, 1965, when James Grant caught a chain pickerel weighing 6.8 pounds in the tidal Susquehanna River.

Kenneth Westerfeld with record Tautog

Maryland maintains separate divisions for record fish: Atlantic, Chesapeake and Non-tidal. These three categories are for anglers who catch their fish with recreational tackle often referred to as “rod and reel” or “hook and line.”

To raise awareness on the threats they pose, the department recently introduced a new Invasive Division for the three species of non-native fish considered detrimental to local ecosystems: blue catfish, flathead catfish and northern snakehead. Eligible methods extend to bow fishing for this category, and the fish must be killed to prevent their spread. Emory “Dutch” Baldwin III holds the current northern snakehead state record. He caught an 18.42-lb beast on the Potomac River on May 20, 2016.


Confirming a catch

When an angler catches a contender for a possible state record, he or she must contact the department’s Fishing and Boating Services unit. The angler must have the fish weighed on a certified scale, and the scale operator must sign the application form for the state record. A state biologist then obtains the required paperwork and inspects the fish for correct species identification. The fish is photographed, preferably by both angler and biologist. Once all information is collected and verified, the record becomes official with a plaque and press release for all to marvel.

Many state records reflect success stories for the tireless fisheries biologists that manage the resource. At times, we get to celebrate both the fish and the angler when circumstance just begs for a thrilling tale behind the catch. All fishermen love a good story, and sometimes the big one does not get away.


Already an avid angler at age nine, Emma Zajdel loves fishing with her dad, Ed, and best friend, Ashton. Last June, they set out from the Ocean City Inlet to fish offshore.

No angler likes to return to port skunked, but impending weather forced their return. On their way in, they thought they saw some bluefish chasing bait about 2 miles off Assateague Island and decided to, “At least catch a blue.”

Emma and crew decided to troll through the feeding fish, and something immediately struck the bait. Everyone on board knew something was not right; this bluefish was taking off like a submarine at full speed! Emma settled in for a tug of war while her dad skillfully maneuvered the boat to lessen the chance of losing the fish. As the battle wore on and the fish came closer, they started to think that this bluefish was actually a shark.

At that point, Emma figured they’d play out this fight until it could be released. The fish was finally pulled to the side of the boat when Ed realized this was not a shark, but the largest cobia he had ever seen! After a brief struggle to get the fish into the boat, everyone stared in disbelief.

On official certified scales, Emma’s cobia weighed 94.6 pounds and far surpassed the existing state record. Quite a feat for a 9-year-old girl who only weighed 65 pounds herself!


Recent history: an impressive two years!

Chain Pickerel, Nontidal—8 pounds—Lee Haile of Towson, Jan. 2, 2015, Eastern Shore

Cobia, Atlantic—94.6 pounds—Emma Zajdel of Ocean City, June 30, 2016, Little Gull Shoals

Snakehead, Invasive—18.42 pounds—Dutch Baldwin of Indian Head, May 20, 2016, Potomac River

Snakehead, Invasive—17.47 pounds—Todd Murphy of Marbury, Aug. 8, 2015, Mattawoman Creek

Tautog, Atlantic—28.8 pounds—Kenneth Westerfeld of College Point, NY, Jan. 2, 2015, Ocean City

White Perch, Atlantic—1.65 pounds—Ryan Timmons of Berlin, July 30, 2016, Ayers Creek

White Perch, Atlantic—1.2 pounds—Finn MacCabe of Berlin, Nov. 17, 2015, Ayers Creek

White Perch, Non­­tidal—1.74 pounds—James Stiars of Bel Air, Aug. 2, 2016, Loch Raven Reservoir

Winter Flounder, Atlantic—5.2 pounds—Kevin Twilley of Salisbury, June 23, 2015, Ocean City

Dutch Emory with record snakehead



Article by Keith Lockwood and Erik Zlokovitz—recreational fisheries biologist and public outreach coordinator. Appears in Vol. 20, No. 1 of the Maryland Natural Resource magazine, winter 2017