NY: Monster muskies spark talk of new world record

Clayton, N.Y. – A pair of huge muskies caught last month in the St. Lawrence River have once again fueled talk that a world record fish is swimming in that popular water.

Daniel Polniak, Jr., of Ogdensburg (St. Lawrence County) caught and released a 60-inch muskie that weighed an estimated 60-65 pounds while fishing with Capt. Rich Clarke of Sign Man Charters.

And on the Canadian side of the border, the Brockville (Ontario) Recorder and Times reported that a 54-inch fish taken by Jason Phillips and Sandra Ellis of Brockville weighed an estimated 70 pounds.

It's unlikely that the 54-incher would top Art Lawton's state record catch of 1957, a 69-pound, 15-ounce fish. The fish taken by Phillips and Ellis was weighed on a hand scale before its release and is almost assuredly not as heavy as Polniak's 60-incher.

Still, the big catches have ignited speculation that Lawton's state record muskellunge could eventually be topped by another St. Lawrence River leviathan.

Clarke was guiding Polniak and his friend, Jeordi McEwen. on Nov. 27 when the monster muskie hit.

The angling duo was fishing muskie for the first time and the conditions were bad – rain and a south-southwest wind that was nearly 20 miles per hour. But sometimes that's not a bad thing.

Clarke, who operates Sign Man Charters with his wife, Georgeen, is no stranger to terrible fall weather conditions. He's been guiding on the St. Lawrence for 31 years. He's also no stranger to big muskies. In 2009, he caught and released the largest muskie boated in the state that year, a 58¾-inch fish. Last year, he caught a legitimate 59-incher. That magical 60-inch fish continued to elude him – until last month.

"I had it in my mind that when I caught a 60-inch muskie I would have it all documented and put it on a certified scale to prove the actual size of the fish," said Clarke, a BOCES visual communications teacher in Watertown.

As they trolled the river in Clarke's 28-foot SeaBird, they tried to stay on the backside of some of the islands to stay out of the wind. As they approached the Forty Acres Shoal area, he was working a hand-painted Believer lure – a large body bait – 12 to 15 feet below the surface over 50 feet of water. The boat was motoring along around 3.5 mph when the fish hit, immediately screaming out 45-pound Power Pro line. The seven-foot, medium action Ugly Stick was being put to the test.

"You have to do everything right when you get one of these big boys on," Clarke said. "This thing came out of the water three times and it took Dan more than 20 minutes to bring in. When it came to the side of the boat, I could see it was a nice fish but I didn't realize how nice until we brought it on board. I thought ‘this thing is a giant' – built bigger. I didn't realize how long it was."

The muskie stretched the tape a full 60 inches with a girth of 29½ inches. After a quick picture, Clarke had to make a quick decision.

"The fish was in such good shape – the color, the fins – and after a quick discussion with the customers, we decided to release it back into the river. This thing could be the next world record."

A conservative estimate of the fish's weight was 60 to 65 pounds, Clarke said.

Lawton's record catch of 1957 wasn't weighed on a certified scale and came under scrutiny from the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, which ultimately vacated the fish's world record status. That Wisconsin-based organization now recognizes the 1949 muskie caught by Louis Spray, a 69-pound, 11-ounce fish caught in the Chippewa Flowage in Wisconsin.

Spray's mark, however, has also been challenged by a group of Illinois anglers known as the World Record Muskie Alliance.

New York's DEC at one time talked of vacating Lawton's fish as the state record, citing a lack of concrete evidence as to its exact weight.

That hasn't happened, and one of the problems is a concern that muskie anglers seeking to weigh in big fish for potential record status would in the process kill a number of big fish.

"The guides on the St. Lawrence really don't want to kill these fish," DEC assistant director of fish, wildlife and marine resources Doug Stang said several years ago when talk surfaced of vacating Lawton's record."

Polniak said there was never any doubt that, when they saw the fish was still healthy after the battle, it would be released back into the river.

"If I didn't think it was going to live, it would be on my wall," he told the Syracuse Post-Standard. "But I live on the river and when you take a fish that big, you take a piece of the river. I didn't want to do that."

(NYON Editor Steve Piatt contributed to this report.)

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