The crappie king of Pennsylvania was having, by his standards, a crappy day on the lake.
Joe Zajko, 41, had caught 12 of the popular panfish in about seven hours on the deep waters behind the Francis E. Walter Dam in Luzerne County one day last month. That would be enough for dinner back in Roxborough, but not enough to fulfill Zajko’s insatiable appetite for constant action and heavy coolers loaded with fish.
Often, the general contractor catches enough crappie to feed the whole block, not to mention plenty of bass, pickerel, perch, basically anything with fins. He loves them all.
“All I do is fish,” Zajko said that morning in his Chevy Suburban. “I don’t care about soccer, football, hockey. I don’t watch sports. I don’t go to bars. I don’t do the typical, normal things that guys do.”
This reporter was using the same bait and same fishing rods on the same boat, just feet from Zajko, and caught no crappie.
“You caught the biggest fish, though,” Zajko, always keeping tabs, said of the chain pickerel.
Zajko, who fishes from sunrise to sunset approximately 40 days a year, is a regular on the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s angler awards for biggest fish caught in the previous year. In 2017, he caught the biggest bluegill and chain pickerel in the state and made the top five for both crappie and brook trout.
“I’ve been on there over 20 times since 2008,” he said.
Zajko’s been “a couple ounces” away from breaking all-time state records. Crappie, a member of the sunfish family that rarely exceeds a pound or two, is his favorite meal when it’s seasoned, battered, and baked on a cookie sheet. The state record, 4 pounds, 3 ounces, was taken out of Tioga County in 2000.
“I keep fish I like to eat, and they’re delicious,” he said. “I think crappie is better than striper,” or striped bass.
Carl Richardson, manager of the angler awards program, said the state received more than 1,800 applicants for top fish last year. More than half the competitors were 45 and older, and 89 percent were male. Younger anglers, he noted, seem less interested in records.
“People are fishing for different reasons,” he said. “Everybody’s in it for something.”
The program, Richardson said, is not immune to the occasional squabble or questionable fish tale. A few people on online forums have questioned Zajko’s catches.
“It is run on an honor system,” Richardson said. “It’s rare, but sometimes there’s bad blood between people who used to be friends.”
Qualifying for a state record is much more intense, Richardson said. The last one broken was a 2-pound, 14-ounce yellow perch taken from Lake Erie in 2016. One person, Richardson said, tried to claim a state record with a fish raised in a commercial hatchery.
Some state records are so old, like the 54-pound, 3-ounce muskellunge caught in 1924, that anglers have questioned the original weight.
“We have several replicas of that fish, and some people have seen it and said, ‘No way that’s 54 pounds,'” Richardson said.
Zajko describes himself proudly as a “Joe Schmo” fisherman compared with professional anglers with sponsors. He mostly uses live minnows as bait rather than expensive lures. Instead of sponsors on his red boat, named “Not Cathy’s III” after his wife, Zajko has a metal Jesus medallion fastened to a seat and a side business dedicated to fishing gear called “God’z Rod’z & Reel’z.”
“I would like to break every single record there is,” he said. “I don’t do anything halfway. If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it all the way. I have goals. I’m not just here to put fish on my plate. I want a world record.”
Zajko, who grew up in Manayunk, is a scholar/fanatic of fishing. He drives to the dam in the winter, when the water is much lower, just so he can see what structures and trees he will fish over come summer when it’s much deeper. He said he’s caught approximately 1,100 fish at the dam. He has regular spots there — two dead trees he calls “the twins,” and an entire tree cemetery — where he knows crappie will be hiding. Often, his electronic fish finder confirms it with incessant beeping.
“Yeah, I hear you. I know you’re here,” Zajko said while trying to tie the boat off to a tree.
Still, if the fish are not biting within minutes, he gets antsy and starts the engine.
“I am not a waiter,” he said. “I’m going to wait maybe 20 minutes. If I don’t get anything, I move to the other spot.”
Fishing, Zajko said, is a “mind eraser” that allows him to unplug from the world for a while. On this day, though, his cellphone’s Knight Rider ringtone kept reminding him about the real world.
“I don’t know if she’s going to want a sliding window or not there,” he told an employee from his construction business.
While Zajko fished with two rods baited with two minnows in the water, he also cast a plastic lure. He’s skeptical of lures, the bait of choice for fancy fishermen who get paid to catch fish.
“I’m whacking it, jigging, rigging, jerking it. It doesn’t work,” he said after retrieving a cast.
As the sun began to sink low into the west, Zajko grew even more enthused about the fishing prospect on the dam, despite the hours he’d already spent there. He had caught approximately 15 fish by 6:30 p.m. This reporter caught about three.
Still, Zajko was ready for more.
“Let’s hit up this last spot because nothing’s hitting here,” he said. “I’d like to get 10 or 15 more fish before we leave.”