Only Lake Erie and its 9,940 square miles can top the Francis E. Walter Dam in the number of big fish caught in the state last year.
The dam, which is owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, placed six entries on the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's Biggest Fish of 2012 list, and it's all because of one person.
Joseph Zajko is a 35-year-old general contractor who resides in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia. When he's not working, Zajko fishes the dam religiously to the tune of more than 30 times in the spring and summer. Each trip comprises a full day on the water, from dawn to dusk, and as a result Zajko knows every bit of structure in the reservoir.
That's what has allowed him to place six entries on the 2012 list, including the state's biggest smallmouth bass and chain pickerel, each topping the seven-pound mark. He also has more entries on the list last year – eight, than any other angler.
Zajko's father and uncle own a cabin in the area and he's been fishing the dam his entire life. Zajko always had success, but nothing like what he began experiencing once he was given a boat by a friend two years ago.
With the boat I could now hit all the places I could never reach before, Zajko said.
And that allowed him to gain a new perspective of the reservoir.
You have to understand the environment that the fish live in. There's more to it than simply casting out a line, Zajko said.
Last year Zajko landed the heaviest largemouth bass on the list – a 10 pound, 4.4 ounce behemoth. That was caught in Beltzville Lake, but he also laid claim to the second and fourth heaviest largemouths of 2012, and those were caught in the dam.
Aside from his first place smallmouth, Zajko pulled another 6.9 pounder out of the dam for the fourth heaviest last year. And when it comes to chain pickerel, Zajko reeled in a 7.1 pound fish to top the list and another weighing 5.3 pounds for fourth place – both from the dam.
The six fish in all from the dam, and they were all reeled in by Zajko.
He's not surprised that the dam has yielded so many big fish. It has a lot of things working in its favor, Zajko said, such as Bear Creek and the Lehigh River which pump the reservoir full of fresh water.
There is fresh, oxygenated water going into there year round, Zajko said. And they also open and close the dam for whitewater rafting, so the water in the reservoir is always clean and isn't stagnant.
The fish thrive in the highly-oxygenated water, Zajko said, and the constant fluctuations in the level of the reservoir provide yet another benefit.
When it's high, the dam is all flooded rock ledges and tree. There's tons of hiding place for small fish, which means the dam produces more fish every year, he said. The fluctuations also flush a ton of food into the lake when it rises.
Zajko fishes the lake with a 14-foot fiberglass Gamefisher boat equipped with an eight-horsepower gas motor and two electric trolling motors. He uses a fish finder to gauge the depth, and his memory to find the structure.
When it's flooded you can actually fish in the tops of 70-foot trees, Zajko said. Those tree tops are loaded with crappie and everything else.
His bait of choice is minnows, ranging from three-inch shiners for bass to small minnows on a circle hook for perch.
That's how he landed the state's heaviest smallmouth bass last year.
I was fishing with minnows for crappie and I was raising it up and down along the bottom and he nailed it, Zajko said.
Though he spends countless hours on the lake every year, Zajko doesn't always fish alone. His wife Catherine and daughters Julia and Alexandra often accompany him for a day out, as did former fishing partner Kenny Bot Winterbottom, who recently passed away.
Sharing his knowledge of the dam and its fishery is something Zajko enjoys, almost as much as catching a monster bass or hoards of crappie.
Fishing is a mind eraser, I don't think about anything else while I'm out there, he said. The dam is the perfect place because it has great access, clean water, beautiful surroundings and no jet skis or fast boats.
Waterways Conservation Officer Aaron Lupacchini, whose district includes the dam, said he isn't surprised that the reservoir yielded so many entries on the big fish list. The sheer size and depth of the lake allow young fish to survive and adult fish to grow large and old, he said.
Not only is it deep and big, but there is good contour to the lake, he said. When the reservoir is down you can see the flooded timber and rock ledges. It's not just a bowl without structure.
And that's what keeps Zajko coming back 30-plus times every year.
You can't beat the habitat and water quality, he said. And the fluctuations in the water level help in so many aspects. It exposes food sources, provides new cover, keeps the water fresh and congregates fish in the spring which I believe helps with spawning.
It's the perfect place.
Several local waterways produced some of the biggest fish in 2012, according to the PFBC. To make the list, the successful angler must submit an application to the agency's Angler Award Program which requires verification of weight and length.
(Angler, hometown, waterway, weight of fish and category rank)
Joseph Zajko, Philadelphia – Francis Walter Dam, 8 lbs. 4.9 oz, second place
Joseph Zajko – Francis Walter Dam, 7 lbs. 14.6 oz, fourth place
Mike Delp, Benton – Susquehanna River, 12 oz., second place
Joseph Zajko – Francis Walter Dam, 7 lbs. 1.25 oz, first place
Jospeh Zajko – Francis Walter Dam, 6 lbs. 9 oz., fourth place
Striped bass – lake
Mark Fortese, Scranton – Lake Wallenpaupack, 21 lbs. 0.5 oz., first place
Alivia Mosley, Wilkes-Barre – Frances Slocum State Park, 1 lb. 3 oz., fourth place
Joseph Zajko – Francis Walter Dam, 7 lbs. 1 oz., first place
Joseph Zajko – Francis Walter Dam, 5 lbs. 3.5 oz., fourth place
Gerald Lebeduik, Bethlehem – Lehigh River, 9 lbs. 1 oz., second place