Gene Chague | Berkshire Woods and Waters: The secrecy and controversy around the world-record pickerel caught in the Berkshires

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Sixty-five years ago, a 9-pound, 5-ounce chain pickerel was hoisted out of a local lake by Mrs. James E. Martin of Stockbridge. The pickerel was 29 inches long with a girth of 17 inches. In his Feb. 5, 1954 The Berkshire Eagle column "Our Berkshires," outdoor sports columnist Ted Giddings wrote that Mrs. Martin said she took it out of Pontoosuc Lake. It topped by five ounces the previous world-record chain pickerel which was caught on rod and reel out of Green Pond in New Jersey by Russell Kimball.In Giddings' Feb. 12, 1954 column, he reported that Jim Mullen, state Department of Fisheries and Wildlife assistant aquatic biologist, estimated the fish was 9 years old. The age was determined based upon examination of the scale samples.

Word spread quickly about that fish and later on after it was mounted, the Martins showed it off on a local TV sports program. I believe it was on Sedge Sedgewick's "Sportsmen's Den" on TV station WMGT.

The controversy at the time was whether or not "Field & Stream Magazine" would recognize it in its annual fishing contest, which paid an $8,000 prize. One of its rules was that "fish must be caught on rod and reel and line and may be played by only one person."

According to Giddings, Mrs. Martin's catch was made on a reel and line attached to a tip-up. He made a case that a tip-up isn't a rod, but it served the same purpose. But later on, Mike Ball, fishing contest editor for Field & Stream, determined that the fish didn't qualify as a Rod & Reel record, but more info was being sought to "establish it as caught by any method."

In Giddings' column of April 23 of that year, he reported that Mike Ball did notify Mrs. Martin that the pickerel "will be listed on the world record fish chart when it is reprinted."

That controversy became moot after a while for the world record was broken in 1961 when Baxley McQuaig, Jr caught a 9-pound, 6-ounce pickerel in Georgia

Still, Mrs. Martin's chain pickerel remains to this day the Massachusetts state record.

There was another controversy swirling around that fish. Based upon information provided to Giddings by the Martins in February 1954, that fish was taken out of Pontoosuc Lake. It stayed that way for years, for when Ted commented on that fish in a 1957 column, it was still maintained that the fish came out of Pontoosuc Lake.

However, some people swore that it came out of Laurel Lake, while others said it came out of Stockbridge Bowl and yet another person supposedly saw the Martins ice fishing on Echo Lake that day (Echo Lake is a water supply for the town of Stockbridge where fishing is prohibited). Somewhere along the line, the state DFW determined that it came out of Laurel Lake and has it listed as such to this day.

This past holiday season my wife Jan and I visited my 99-year-old first cousin, Joe Gaherty, and his wife, Enis, who reside at Kindred Healthcare on Route 20 in Lee. Joe was a renowned baseball pitching ace who pitched for several town or club teams before and after WW2. During the war he was one of two baseball pitchers for the 106th Infantry Division. The other pitcher, who had pitched for the Detroit Tigers, was killed on D-Day. Joe survived that day and went on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge. But I digress.

You may recall that the weather this past December was very cold and snowy and one subject of our conversation was ice fishing, and also the world-record pickerel.

I almost dropped when Joe mentioned that he had been ice fishing on Laurel Lake the day that the big fish was caught. Not only that, his tip-ups were set up not too far from the Martins'. He heard them whooping it up and could see a large fish flopping on the ice. Of course, he went over to see the fish. It was the above-mentioned pickerel! Joe remembers it well. Not only that, but also the general location, the time it was caught (early afternoon), the weather conditions, and more. He remembers Mrs. Martin as being one tough lady, able to stand out on the ice all day in frigid conditions.

Sometime later, Joe asked Jim Martin why they told Ted Giddings of The Berkshire Eagle that Mrs. Martin caught it out of Pontoosuc Lake. Jim's response was they didn't want lots of fishermen coming from all over to fish Laurel Lake and crowding out the local ice fishermen and catching all of the fish.

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So, there you have it. Anecdotal evidence to be sure, but I am now convinced that it came out of Laurel Lake. The Commonwealth had it right.

The mounted fish now hangs in the DFW Western District Headquarters in Dalton. Many thanks to DFW Supervisor Andrew Madden for allowing me to borrow it for one day so that Joe could see it again. He and Enis were absolutely thrilled. Just imagine, the last time he saw it was when it was flopping on the ice 65 years ago.

The Martins were quite colorful people. Jim was a blacksmith and his wife chewed tobacco. My late, oldest brother Joe and I often saw them ice fishing on Laurel Lake on Saturdays. On Sundays, Joe and I would go back to Laurel Lake not to ice fish, but to look for the hole that had the most tobacco juice stains around it. We figured that place must be good, perhaps where she took the big fish.

Out of courtesy and respect, Joe and I never tried to get to that area first and fish in their spot. Or was it because we didn't want to get into a scrap with the wiry blacksmith and his wife? She appeared to be just as tough as him.

They have long ago passed away. God bless them both. As long as that state record stands, they will never be forgotten.

So, will the Berkshire waters ever yield another world record pickerel? If so, where?

Dan Miraglia, a local bass tournament angler and ice fisherman thinks so, and feels that it will come out of Stockbridge Bowl. With the help of MassWildlife, Dan was able to get hold of Stockbridge Bowl pin fish records from 2008 through 2019. Since 2008 there have been 68 pin fish caught out of "the Bowl." The list included virtually all types of local freshwater gamefish, but the vast majority of them (27) were chain pickerel. Of the 27 pickerel, most of them weighed over 5 pounds, with one which was caught in January 2014 weighing six pounds, four ounces, was 27.5 inches long and had a girth of 13 inches.

To receive a bronze pin, the fish must exceed certain weights. For example, a chain pickerel which is caught and kept must exceed 4 pounds, 8 ounces. The largest pickerel for the year receives a gold pin and a plaque.

Dan may be right, perhaps a new record will come out of Stockbridge Bowl someday. That's assuming the lake is not ruined for fishing by excessively deep drawdowns and overuse of herbicides.

Take MassWildlife's bathymetry data on your next ice fishing trip

Did you know that you can use your mobile device to access a pond map and see the depth information in real time as you walk? Gone are the days of drilling a hole only to find you've hit a shallow, weedy area. By using the My Location feature on the map, you can target fish species based on depth. Jigging for perch? Find a depth where the fish are feeding and then follow that depth around the lake. Want to target bass or pickerel? Stick to flats or edges of drop-offs.

To learn more about and how to use it, click onto Mass.gov/pondmaps. If you do use it, MassWildlife asks that you give feedback about the map and its functionality at the bottom of its web page.

Gene Chague can be reached at berkwoodsandwaters@roadrunner.com or 413-637-1818.


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