NEWPORT NEWS, VA. --- A record-smashing Atlantic croaker caught a few weeks ago in the Chesapeake Bay was a healthy male only eight years old, making him middle-aged for his species.
"This boy grew fast. He's the Yao Ming of croakers," said Dr. Cynthia M. Jones, head of Old Dominion University's Fish Age and Growth Laboratory, which today scientifically determined the fish's age. "He is four times the weight of a normal fish of this age."
At 8-lbs. and 11-oz., the fish nicknamed "Big Boy" obliterated the state record for croaker -- the ubiquitous species known for the "croaking" sounds it makes to communicate. The previous croaker record was for a fish that weighed a smidgeon under 6-pounds.
Big Boy was caught by Norman T. Jenkins, 63, of Portsmouth, on Aug. 17. At the time, Mr. Jenkins was fishing in about 30 feet of water near New Point Light in Mathews County using a squid and minnow "sandwich" while fishing for flounder with Sam Brooks on his private boat Wulfkat IV.
Big Boy may also have set a world record. Mr. Jenkins has applied with the International Game Fish Association for the acceptance of his catch as the world all-tackle record for Atlantic croaker. The state record-setter had a length of 27 inches and a girth of 17 inches and was Mr. Jenkins' first catch that warranted a trophy citation from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
"This just shows how phenomenal the fishing is here in Virginia," said VMRC Commissioner Steve Bowman. "We're quite happy to award the state record for Big Boy to Mr. Jenkins and we hope he gets the world record for this remarkable catch."
The previous state record had been held by Jim Mitchem of Gwynn, Va., for a fish he caught on October 5, 1982. That croaker was 22 inches long and was caught at the Cell.
ODU scientists spent several hours on Monday partly dissecting Big Boy and removing the otoliths, internal ear bones that grow over time and form yearly rings. Those rings can be counted to determine a fish's age just as tree trunk rings can be used to determine the age of a tree. A thin sliver of one otolith from Big Boy was cut using a precision, diamond-tipped jeweler's saw. When viewed under a high-powered lab microscope, eight rings were clearly visible. This showed the fish was 8-years-old when caught. Great care was taken in determining the age of this particular croaker. A historical record must be kept because Big Boy is so abnormally large for his species. "We may never see another fish like this," said Joe Grist, a VMRC fisheries manager.
The average eight-year-old croaker in Virginia weighs less than two pounds. The oldest croaker ever caught in the state was aged 15. The biggest croaker isn't always the oldest, said Jones, who figures strong genetics and an abundant food supply in Big Boy's first two years of life allowed him to grow so large.
The fish aging lab is partially funded by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and has worked since 1998 to analyze fish to determine individual and species characteristics - when and where they breed, how the live, what impacts their lives and health, and the ages at which they die. That kind of information is the foundation of wise fisheries management, Jones noted. VMRC is the state regulatory agency that manages recreational and commercial fisheries in Virginia and is charged protecting and conserving the state's marine resources and tidal wetlands. A plastic mold of Big Boy was made and reproductions will be given to Mr. Jenkins, VMRC and to ODU's fish aging lab. Jones said the plastic rendition of Big Boy will be mounted in the lab's foyer.