Never mind that the angler weighed only 65 pounds and was 9 years old. She reeled in a nearly 95-pound cobia fish and set a Maryland record for the largest fish of that type caught in the state.
Emma Zajdel of Ocean City might also have broken a record for young anglers who catch big fish, according to wildlife experts.
The tale of how Emma entered the record books began June 30.
She and her fishing buddy, Ashton Clarke, had gone out with her father, Ed, and Ashton’s dad, Robert. It was the end of the day, and they were headed back to shore in her father’s boat.
They had some bait left, so they decided to try for more bluefin tuna.
Their boat was approaching Little Gull Shoals, about a mile and a half east of Assateague Island on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, when the two lines trolling in the water went tight. Clarke took the rod off the rail and passed it to Emma.
She placed the rod in her “fighting belt,” a device used for hauling in large fish. As soon as the rod was in place, the fish took off, and she set the hook.
“At first, we thought it was a shark, and the line was going out. I could hear the reel and the drag, and I thought I could go over the side,” she later told officials with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
She struggled with the fish for about 20 minutes as her father kept the boat in gear to keep the line tight. They got the fish into the boat, despite it going “ballistic” when they got it on board, and iced it down in a fish box.
The marina was closed when they got to the dock, so they kept the fish in Ed’s Chevrolet Silverado for the night. Word spread about the catch, and other anglers encouraged them to call state wildlife officials for a certified measurement.
“This is a big one,” said Joe Evans, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service. “They were very experienced and knew what they were doing.”
Emma, who is the youngest of three girls in her family, has been fishing since she was a toddler. Her first fishing rod had Mickey Mouse on it, her dad recalled.
Emma’s dad said he tries to raise his kids to be humble, but this fishing trip was different.
“You don’t want to think years down the road, ‘Gosh we should have weighed it,’ ” he said.
Officials with the state’s wildlife service weighed it the next day at Sunset Marina in Ocean City, and a state biologist inspected the fish, confirming its size.
It measured 66.5 inches and weighed 94.6 pounds. Compare that with Emma, who stands at 52 inches and weighs about 30 pounds less than the fish.
Emma’s reaction, according to Evans: “She was unfazed by the whole thing.”
Emma broke a record set two years ago when a Potomac, Md., man caught a 79-pound cobia in waters near Ocean City. Maryland wildlife officials said Emma also probably set a new bar for the International Game Fish Association’s Small Fry World Record for “a fish caught by an angler under the age of 10.”
The international game fishing group can take up to a year to determine whether a record has been set.
Emma’s dad said she goes fishing weekly. Even when catching more typical smaller fish, “it is the same fun experience,” he said.
Emma’s newfound stardom seemed to sink after state wildlife officials issued a news release Monday announcing her big catch and several media outlets contacted her to seek an interview.
What did she think? “It’s cool,” she said Monday evening from aboard the boat with her dad.
She said she was a “bit nervous, excited and mostly surprised” when she hauled in the big fish.
Wildlife officials in Maryland said there are no restrictions on catching and keeping cobia in the state’s waters. Cobia typically are found along the Atlantic coastline in the summer and average about 23 pounds.
The world record is 135 pounds, caught in 1985 in Australia. And in Virginia, a record cobia caught in 2006 weighed 109 pounds.
Emma kept her fish and ate it. Her dad helped to feed 40 friends and relatives for an annual Fourth of July party.
Emma told wildlife experts, “It tasted very good.”