By Nick Simonson
Spring is the time of the year that many die-hard anglers have in the back of their mind as the opportunity to catch the biggest fish of the season and possibly their lives. Regardless of whether they’re on the tail end of the pike bite through the ice or the first run of slimers up a shallow creek, patrolling the vernal breaklines for huge walleyes along a feeder stream, or scanning the shallow bars for prime smallie spawning sites and the big shadowy females moving in, anglers of all stripes know this is the time of year to beat their personal best and have an outside chance at catching a state record.
While some have stood the test of time in the Peace Garden State – such as the state record bluegill of 2 pounds, 12 ounces caught in 1963 or the ridiculous 8 pound, 12 ounce sauger from 1971 – others have taken the top spot more recently, such as Neal Leier’s 15 pound, 13 ounce walleye from the Missouri River just two years ago. According to Greg Power, Fisheries Division Chief for the North Dakota Game & Fish Department (NDG&F), catching a record fish for any species is a possibility with more waters available to anglers and many at their height for producing large specimens.
“The northern pike, that record which dates back to , I believe that could go down,” Power postulated on the long-standing 37 pound, 8 ounce record coming into the spring, “right now we’re just riding a real high for big fish and in particular on the Missouri River system, both Oahe and Sakakawea and then also on Devils Lake,” he concluded, referencing a 34-pound pike caught last month on Lake Irvine which connects to Devils Lake.
Behind pike, Power suggests that top end crappies on a number of lakes may present a challenge to the current record shared by two 3 pound, 4 ounce specks caught 15 years apart on Lake Oahe in 1998 and Jamestown Reservoir in 2013. Those two bodies still lead the way, with Lake Audubon also presenting an outside opportunity at record-sized slabs.
All Eyes on Walleyes
With the new record walleye being caught from the Missouri River in 2018, and a number of fish weighing more than 13 pounds landed recently along the system, serious record seekers are patrolling the river for its goldmine of large fish. In addition to the river and its walleye-rich reservoirs of Lake Sakakawea and Lake Oahe, there are some sleepers on the map that have the capability of producing big ‘eyes in the Roughrider State. Mid-sized reservoirs have produced their share of 12 pound fish, and it is possible something bigger lurks below in the depths of waters like Audubon, Heart Butte Reservoir, Lake Darling and Lake Ashtabula serving as sleeper locations to challenge the recent resetting in the state’s record book.
“It’s generally going to be a big water where you have a wide variety of prey items out there and the temperature units are more conducive to living longer,” Power stresses as prime factors to produce record-sized walleyes.
Nothing Small About It
With the expansion of smallmouth bass fisheries throughout the state over the last three decades and stocking programs in the 1980s and 90s now leading to self-sustaining populations, a number of waters have the ability to produce a spring bronzeback that could break the 6 pound, 13 ounce record caught in 2007. With 60 to 70 lakes sporting strong populations where fish can be caught with regularity, those bigger waters with plenty of structure rank near the top including Audubon, Sakakawea and the canal lakes on the New Johns system, along with Lake Darling, Oahe and Heart Butte as secondary options for a record smashing smallmouth.
“We have maybe ten lakes that you can get a state record smallie in and the time again is now because we know that we’re riding a high on that species,” Power suggested, “every lake is going to be a little bit different, what makes that top end potential is going to vary a lot; with smallmouth bass your key is going to be crayfish populations,” he added.
With ten of the state’s 30 recognized angling records more than 25 years old, there are a number that seem like they may stand forever, but as Power suggested the possibility of breaking any one of them exists on many lakes where the conditions are right. In those specialty waters like the Garrison Tailrace, home to all of North Dakota’s records for coldwater fish such as salmon and trout, conditions and forage remain perfect to produce another record brown trout, rainbow trout or chinook salmon in any given season.
Those fish that are not as easily challenged can be found on both ends of the species spectrum. While the bluegill record has stood for almost sixty years, Power thinks that the conditions aligned just right to make the current channel catfish record harder to beat, even with trophy caliber fish frequently available in the northern stretches of the Red River.
“To get a 42 pound [channel catfish] out of Moon Lake was incredible, we guessed that particular fish ate a whole lot of trout because we were at that time very active in stocking trout in Moon Lake,” Power recalled, “it was a very fat fish and nine pounds larger than the previous state record; man, I don’t know if even in the Red River we’re going to get a fish over 42 pounds in the years to come,” he concluded.
For more information on the state record fish of North Dakota, and how to submit a big spring catch which might challenge for the top spot, visit: gf.nd.gov/fishing/record-fish.
Featured Photo: Not Even Close. Spring fishing can produce personal bests, like this well-worn, postpawn walleye of 29.5 inches caught by the author on the Sheyenne River (back in his blonde hair days). Now is also the time when opportunities abound on the many waters of ND to challenge pike, crappie, smallmouth and walleye state records with a big fish of your own. Simonson Photo.