By Nick Simonson
For most anglers, a walleye of 30 inches or better is the fish of a lifetime. That magic number signals a true trophy and is often the threshold at which many would consider zipping back to the launch and off to the taxidermist to get the fish mounted. However, for Jamie Risovi, a taxidermist himself and avid big fish angler from New Rockford, N.D., who spends much of the spring and fall chasing the trophy northern pike of Devils Lake, his chance encounter with one such fish – twice in a season – provided an amazing bookending of his openwater adventures, and a testament to the value of catch and release.
An Unexpected Encounter
While fishing with his son, Lucas, on Devils Lake on April 30 for early season pike in the warming shallows, Risovi stopped to help his boy wrangle a decent northern which was on the line. As he went to grab the net to help land the fish, Risovi felt a strike on his offering as well. After setting the hook, he felt the weight of what he thought was a good northern, similar to the one that Lucas was bringing in.
“All of a sudden, I felt this was a pretty heavy fish; I just thought it was a decent pike and actually I was trying to horse it in so I could help him quick with his fish,” Risovi recalls of the late April hook-up, continuing, “I got it close to the boat and I saw this gold flash in the water and as the tail swooped by I saw the big white tip on the tail and I told Lucas ‘my gosh, I’ve got a big walleye!”
With Lucas having landed his pike, the duo boated the large walleye which measured 30 3/4 inches, a personal record for the elder Risovi. Despite the fish eclipsing that magic 30-inch mark, there was no doubt in his mind that he’d be releasing it. Pausing for a few seconds to take a photograph to remember the encounter, the anglers noted the trophy’s dorsal fin, which unlike the standard pointy curve found on most specimens, stood only about an inch tall at the front and tapered down to nearly nothing at its back.
“We didn’t get a girth circumference on it, but it was a big spring fish,” Risovi said of the walleye with damaged dorsal fin, “we wanted to weigh it, we wanted to take a circumference, but we were more concerned about the health of the fish and getting it back in the water,” he continued, stressing the personal importance of catch-and-release and taking care of his catches when they get to the boat.
It would turn out that turning back the fish with the tell-tale injury to its dorsal fin would pay off for Risovi five months later.
While on a solo trip on Oct. 3, just half a mile from where the springtime encounter with the weird-finned walleye occurred, Risovi was again casting a Phantom Softail into the cooling shallows of Devils Lake in search of trophy pike. Approaching a weedy point jutting out into the water, he fired off a long-distance cast and the big bait splashed down on the surface.
“The fish hit instantly, as soon as the lure hit the water it was on it, and I thought ‘finally, I hooked a decent pike today,” Risovi relates, “all of a sudden I look down and the fish rolled below me and I could see it was a walleye,” he continued.
Battling it to the side of the boat and bringing it toward the waiting net held in his other hand, the large walleye turned perfectly into the mesh of the oversized model designed for boating muskies, and Risovi caught sight of something amazing.
“I had no idea it was that fish until it rolled into the net and the back rolled in over the top and I saw that dorsal fin and thought: ‘you’ve got to be kidding me,” Risovi recollects of the moment he once again observed the giant walleye with the damaged dorsal fin, “I was just staring in the net and I was shocked…what the odds were, I couldn’t even imagine,” he added with a laugh.
With a quick video of the beast in the net at boatside which highlighted the scarred dorsal fin, Risovi unhooked the walleye, grabbed a quick length measurement (the fish had added an eighth of an inch since April), and snapped a few selfies before he again turned it loose into the chilly autumn waters of Devils Lake. With another flick of the tail, the walleye took off from his grasp and back into the depths to be caught by someone else, perhaps even by Risovi somewhere down the line. In the meantime, he hopes to meet his other big fish goal through the same catch-and-release efforts and encourages others to do so to help preserve the opportunities.
“I’m a big believer in catch-and-release; we do the same thing with pike all the time,” Risovi states, “I’ve got a goal of catching a 50-inch pike, which is a pipe dream, but we’ve let some big ones go hoping to get one of those too,” he concluded.
Featured Image : Jamie Risovi of New Rockford, N.D. with the 30-inch-plus walleye with the distinctive dorsal fin, which he caught twice in the openwater season of 2020. Photos Submitted.