By Nick Simonson
For Jared Shypkoski of Dickinson, his spring walleye adventures were already off to a great start after catching a personal best 31-inch fish on a trip to the Columbia River two weeks ago. However, he broke his personal walleye record and potentially that of North Dakota – pending review by the state’s Game & Fish Department (NDG&F) – on Sat. Mar. 13 on the Missouri River just above Lake Oahe, with a certified 16.39-pound walleye caught while trolling a Smithwick Perfect 10 stickbait in the shallows of the flow. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the feat, was that he predicted it just before making the move to the area where the fish was caught in the day’s waning sunlight.
“We packed up and picked up the kids and I told my buddy Tyler that was with, ‘Let’s go catch a state record,’ Shypkoski states with a laugh on his decision to move from his daytime fishing spot where they had been catching walleyes from 17-to-22 inches, “we were just joking around as we’re always talking about it down there, but if we were going to catch it we were going to catch it down there,” he continues, suggesting he knew of the opportunity for such a lunker in the area.
With four anglers in his boat, Shypkoski deployed a spread of eight rods using planer boards to position the group’s baits out over the area. The sonar showed a depth of six feet under the boat, meaning the outside rods which he was manning were likely pulling their crankbaits through shallows as skinny as two to three feet deep. Not five minutes into the evening troll, the farthest rod popped and the planer board dipped under the water, signaling that a fish was on. From the outset of the battle, Shypkoski knew that he had a significant fish on his hands.
“I just started reeling up and I couldn’t even reel on it really,” Shypkoski relates of feeling the weight on the far end of the line, “it just kept head-shaking and pulling drag, and I just held on to it and just held it there until it stopped and then I slowly started reeling it in until I got the planer board up and got it unhooked and then it kind of surfaced and I could tell it was pretty big, but I didn’t know how big it was until we netted it,” he recalls.
Planning on just a length and girth measurement before weighing and turning the huge walleye loose, Shypkoski realized the record potential when the hand-held scale in his boat registered 16.42 pounds on the digital readout. Following the catch, Shypkoski planned on making one more pass through the area, but after a phone call from a buddy urging him to get the fish officially weighed, the group packed up and headed to the launch. From there, a stop at Cash Wise foods off the Bismarck Expressway and use of the grocery store’s official scale provided a certified weight of 16.39 pounds. That currently is the weight being verified by the NDG&F as Shypkoski completes the paperwork to submit the record setting fish for the agency’s staff to review. If and when it is approved, it would top the current North Dakota state record walleye of 15 pounds 13 ounces held by Neal Leier of Bismarck, which he caught near Fox Island on the Missouri River in May of 2018.
Big Fish Bonanza
Currently, the Missouri River has produced impressive walleyes season after season, and according to NDG&F South Central Fisheries District Supervisor Paul Bailey, the flow has the food for those large walleyes to get even heavier, with a smorgasbord of ciscoes abundant in the reaches where Shypkoski was fishing. While smaller walleyes are finding a shortage of young-of-the-year white bass and crappies along with limited emerald and spottail shiners, big fish have plenty to eat, and that’s part of the reason they’re packing on the record-breaking weight.
“Some of the larger forage items out there, like cisco for example, are out there in fairly good numbers right now, especially from that Eckroth Bottoms and Hazelton area and south in what we call the headwaters of Lake Oahe,” Bailey explains of the one-to-two-pound baitfish that are excellent food for large walleyes, but not so much for smaller ones, adding, “if you’re a 25-inch plus walleye, cisco are great; they’re calorically dense and you can almost think of them as like swimming Snickers bars – they’re a great forage for larger fish.”
In addition to the abundance of big-fish forage, Bailey points back to the very successful spawn of 2001 which produced a large year class of walleyes in Lake Oahe and the Missouri River. Following the catch of Leier’s fish in 2018, Bailey and other NDG&F biologists had a chance to inspect the fish’s otolith – or ear stone – taken from its head. The otolith develops annual rings, similar to those in a tree stump, which evidence each year of life. At the time, Bailey counted 17 such rings in the current state record, and suspects that walleye, along with the pending record fish caught by Shypkoski, both originated in the strong spawn of 2001, meaning the pending state record may be just a couple months short of being twenty years old. It’s notable, because the NDG&F has not stocked the Missouri River system or Lake Oahe with walleyes since 1981 and the fishery relies solely on the natural reproduction which has produced these impressive fish, along with hundreds of walleyes caught by anglers each year weighing over 10 pounds.
“About every four-to-eight years we have a really strong year class,” Bailey explains, referencing great reproduction in the Missouri River system in 1995, 2001 and 2009, “as these stronger year classes reach their maximum age and size potential, that’s when our trophy potential correspondingly peaks as well,” he concludes.
While the chance at a trophy walleye in the river system exists at any given time, now may be the best opportunity to catch the remaining specimens from that 2001 year class. With the oldest walleyes ever captured in NDG&F spring survey being 19 years of age by Bailey’s recollection, however, it may be the last chance until that walleye year class of 2009 produces more abundant trophy- and record-caliber walleyes in 2027 or 2028. That confluence of factors may cement Shypkoski’s pending record for a few extra seasons once it’s signed off on by the NDG&F and made official in the coming days.
Featured Photo: Jared Shypkoski of Dickinson poses with the 16.39-pound walleye he caught in the headwaters of Lake Oahe on the Missouri River system. Pending approval by the NDG&F, the fish will best the current state record by more than nine ounces. Photo Submitted.