North Dakota’s Record Walleye Is Iffy, To Say The Least

NOTE: This column originally ran in 2003. I’m re-running it because I was reminded of it by a column by outdoors writer Dennis Anderson in the Minneapolis Star Tribune today about Minnesota’s state record northern pike: Record northern pike catch still a fish story for the ages

The similarities between how Minnesota arrived at its state record northern pike and North Dakota arrived at its state record walleye are interesting. Enjoy.

Originally printed in The Forum on Aug. 24, 2003

The tale of North Dakota’s state-record walleye is something that could not happen today.

It is something straight out of 1959, which happens to be the year Blair Chapman Sr. of Minnewaukan was credited with catching a 15-pound, 12-ounce whopper in Wood Lake. It is a story from a different era, when walleyes weren’t held in such high esteem in North Dakota and state records didn’t garner statewide media coverage.

It is a story not easy to piece together. Most of the principals involved are dead, the record walleye was not mounted and no photographs of the big fish exist. Few people, even those at the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, know much about the fish or the story behind it.

One of the rare accounts of the record — contained in a book titled “Walleye Fishing in the Dakotas,” by Bill Mitzel of Bismarck — says Chapman did not catch the walleye at all. Instead, according to Chapman’s son Blair Chapman Jr., the family found the fish floating dead during a July 4 holiday outing to Wood Lake.

According to the book, Chapman Sr., Chapman Jr. and another son, Carol, were trolling on the small lake in Benson County when Chapman Sr. spotted the huge walleye and scooped it out of the water.

“It had a big gash along side its head and it was white,” Chapman Jr. says in the book. “I think it had been dead for at least a day.”

The trio brought the fish to shore to show a family gathering, the book says, and a Game and Fish warden happened to be nearby. The warden weighed it and later returned the fish to the Chapmans, who chopped it up for fox bait.

The warden apparently turned in the information to department headquarters as a state record. Chapman Sr. has been listed as the angler who caught the largest walleye in North Dakota ever since, the longest-standing record on the books.

Dale Henegar was the Game and Fish Department’s fisheries chief in 1959.

“It was authenticated by the warden and that was good enough at the time,” Henegar said in Mitzel’s book. “It was just the way things were done. It was just an accepted practice.”

Current fisheries chief Terry Steinwand said Chapman’s record was a sign of the times. He said there wasn’t an emphasis on record fish at that time and a huge walleye wasn’t seen as a big deal.

“Walleyes were not the status fish at that time. Northern pike were the fish everybody was after,” Steinwand said.

Steinwand said there were rumors that the fish came from Canada, not Wood Lake, and that Chapman Sr. stuffed lead weights into the fish’s mouth to make it weigh more.

But in the book, Chapman Jr. said there was never intent to deceive the game warden and the family did not intend to submit the walleye for a record.

“I’ve had so many people come up to me and say it didn’t come out of that lake,” Chapman Jr. said in the book. “But sure it did. The game warden knew the fish wasn’t fresh the day he weighed it. He said he just wanted to weigh it.”

Chapman Sr., Henegar and the game warden are deceased. Chapman Jr. could not be reached for comment for this story.

If those circumstances happened today, Chapman’s catch wouldn’t be counted as a record. A potential record catch must be taken by legal means.

“Picking up a dead fish wouldn’t qualify,” Steinwand said.

A potential record fish’s weight and species must be verified by a Game and Fish Department staff member, most likely a fisheries biologist.

Three record fish have been caught this year in North Dakota. Bill Wald of Washburn caught a 46-pound muskellunge in New Johns Lake, Chris Vernon of Bismarck caught a 10-pound, 1-ounce cutthroat trout from Garrison Tailrace and Austin Loberg of Thompson caught a 31-pound carp from the Sheyenne River.

But Chapman’s walleye is still stands. Despite the odd circumstances of the catch, Steinwand said there has not been a push to have it removed from the record book.

That move would not be unprecedented. The National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame disallowed the long-accepted world record walleye of 25 pounds caught in Tennessee when biologists used photographs of the fish to determine that it could not have weighed that much.

“It really hasn’t been an issue,” Steinwand said of Chapman’s record.

Steinwand and Mitzel both said they believe the record will fall soon, anyway.

“I think it’s going to happen soon,” said Mitzel, publisher of the outdoors magazine Dakota Country. “Actually, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened yet. It’s way, way overdue.”

Mitzel said there have been walleyes weighing more than 14 pounds caught in recent years, but they were females caught after they had spawned. The largest walleyes caught are almost always females still filled with eggs. A female walleye can carry up to two quarts of eggs, with each quart about two pounds.

“If those 14-pounders had been caught before they dropped their eggs, they would have been records,” Mitzel said.

Mitzel listed Devils Lake, Lake Sakakawea, Lake Tschida and the Red River as the most likely water bodies to yield the next state record walleye.

Steinwand said it is likely there are walleyes larger than Chapman’s swimming somewhere in the state, but not many. He said a 15-pound walleye is probably between 13 and 15 years old.

“A walleye’s maximum life expectancy is 20 years, so when you start getting up in that 15-year-old range, there are very, very few of those individuals left,” Steinwand said.

Steinwand said increased fishing pressure on walleyes also results in fewer large fish because anglers keep fish before they have a chance to grow large. Steinwand said 90 percent of all anglers in North Dakota target walleyes.