This is no fish tale: There is a 17-pound walleye swimming in North Dakota’s Lake Sakakawea.
State fisheries biologists netted it last spring during the spawning run, weighed it, stripped it of its eggs and returned it to the massive reservoir on the Missouri River.
Given the size of Sakakawea, there’s likely many — relatively speaking — gigantic walleyes calling the lake home. The same biologists, as a matter of fact, netted a 13 1/2-pounder in Sakakawea.
“They are pigs,” said North Dakota Game and Fish Department director Terry Steinwand said. “Absolutely huge.”
Steinwand joined my 970 WDAY radio show Friday morning to chat about the state’s record walleye, an alleged 15-pound, 12-ounce fish caught in Wood Lake in 1959 by Blair Chapman Sr. The record has long been controversial because there are no photos of it and the fish wasn’t mounted. Many rumors swirl around the record walleye, Steinwand said, including that it was stuffed with split shot sinkers and that Chapman actually brought the trophy into the state from Canada.
Perhaps the most damning evidence that Chapman’s catch is bogus comes from a story shared by his son, Blair Chapman Jr. In a book written by well-known North Dakota outdoorsman Bill Mitzel, Chapman Jr. said his dad found the record fish floating dead in Wood Lake over the July 4 holiday.
“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 Departments 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.”
I invited Steinwand on my show to see if there was any chance the state might disqualify the Wood Lake fish and give a modern-day angler a chance to hold the state record.
In short, the answer was no.
“We can always open it up, but what’s the possibility of being able to say that is a fraudulent record?” Steinwand asked. “How do we show it’s not actually a state record?”
It’s a fair point. How could the game and fish department prove, after almost 60 years, that Chapman Sr.’s record shouldn’t stand? It would be every bit as difficult as proving the record is legitimate.
Instead, Steinwand stands by what he’s said for years: Someday, somebody will break the record. There have never been more opportunities to catch walleyes in North Dakota with some 400 lakes being managed as fisheries.
“I do know for a fact there are some greater than 15-pound walleyes out there,” Steinwand said. “They guys caught them in the nets during spawning season. Now, would they be that big after the dropped their eggs? No, but there are state record walleyes out there.”
Steinwand shared the photos included with this story, taken by fisheries crews somewhere in Lake Sakakawea.