N.D. FISHING: Call it a 1-in-20 million walleye
Alecia Berg hadn't wet a line this year before Saturday night, when she used her iPhone to buy a North Dakota fishing license on the way to the Garrison Dam Tailrace on the Missouri River.
"I've been on the boat quite a few times but not fishing because we have an 8-month-old daughter," said Berg, a Minot Realtor.
A few hours later, her first fish of the evening would turn out to be the largest walleye caught in North Dakota in more than 50 years.
Berg was fishing with her husband, Jeremy, and friends Jason Foss and Amy Isakson of Minot when she hooked the fish late Saturday night. They were trolling crankbaits in about 10 feet of water and had been on the river about an hour without a bite when the evening took a turn for the better.
Make that a big turn for the better.
"It was pretty exciting," she said Thursday. "I knew it was a big fish. We just didn't know how big it was. My husband had to give me tips on getting it in."
The story could have been a tale about "The Big One That Got Away" when Foss missed the fish on his first try with the landing net, and it peeled line on another run.
"We saw it come up, and we were like, 'holy cow, it's a big walleye!'" Jeremy Berg said. "He netted it on the second try, and once he set it on the floor of his boat, that's when we all started freaking out."
The big walleye, which Jeremy estimates took five minutes to land, measured 32 inches and had a 22-inch girth. They didn't have a scale so they put the fish in the live well and kept fishing until about 1 a.m.
Back at the landing, he tracked down a scale from some other anglers.
"I said, 'My wife just caught the biggest walleye I've ever seen in my life,'" he said. "They looked at me like maybe it was 7 or 8 pounds or something. On the way to our boat, I said 'Trust me -- it will be worth the walk.'
"We pulled it out of the live well, and their faces were like, holy cow!"
The numbers on the scale kept bouncing, he said, but the fish weighed at least 14½ pounds.
Not for eating
Not being "much of a fisherwoman," Alecia Berg said she was thinking they'd have some good eating with the big walleye, but her husband said that wasn't an option.
They're having it mounted at Frenchy's Taxidermy in Minot.
Monday, Jeremy took the walleye to an official weigh station, where it weighed 15 pounds, 4 ounces on a certified scale -- just shy of the 15-pound, 12-ounce walleye from Wood Lake in Benson County that is recognized as North Dakota's state record.
By that time, Alecia's walleye had been frozen more than 24 hours and likely would have weighed even more on the water.
Jeremy compares the catch to someone shooting a "40-point buck with 2-foot drop tines."
"It was pretty fun and very cool because she never fishes," he said. "She'd ride along in the boat and play with the kids and read a book. I said, 'You don't realize what you just caught here.' She was just smiling ear to ear."
While Jeremy admits he'd like to catch a walleye that size, he might be able to claim partial credit for giving Alecia his lucky lure, a white Storm ThunderStick, to use shortly before she caught the fish.
The lure has been a proven fish-catcher on Canadian fishing trips with Foss, he said.
"I always yell, 'ThunderStick, Foss!' every time I catch a fish," Jeremy said. "So that night down at the tailrace, I said, 'Hey Foss, I'm going to put the ThunderStick on Alecia's line so you better watch out.
"It's going to get mounted with the fish."
Greg Power, fisheries chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, said fishing below the tailrace has been "phenomenal" since the ramp on the river reopened a couple of weeks ago after several weeks of flooding.
Smelt and ciscoes have been washing through the dam in the high water, he said, and the big walleye likely had been gorging itself.
Power said Game and Fish has been tracking big walleyes and other species since 1986. In that time, about 1,500 walleyes weighing 10 pounds or more were registered in the state's Whopper Club program, and the biggest weighed less than 14½ pounds.
A 15-plus-pound walleye, in other words, is something special.
"I did some guesstimating, and about 20 million walleyes have been harvested since the state record in 1959," Power said. "It's the biggest fish in the last 20 million."
Alecia admits those odds will be difficult to top, but that's not going to keep her from trying.
"It's a pretty good note to end on, but I'm sure I won't be done," she said. "I'll have to get back out. Once you get a fish like that, it's kind of exciting to keep going."
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