State record walleye
Bozeman angler pulls out a giant from Fort Peck
Reprinted with permission from the Billings Gazette. Originally published Jan. 27, 2000
By MARK HENCKEL
Billings Gazette Outdoor Editor
Dan Spence walked calmly over to the tip-up, its flag flying over the ice of Fort Peck Reservoir. Somewhere beneath the ice, a fish had taken his five-inch live minnow. Biting on that minnow had tripped the flag, and set the tip-up's spool free, so the fish could pull out line.
Spence, 44, of Bozeman, was walking - rather than running - to give the fish some time to eat its meal - just a little time before he reached down, took the line in hand, then tugged to set the hook.
"As soon as I felt it, I knew it was big," Spence said. "You can tell when they're big. It didn't fight hard, but it definitely had a pull to it." The ensuing fight took about five minutes.
"It made one good run. The rest of the time, it was just shaking," he said. "I was fighting it in a froze-up eight-inch hole. I didn't think it was going to fit through."
But the Spider Wire line didn't break. The single No. 6 hook held. "It was hooked pretty good," Spence said. "It did fit through."
The time was about 1 p.m. last Friday. The place was somewhere near Crooked Creek Recreation Area, on the far west end of Fort Peck Reservoir. The end result would turn out to be a new Montana state record walleye - 16 pounds, 10 ounces.
Fishing with a group of friends and workers from Dagostino Concrete, of Belgrade, Spence had been on the ice since Thursday.
"When I walked back to camp, I had a pretty good idea it would be the state record. They had a scale there," Spence said. But he wouldn't know for sure for about 24 more hours.
The big fish was added to the live well that the group had built in the ice.
"We caught quite a few walleyes," he said. "We had four-wheelers and ran all over the place. There was about 14 inches of ice.
"I caught another walleye that was 12 pounds, three ounces, on Thursday," Spence added. "Tom Dagostino caught a 12-pounder on Saturday. We only caught two northern pike, a five-pounder and a 15-pounder."
It wasn't until Saturday afternoon that Spence decided to take the time to have the big walleye officially weighed. The closest certified scale was in Winnett, more than 50 miles away on gravel roads.
On the drive out of Crooked Creek, he ran into Montana state game warden Bob Barber, of Lewistown.
"I met them as I was going to the lake to check fishermen," Barber said. "I asked them if they had caught anything. They said, 'We just caught the state record.' When I saw it, I said, 'That is a dandy.'"
Barber told them about the procedure they'd need to follow if it was, indeed, a state record. He said he'd be interested in seeing the results of the official weighing when they got back on the ice.
That official weight was recorded at Olson's Grocery in Winnett. In front of witnesses, it was 16-10, nearly a half-pound over the previous state record.
"When they got back and told me what the weight was, I took a picture of it," Barber said. "I verified the species. I measured it. I gave them a note verifying the information and told them to take the note to the Bozeman FWP headquarters when they got home and they'd do the rest of the paperwork."
For a walleye that heavy, the fish wasn't very long - just 31.5 inches. Its official girth, however, was considerable - 21.25 inches - according to Bruce Rich, regional fisheries manager at Bozeman, who completed the paperwork Monday. The identity of the fish was unmistakable - the white markings on the tail, the black blotch on the dorsal fin.
"I confirmed its length and girth. It's a walleye, which concurred with the findings of Bob Barber, the game warden," Rich wrote in his official report. That identification was important because walleye, sauger and a hybrid of those two species - saugeye - all swim in Fort Peck.
In fact, the world record saugeye, at 15.66 pounds caught by Myron Kibler of Sand Springs in 1995, came out of Fort Peck. And so did a sauger that weighed 8.805 pounds, caught by Gene Moore in 1994, which is tied for the world record.
Spence's new state record walleye breaks the old standard of 16.38 pounds, caught by Steven McMorris from Cooney Reservoir in the summer of 1996.
It's interesting to note that Spence's giant walleye came on his first ice fishing trip to Fort Peck, though he also has fished walleyes at Nelson Reservoir and Canyon Ferry Reservoir in the past.
With his catch safely at the taxidermist by Tuesday, he was asked what his next goal might be. "I'm going to try to catch a bigger one," he said.
And where exactly was the spot, somewhere east of Crooked Creek, where he caught this fish and might be heading to try for his next, even bigger walleye?
Speaking like a true fisherman, Spence said, "I'm not going to exactly say where it was. After all, you've got to have some secrets."
Mark Henckel is the outdoor editor of The Billings Gazette. His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be contacted by phone at: (406) 657-1395, or by e-mail at: email@example.com