It’s the kind of fish that’ll swim in your head for a while. That’s true even if you didn’t catch it, touch it or even see it close up.
It’s true even if you only saw it on Facebook, which is where I noticed the picture of the 17-pound walleye a couple of months ago, as I was checking out the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks page.
The big walleye has been swimming in my head ever since. Jason Jungwirth understands why.
“It was a beautiful fish. We knew it was big. Our first thought was: 'Wow,'" says Jungwirth, a GF&P senior biologist in Fort Pierre. “There was a lot of excitement. We were anxious to get her on the measurement board, then take a quick weight and get her back in the water right away. We didn’t need her eggs.”
Don’t get him wrong. They needed walleye eggs, plenty of walleye eggs — more than 100 million walleye eggs, in a typical year.
This year GF&P spawning crews worked lakes in the northeast, the southeast and on the Missouri River. The river crew was motoring from net to net way up the Grand River arm of Lake Oahe back in early May. Crew members were stripping eggs from female walleyes caught in nets set in shallow water.
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Spawning operations on South Dakota’s biggest reservoir got started late because of chilly weather and lingering ice. When things got going, however, they got going in a big way. In this case, 17 pounds big.
It wasn't just one freak lunker, either. The crew also netted a 15-pounder, and a number of other big female walleyes weighing from 10 pounds to 13 pounds. But that 17-pounder? Oh, my.
“There were eight or 10 of us on the crew, and some of those guys have been around a lot longer than I have,” Jungwirth said. “And nobody had ever seen one that size.”
With good reason. The state record walleye weighed 16 pounds, 2 ounces. That fish has been swimming through recollection for almost 16 years. I wrote a story for the Journal in November of 2002 when Georgine Chytka hooked the new state record casting a Rapala in the tail waters of the Fort Randall Dam at Pickstown.
The state-record walleye was 31 1/2 inches long and 20 inches in girth. And it was busy that time of year packing on weight for winter. But it wasn’t full of eggs like the 17-pounder caught and released in May. That fish was 31 1/2 inches long, too. Crew members didn’t get its girth, hustling instead to release it and avoid stress that can kill.
Of course, even the natural act of spawning is hard on a big female walleye, especially one that’s getting along in years. That 17-pounder could be anywhere from 8 to 18 years old, GF&P fisheries biologist Mark Fincel says. Presuming it’s still alive.
Growth rates per year depend largely on water temperature and available food. And you can find trophy walleyes in many waters. But the new state record is likely in big water.
“It's a numbers game,” Fincel says. “The more fish, the higher chance of creating one of those really big fish.”
The fish crew proved one state-record walleye was out there. Fincel thinks there are more.
“I'd bet money there are 17-pounders out there, plural," he said. “Now, whether people catch them, that’s the question.”
I like that question, almost as much as I like the big fish that inspire it — the ones I just can’t get out of my head.