Anglers have a habitat of telling tales, and that’s never truer than when they’re talking about the size of their fish. Often, the fish that was THAT BIG turns out to have been only that big.
Perhaps that is simply the nature of angling, or anglers. No harm, no foul. Big fish, though, can be a big deal. That is part of the reason many anglers can tick off — within an ounce or two, anyway — the state record size of their favorite fish. Yet it’s impossible to say how many people catch a state record fish only to realize later it may have been a record, or that they did something that disqualifies them.
Henry Drewes is the regional fisheries manager in Bemidji for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). He used to run the program that keeps track of the state’s record fish. He said he once had anglers bring in just the head of a flathead catfish they swore was larger than the 70-pound state record. He denied their request to certify it. More recently, a man caught what likely would have been a state record largemouth bass from a lake near Shakopee, but he’d already filleted it before realizing he might have had a record on his hands. Some anglers have questioned the veracity of some of the fish on the record list — the 3-pound, 4-ounce yellow perch caught in 1945, for example — but Drewes chalks that up to “our tendency to always question what came before us.”
Mike Kurre is the DNR’s mentoring program coordinator — and has Drewes’ old job. Kurre was a busier man recently, wading through an unusual number of record applications — he had six on his desk — thanks in part to a new catch-and-release state record category that applies to flathead catfish, lake sturgeon and muskies. “Our plan is to maybe add a new fish species to that every year or every other year,” Kurre said.
For now, though, the main record-keeping system is based on certified weight. With that in mind, here’s a look at two fish species for which records are unlikely and two for which records are likely. Also highlighted are a couple of species anglers should consider targeting if they’re looking to see their names in the record book.
Record unlikely Northern pike
Minnesota’s northern pike record — a 45-pound, 12-ounce monster caught in 1929 in Lake County’s Basswood Lake — is the state’s longest-standing, and will likely stand the test of time. “I can’t even imagine a fish like that,” said Joe Mix, the DNR’s assistant regional fisheries manager in Grand Rapids.
The number of large pike in Minnesota has declined precipitously since the 1940s or 1950s, Drewes said. These days, fishermen largely are satisfied if they can catch pike in the 3- to 5-pound range. Ten- to 15-pound fish are considered trophies in many lakes, and most anglers are all too familiar with pesky hammerhandle pike — those fish that generally are 22 inches or less in length and that overpopulate many lakes in the state.
“We see some 46-inchers on Upper Red Lake, and in the spring those are going to be 30-pound fish. But they’re rare animals,” Drewes said. “I won’t say a new state record isn’t out there somewhere, but it’s less than a one-in-a-million shot.”
For anglers who spend the spring catching 10- to 12-inch crappies from shallow water, the mere idea of hauling in a 5-pounder is almost laughable. Yet, that’s exactly what occurred in 1940 on the Vermillion River in Dakota County. The fish was 21 inches long.
“That’s a freak,” said Drewes, who said it’s possible the fish was poorly identified and actually was a hybrid between a black and white crappie.
Crappie populations in many lakes in the state are cyclical — meaning they rise and fall on relatively regular intervals — and they’re also susceptible to fishing pressure. Every spring as the water warms, crappies migrate to the shallows to feed and later spawn, making them easier targets for long periods of time. Anglers who time the spring bite right can cycle through dozens of crappies or more each day.
“They’re vulnerable, and when word gets out about a good crappie bite, people flock there,” Drewes said. “They have a high natural mortality rate and a high harvest rate — relatively few people practice catch-and-release for crappies.”
Record likely Muskie
It’s entirely possible a muskie larger than the current state record — a 54-pound, 56-inch beast caught in 1957 in Lake Winnibigoshish — has been caught and released in recent years. Several fish caught in Lake Mille Lacs in late fall likely hovered right around record size, but the anglers didn’t keep them to obtain a certified weight. And if there’s one place from where a record is likely to be caught, it’s Mille Lacs.
“We think the state record muskie is out there,” said Tom Jones, DNR regional fisheries treaty coordinator.
While egg-laden females would have been heavy in the spring, they’ve generally dropped their eggs by the time the season opens in early June. So the best time to catch a true monster is late in the fall, when the fish go on a feeding binge and pack on the pounds in advance of winter. One thing about muskie anglers, though, is most of them are loathe to kill a fish — even one of record size. That’s part of the reason the DNR in recent years has begun a new state record catch-and-release program.
The state’s smallmouth bass record — an 8-pound fish caught in Otter Tail County’s West Battle Lake — has stood for nearly 80 years, but it could be ripe for the taking. And if it is, there’s likely no better bet than Lake Mille Lacs.
“You think of the Arrowhead Region as smallmouth bass country, but the growth rates up here are unbelievably slow,” Mix said. “If I were a betting man that a new state record was going to happen, Mille Lacs wouldn’t be a bad place to put your money.”
Seth Feider, the Minnesota bass professional who won last year’s Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship on Mille Lacs, has caught a 7-pound, 2-ounce smallmouth on the lake. And in 1996, fishing personality Tony Capra caught and released a 7-pound, 14-ounce smallmouth. The DNR in its survey nets has sampled some big smallmouth bass from the lake, but nothing that would eclipse the state record, Jones said.
“We’ve heard about 23- and 24-inch smallmouths [which could be near record size], but we’ve never seen anything close to that,” he said. “I think there’s a very good chance there’s an 8-pounder out there.”
Target now Burbot
Burbot, also known as eelpout, aren’t in a lot of lakes in the state, and even when they’re present they’re not high on a lot of anglers’ lists. But a fisherman who wants to catch a state record could do worse than heading to Lake of the Woods in the winter. Since 1982, the lake on five occasions has produced a state record burbot — most recently last December, when a 19-pound, 10-ounce fish bested the previous record (2012) by 2 ounces.
Cousins of saltwater cod that perhaps are best known for being slimy and wrapping themselves around anglers’ arms, burbot are lightly exploited, Drewes said, in that anglers who catch them often slide them right back down the hole in the ice from which they emerged.
“A lot of people don’t fish for them, and if they catch one they throw it back,” he said. “Plus, they’re long-lived. Those are two characteristics that create that potential [for growing to record size].”
Rock bass are one of two species for which there’s a state-record tie (Chinook salmon is the other). The fish weighed 2 pounds — one came from Lake Osakis in 1998, one from Lake Winnibigoshish in 2004. Rock bass, with their red eyes and stout stature, garner little respect from fishermen, even though they fight hard and tend to be willing biters.
“I do a lot of bass fishing and I see 13- or 14-inch rock bass that are a pound and three-quarters fairly regularly,” Drewes said. “It isn’t much of a stretch to go from a pound and three-quarters to over that 2-pound mark. It’s probably just a species that people don’t really think about.”
Rock bass are abundant in lakes throughout the state, and anglers are as likely to bump into them when they’re fishing in shallow water for panfish as when they’re fishing in deep water for walleyes.
Joe Albert is a freelance writer from Bloomington. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.