BISMARCK-As Neal Leier remembers it, they had barely drifted away from the Fox Island Park boat ramp Friday morning for a day of walleye fishing on the Missouri River in Bismarck when his brother, Leon, noticed fish on the depth finder screen.
Leier, of Bismarck, quickly grabbed a pole and tossed out a jig tipped with a plastic tail.
"Something grabbed on to it, and I was reeling him in, and it was like a log," he said. "And then, finally, I got it close to the boat and (Leon) said, it's a big one."
That was no exaggeration. The walleye Leier caught Friday morning barely 100 yards from the boat ramp weighed 15 pounds, 13 ounces on a certified scale, breaking a state record that has stood since 1959 when Blair Chapman of Minnewaukan, N.D., caught a 15-pound, 12-ounce walleye from Wood Lake in Benson County.
Leier's record-setting walleye measured a whopping 32½ inches.
"It's a rush," he said Friday afternoon, back in his brother's boat after having the fish weighed on two certified scales and a trip to North Dakota Game and Fish Department headquarters in Bismarck to confirm the record-setting catch. "It was just amazing to see something that big come up alongside the boat."
The brothers and their uncle, Larry Leier, were prefishing for a tournament Leon is fishing this weekend on the Missouri River when Neal caught the fish. So, after landing the big walleye, they put it in the livewell and headed downriver.
Leon then called a buddy about the walleye and was told it might be a new state record.
They headed back to the boat ramp, where Neal put the fish in a 5-gallon bucket and took it to the Pony Express convenience store to have it weighed on a certified scale.
The scale confirmed the state record, Neal says, and he was on his way home to put the fish in the freezer before having it mounted when Pony Express called him back and said he needed to bring the fish to the Game and Fish office.
"We went to a butcher place and had it weighed there, and then after we got it weighed and they confirmed it was a new state record, we went back down to Fox Island, they took some pictures, then I went home and put it in the freezer.
"And now I'm back out fishing again. I'm trying to catch a bigger one," he added with a laugh.
Leier's brother Glenn, of Bismarck, caught a 15-pound, 1-ounce walleye measuring 32 inches April 27 on the Missouri River.
"He texted me and thanked me for stealing his thunder," Neal Leier said.
Matter of time
Greg Power, fisheries chief for Game and Fish in Bismarck, said he wasn't surprised to see the walleye record broken on the Missouri River, even though it took nearly 60 years. The river has kicked out some huge walleyes this spring right in the Bismarck-Mandan area, he said.
"There was one for sure that weighed (14 pounds, 12 ounces), but there have been a number of fish in that 10-plus pound, 12-plus pound range taken this spring," Power said. "
Last spring, Game and Fish crews sampled a 17-pound walleye on the Missouri north of Bismarck, and a crew working Lake Oahe also sampled a 17-pound fish, Power said. Earlier this week, Power said, a friend fishing the Missouri caught a 33½-inch walleye, but that fish was spawned out and not as heavy as Leier's fish.
"It was just a matter of time," he said.
The new record walleye is a big female that didn't spawn, Power said. Walleyes are done spawning, but females occasionally reabsorb their eggs if water temperatures or other conditions aren't quite right.
"You get some puckering up right after the spawn that reabsorb them," he said.
End of controversy
Leier's record fish ends a controversy that has surrounded the Wood Lake walleye. As Mike McFeely of Forum News Service wrote in a 2003 column, the 1959 walleye wasn't mounted, no photographs exist and the story behind the fish largely is a mystery.
By one account, the fish was found floating dead and scooped out of the lake, McFeely wrote.
"There is controversy, but you can't go back and fix history," Power said. "It's what it was. These people are long gone."
There's a lesser-known story about an even bigger walleye caught in the early 1950s in Spring Creek, a tributary of the Knife River, Power said. That walleye reportedly weighed 18 pounds, and while the catch is documented in old issues of the Game and Fish Department's magazine, North Dakota Outdoors, Power says he's never been able to track down a photo of the fish.
"Back in that day, you didn't have social media and verified scales," Power said. "They ended up eating that fish within a day."
Leier, whose biggest walleye before Friday morning measured about 24 inches, says he's been bombarded with calls and text messages since news of his record-setting fish started making the rounds. A Minot taxidermist even contacted him about mounting the fish for free.
"I can't put a line in, the phone's been going off the hook," he said. "This is only the second time I've been out this year, so it's pretty exciting."