DEVILS LAKE – Catching a trophy walleye is a thrill any way you measure it, but when that fish of a lifetime also is tagged, the fish tale takes an even better turn.

Especially when the fish was tagged more than 11 years ago.

Scott "Sugar Lips" Phipps of Hatton, N.D., found that out shortly before 3 p.m. Wednesday, June 10, when he landed a 31-inch walleye on Creel Bay of Devils Lake that had a small tag attached near the back of its dorsal fin.

Just like shooting a banded duck or goose is a memorable occurrence for waterfowl hunters, so it is for anglers who catch a tagged fish.

“I can tell you that fish made our trip,” said Phipps’ fishing buddy, Scott Hall of Grand Forks, who was there to share in the excitement of the memorable catch.

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Hall said he’d caught a 29-inch walleye the previous week while fishing near Spirit Lake Casino with another friend.

“That had been the biggest walleye either of us had firsthand witnessed caught from the lake until his,” Hall said of Phipps’ walleye. “Both his and my big fish were caught ‘bottom bouncing’ spinners with leeches in 14 to 17 feet of water.”

A close-up highlighted by an orange circle shows the location of a tag in the 31-inch walleye Scott Phipps of Hatton, N.D., caught and released Wednesday, June 10, on Devils Lake. The fish had been tagged May 5, 2009, at the north end of Six-Mile Bay during the final year of a three-year tagging study the Game and Fish Department conducted on Devils Lake.
A close-up highlighted by an orange circle shows the location of a tag in the 31-inch walleye Scott Phipps of Hatton, N.D., caught and released Wednesday, June 10, on Devils Lake. The fish had been tagged May 5, 2009, at the north end of Six-Mile Bay during the final year of a three-year tagging study the Game and Fish Department conducted on Devils Lake.

Phipps already has a “30-inch fat walleye” on his wall, and so he decided to release the fish, said Hall, who wanted this story to be a surprise in advance of Phipps’ upcoming birthday July 6.

Other birthday surprises also are in the works, Hall says.

“A newspaper clipping or online story would be an added bonus,” Hall said. “If he hears or sees your story from another friend before then, that'll be just as cool!”

Before Phipps released the big walleye, they wrote down the tag number (5-2810) and reported the catch using the online form for reporting tagged fish on the North Dakota Game and Fish Department website.

Monday, June 15, Phipps got word from Game and Fish that the walleye had been tagged May 5, 2009, at the north end of Six-Mile Bay and was about 23 inches long at the time.

According to Randy Hiltner, northeast district fisheries supervisor for Game and Fish in Devils Lake, the department tagged 1,000 walleyes for three consecutive years from 2007 through 2009 at various sites around Devils Lake to learn more about walleye mortality and movements of the fish within and out of the big lake.

Given that amount of time, many of those fish likely either have been caught by anglers or died from natural causes. Based on previous aging data from Devils Lake, a 31-inch walleye would be at least 17 years old, according to Game and Fish Department estimates.

“We have gotten very few tag returns in the past few years,” Hiltner told the Herald. “In 2017, we got nine returns. In 2018 there were two, in 2019, just one and in 2020, there has been one so far.”

And quite a fish it was.

“Being tagged just added to the ‘Wow’ factor as neither of us had seen or caught one before,” Hall said.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or send email to bdokken@gfherald.com.