GRAND FORKS -- For the second time since 2018, North Dakota has a new official state record walleye in the books after the Game and Fish Department this week certified Jared Shypkoski’s 16-pound, 6-ounce walleye as the latest record book-topper.

Shypkoski, of Dickinson, reeled in the 33-inch behemoth Saturday, March 13, while trolling crankbaits in the Eckroth Bottoms area of Lake Oahe, a Missouri River reservoir that originates in South Dakota. The big walleye topped the previous record set in May 2018, when Neal Leier of Bismarck landed a 15-pound, 13-ounce walleye that measured 32½ inches near Fox Island on the Missouri River south of Bismarck.

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The two record fish came within about 30 miles of each other in a three-year span, a remarkable turn of events considering the previous state record had stood since 1959, when Blair Chapman of Minnewaukan tallied a 15-pound, 12-ounce walleye from Wood Lake in Benson County.

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Which brings up the question: Is North Dakota’s Missouri River System – whether the river or Oahe – the next “go-to” hotspot for trophy walleyes?

“Based on the number of anglers fishing the last few springs, I’d say maybe,” Greg Power, fisheries chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, said with a laugh.

Solid evidence

Recent history certainly makes a strong case for the possibility. Back in 2018, mere days before Leier caught his now-previous state record walleye near Fox Island, his brother landed a walleye in the same area that was just “a couple ounces short” of a state record, Power recalls. Last spring, Jason Mitchell of Devils Lake, a North Dakota Fishing Hall of Fame angler and host of the “Jason Mitchell Outdoors” TV show, released a 34-inch walleye on the Missouri River that also might have set a record.

Mitchell opted to release the walleye rather than kill it and risk the possibility of it falling short of the record.

“There’s been – probably, legitimately – half a dozen fish over 15 pounds taken in the last four years” on the Missouri River or Oahe, Power said. “We went 60 years, and then in a matter of a couple, you have six fish that were probably bigger than” the 1959 record.

There could be others, as well, but in this age of social media, word gets around in a hurry.

“It’s been quite a ride for sure,” Power said of the Missouri River. “In South Dakota, they’ve caught some big fish in upper Oahe, and a few years ago, our staff handled probably a state record walleye, and that was a little farther down in Oahe.

“There are some big fish in the system right now.”

All about the forage

Explaining the trend is complicated, Power said, because the Missouri River System in North Dakota also has an abundance of small walleyes with poor growth rates. Smaller walleyes need smaller forage, and that’s often lacking in the system, Power says.

By comparison, larger forage such as ciscoes – also known as tullibees or lake herring – have become more abundant in Oahe and lower reaches of the Missouri River in North Dakota, Power said. The trend has been especially pronounced since 2011, when a major flood event resulted in numerous fish species – everything from smelt to 100-pound paddlefish – being flushed out of Lake Sakakawea through Garrison Dam and into the Missouri River.

Water was gushing through the dam at about 150,000 cubic feet per second, Power said, compared with about 21,000 cfs today.

Greg Power, fisheries division chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department)
Greg Power, fisheries division chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department)

“A lot of Sakakawea cisco got into Oahe,” he said. “Oahe always had some cisco but for whatever reason, that 2011 (flood) was like it reseeded Oahe” with ciscoes.

The flood also washed away sandbars and backwater habitat along the river below Garrison Dam, Power said. The sandbars, which provide prime walleye habitat, are returning, but those backwater areas, which warm up faster and provide the best habitat for forage production, continue to lag, he said.

“It’s such cold water to start with” coming out of Sakakawea, Power said. “You need that warmer water backwater area for forage production. So that reach still to this day is not very good in terms of forage.”

Every 10 years or so, there seems to be "a little pulse" of smaller forage production, he said. The resulting boost in growth rates helps the walleyes grow large enough to take advantage of the rich forage ciscoes provide.

“That’s probably the game changer for these big walleye now,” Power said. “We’ve never had problems with the number of walleye in Oahe and the Missouri River, but it’s been groceries.

“If you can get a walleye up to 2 pounds at, say, 4 years, now they’re starting to take advantage of that larger forage out there, and they have,” he added. “You see some pretty suppressed growth rates and poor growth in a lot of young walleyes, but a percentage of them get to be bigger fish and boy, once they get to that larger size, they can take off.”

Smelt, though not as abundant as they once were, also still can be found in the system, Power said.

“It’s primarily cisco but we still have smelt,” he said. “Actually, we’ve got a bit of a smelt run going on right now down there. It’s very minor compared to the old days, but you’ve got smelt in there.”

South Dakota, meanwhile, has gizzard shad in its portion of Oahe, Power said; unlike smelt and ciscoes, gizzard shad are a warm water species.

“You put that smorgasbord of larger forage together, you get this good growth in the walleye,” he said.

By the numbers

The Game and Fish Department’s “Whopper Club,” a program that recognizes anglers for catching big fish, adds further credence to the Missouri River System’s potential for producing larger walleyes, Power said. Looking back at Whopper Club listings for the past 50 years, 70% of the walleyes 12 pounds and larger from the Missouri River and Lake Oahe have been reported in the past dozen years, the fisheries chief said.

“It’s way more than coincidence,” he said. “I mean, it’s real.”

Springtime is prime time for big walleyes on the Missouri River System, so the window of opportunity for the real whoppers is closing. But if history’s any indication, there’s always next spring.

“For the real big fish, it’s definitely from shortly after ice-out until the first week of May or thereabouts,” Power said. “And then, after that, you don’t see the big fish anymore. Whether they drop farther down in Oahe or what (I’m not sure), but you don’t see them in that reach anything like you do in that roughly six-week window.”

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