GRAND FORKS-Kyle Heim says he knew there were zander swimming around in Spiritwood Lake, but he didn't go out expecting to catch one June 6 when he went fishing on the 489-acre lake northeast of Jamestown, N.D.
That's exactly what happened when Heim, of Bismarck, landed a 27-inch zander that tipped the scales at 7 pounds.
Native to Europe, zander are related to walleyes but grow much larger-up to 25 pounds, by some accounts-and are considered an exotic species in the U.S. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department stocked Spiritwood with 180,000 European zander fry and 1,050 fingerlings in 1989 after failed attempts in 1987 and 1988. The state scrapped the program in 1990 because of concerns from neighboring states Minnesota, South Dakota, Montana and the province of Manitoba.
It's a pretty rare occurrence, but anglers still catch the occasional zander in Spiritwood. Before Heim, there hadn't been a confirmed zander catch on Spiritwood since 2013.
"I knew they were in there, but I never really expected to lock into one," he said.
Heim says he was fishing a Lindy rig tipped with a leech in about 11 feet of water when the fish hit. He could see the fish in Spiritwood's clear water but couldn't quite tell what it was at first.
"It's got to be the clearest lake in North Dakota-it looks like you're in a swimming pool," Heim said. "It was windy enough where it was broken up, and you couldn't see all the way down, but I got the fish on, and I could see it, and it didn't look quite right.
"I was trying to figure out if it was a walleye or a pike. I knew it was big, whatever I had on. I got it closer and it was, 'OK, it's a walleye.'"
About that time, he got a better look, and the excitement meter jumped a few notches.
"He was up by the surface and he rolled," Heim recalls. "I saw his head and I was like, 'No way, it's a zander!' Then it was pretty much nerves took over and grabbed the net. The fish wanted to make one more run, but I wasn't about to let that happen-he was getting in the net right away.
"If it was a walleye, I probably would have played him a little longer."
Zander bear a close resemblance to walleyes, although the dorsal fin has different markings, and the lateral line is more pronounced. Heim says the zander he caught fought harder than a walleye.
"You look at the way they're built, it's like a walleye, but if you look closer, I took quite a few pictures of it, and the fins are just so much bigger than a walleye's fins," Heim said. "I suppose they're able to draw more power."
When he got off the lake and into an area with better cell service, Heim called the Game and Fish office in Jamestown to report the catch, and they asked him to text a photo.
"I sent them the pictures, and they said, 'you don't even have to stop-it's 100 percent a zander,'" Heim said.
Heim is having a Bismarck taxidermist mount the rare catch, and the Game and Fish Department requested the otolith be removed so the zander can be aged. Cut into cross sections, the bone in the inner ear has growth rings that can be counted, similar to the rings on a tree.
"They did say there is a population present, and they reproduce successfully, but it's just a very small population," Heim said. "It's cool to catch one and have it be 27 inches and have it be kind of a trophy versus catching one like an 18-incher or something."
The North Dakota state record zander measured 32 inches and weighed 11 pounds, 3 ounces and was caught July 17, 2013, according to the Game and Fish Department's Whopper Club database. The other two zander in the database were caught in 2007 and 2012, which puts Heim in some rare company.
"If the weekend angler who fishes four or five times a year caught an 18-incher, are they going to know it's a zander or are they going to think it's a walleye?" Heim said. "It was pretty cool" to catch one.