Tom Volk is enjoying his time as the person who caught the biggest walleye in North Dakota history. He's fielding the phone calls, seeing the media stories, reading the messages via email, text and Facebook. There's a reason why the 41-year-old is soaking in the moment, despite the craziness that was happening to start the week.
He doesn't believe his time at the top will last long.
The Lincoln, N.D., angler caught a 16-pound, 9-ounce behemoth from the Heart River on Easter Sunday, setting the state walleye record. The 32 1/2-inch fish shattered a record set only last May, when Bismarck's Neal Leier caught a 15-pound, 13-ounce walleye from the Missouri River.
(Listen to Mike McFeely interview Tom Volk in the podcast below)
Volk's fish was certified by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, which announced the record Monday, April 22 in a press release.
Prior to Leier's fish, the walleye record stood unscathed for almost 60 years. A 15-pound, 12-ounce fish caught from Wood Lake in Benson County in 1959 by Blair Chapman of Minnewaukan, N.D., was the standard. That fish, as has been well-documented in outdoors circles, was cloaked in mystery and enveloped by questions about its legitimacy. Even members of Chapman's family weren't sure he actually caught the fish, instead believing he found the huge walleye floating dead in the water.
Leier's fish put that question mark to rest.
Volk's walleye relegated Leier to second place after less than a year, but the new record-holder is confident he'll be a short-timer, too.
"It probably won't last," Volk said. "It might not last this year. There are so many big fish in the system right now. So many guys are catching nice fish, I wouldn't doubt if somebody breaks it fairly quickly. But I'm just enjoying the moment right now."
Volk caught the fish from shore, fishing elbow-to-elbow with many other anglers in a popular spot in Mandan. The Heart River is a tributary of the Missouri and walleyes swim up the Heart during the spring spawning run. Volk's fish is a big female with a belly full of eggs, as photos indicate. The fish has a bulging gut, as all record-level walleyes do.
The walleye was taken on a jig and plastic — no minnow — and was one of many nice fish Volk and fishing partner Joe Gibbs of Bismarck caught. Gibbs is a hero in this story: He convinced a reluctant Volk to go fishing.
"We probably caught 10 or 12 fish before that, and some good ones, before the big one. I cast my jig out and felt that nice thump you get when a nice fish takes it. I set the hook and knew right away it was a big fish," Volk said. "I was hoping it was a walleye, but when it got up near the surface and splashed its tail somebody said, 'Oh, it's just a big carp.' I fought it a while longer and it finally tired and gave up. Then it came to the surface and you could see it was a big walleye. It was like 'whoa.'"
Volk wasn't out of the woods yet. The walleye had wrapped itself in his fishing line and was coming in sideways. Combined with the river's strong current, he couldn't gain much ground. That's when Gibbs went to work, sprinting downriver about 40 yards with a net to scoop the fish out of the water when it neared shore.
"He's the net king. When Joe lifted the fish out of the river, I gasped. I've been fishing for 35 years and I'd never seen a walleye like that. It was just huge," said Volk, adding that other anglers lining the banks of the river cheered when they saw the size of the walleye.
A digital scale showed the fish weighed 16 pounds, 10 ounces.
"I said, 'Holy crap, this is a state record.' I knew the old record was 15-something," Volk said. "So I threw some water on the fish, wrapped it in my coat and took off running to my truck."
This did not sit well with Volk's children who were along on the trip, along with Volk's wife Amanda, because 3-year-old Maddie and 4-year-old Ethan wanted to stay and play in the nearby park.
"So I basically just left my wife and kids behind to go find a certified scale," Volk said, chuckling. "We weighed it on three different certified scales. The first came up at 17 pounds, the second was 16-12 and the third was 16-9. By that time it was about two hours after I'd caught it and the fish was dead, and they tend to lose some weight when they die. It doesn't matter. It still is the state record and it's still a huge fish."
Volk, a community prevention specialist for the state Department of Human Services and also a member of the Lincoln city council, asked to put to rest a rumor that he snagged the fish. He hooked the fish in the mouth, he said, and it wrapped itself in line as it fought. The mouth hook was certified by Game and Fish, Volk said. A snagged fish would not count as a record.
Greg Power, fisheries division chief at Game and Fish, said Volk's suspicion that his time as a state record-holder might be short-lived could easily prove to be true.
"For the past 20-plus years, North Dakota has been on a high when it comes to fishing statewide. This is also true for large fish," Power said. "Currently, not only do lakes Sakakawea and Oahe plus Devils Lake harbor even larger walleye than the record caught Easter Sunday, but they are also home to some very large northern pike. Likely some that may be a new state record."
Volk's previous big walleye was a 14-pounder caught in Canada. He said he will have the record fish mounted, plus have a replica made.