JAMESTOWN, N.D. — Sam Wenner is a bass angler by choice and says he doesn’t spend much time fishing walleyes. So, it was only natural for the Jamestown, N.D., fisherman to be casting a bass lure along the outside of a weed edge Saturday afternoon, Aug. 17, on Spiritwood Lake.
Wenner certainly wasn’t targeting walleye or its European cousin, the zander. And he certainly wasn’t thinking about state records.
That’s what he caught, though, when he hooked into a behemoth zander that measured 35⅝ inches and weighed 15.91 pounds on a certified scale. Pending results from routine genetic tests, Wenner will have the new state zander record.
The previous record, which Christopher Sayler of Jamestown caught July 17, 2003, in Spiritwood, weighed 11 pounds, 3 ounces and measured 32 inches long, records from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department show.
Wenner also caught a zander the previous day.
“It was just a fluke,” he said Thursday in a phone interview. “I’ve spent something like 250 days on that lake in a boat (without catching one) and caught two in two days, so it’s not something that’s a pattern. I’ve been out five days since then and haven’t caught them.”
The lure Wenner used “is going to be a secret,” he said.
The North Dakota Game and Fish Department stocked zander in Spiritwood Lake in 1989 as part of a one-time effort — stocking 180,000 fry and 1,050 fingerlings — but scrapped the program the next year because of concerns from neighboring states and Manitoba.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2016 classified zander as an “injurious wildlife species,” a designation that prevents the fish from being imported for aquaculture, the pet trade or recreational fishing.
Catches more frequent
Reports of zander catches were rare in the decades after the single stocking, and after several years of unconfirmed reports, the fish have become more frequent in recent years, both in Spiritwood Lake and adjacent Alkali Lake, said Greg Power, fisheries chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck.
Jamestown fisheries crews this summer sampled 10 zander measuring from 9 inches to 20 inches long in Alkali Lake, which is connected to Spiritwood, Power said. Spiritwood and now Alkali have the only documented zander populations in North America.
“We know there’s a good year-class from last year in Alkali,” Power said. “We went for years with one or two unverified catches from anglers — we’d never see them — to now in the last two-three years, where there’s multiple catches and we can do some biological work on them.”
That’s a mixed bag from a fisheries management standpoint, Powers said, because of the species’ designation as an injurious species.
“This fish in Spiritwood shouldn’t come as a surprise because we’ve had a number of bigger fish show up in recent years,” Power said.
Wenner says his big zander hit like a small perch and felt more like a wet grocery bag than a state record fish when he reeled it in.
The battle didn’t take more than about 45 seconds or so, he said.
“I got it in the net and hung it on a scale in my boat and saw it was well over 15 pounds,” Wenner said. “Knowing that the old record was only 11-something and me identifying it as a zander, I decided that, ‘yeah, I’ve got to keep this thing.’ I’m the kind of person who never plans to keep a fish. I’ve only harvested a handful of fish in 500 times of fishing.”
Wenner says he wouldn't keep another zander unless it weighed more than 20 pounds and crushed the record -- a 17-pounder would go back, he said-- adding he hopes other anglers release them, as well. Zander weighing more than 40 pounds have been documented in their native European waters. He's having a 360-degree mount made of the zander, which will be displayed inside a glass coffee table.
“They’ll never bring zander back, so this is it,” Wenner said. “Down there in that Alkali Lake, if we leave enough of them alone –they’re supposedly a fast-growing fish –there’s 5- and 6-pounders right now. If we leave enough of them alone for five, six, seven more years, that will be the place to beat this record.”
Test results pending
Samples from Wenner’s zander will be sent to a lab for routine genetic testing before it officially is recognized as a state record, Power said. The process is expected to take a month or two, he said, but there hasn’t been any evidence of zanders and walleyes breeding to produce hybrid offspring.
“Everything we’ve sent to date has come back 100 percent zander,” Power said.
B.J. Kratz, southeast district fisheries supervisor for Game and Fish in Jamestown, said Thursday he aged the fish, and it looks to be 14 years old.
“This corresponds with the fall reproduction survey conducted in 2005 on Spiritwood Lake, which indicated natural reproduction occurred that year,” Kratz said.
Wenner, who was fishing alone when he caught the fish, had it weighed on a certified scale at a local grocery store, and a Game and Fish Department employee witnessed the catch. The photos, he says, don’t do justice to the size of the zander.
“To me, that fish looks small — I would call it like an 8- to 10-pounder” judging by the photo, Wenner said. “But I know when I held that thing — uffda! — but I’m 6 foot tall and 245 pounds. If I would have had a small person hold that thing, it would have looked ridiculous.”