North Dakota's record for largest walleye caught by a recreational angler had stood for nearly six decades. In about a minute, Neal Leier bested it.
Leier was fishing Friday with his brother and uncle on the Missouri River when he hauled in a 15-pound, 13-ounce walleye near the Fox Island boat ramp.
"My brother said, 'There's some fish down there,' so I grabbed a plastic (bait), threw the line in, and boom!" Leier said. "It hit, and it hit hard, but it didn't fight a lot. Took me about a minute to bring it in. It just drug in like a log."
Leier's whopper broke North Dakota's longest-standing fish record, according to the state Game and Fish Department. The previous record walleye was a fish from Wood Lake landed by Blair Chapman of Minnewaukan in January 1959.
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Many anglers believed that wasn't the true record — that Chapman didn't catch the fish but instead found it dead, or that it wasn't as big as claimed. There were no state-certified scales at the time, and no photos exist of the fish. Chapman's son, Blair Chapman Jr., in the past has publicly said that the fish was found dead. The family told The Associated Press in 2014 that it was no longer interested in discussing the story.
Leier's lunker is among 17 state-record fish caught on North Dakota waters since the turn of the century, Game and Fish records show. Eleven of the records have been set in just the past seven years. Greg Power, fisheries chief for Game and Fish, attributes the windfall of whoppers to more anglers and more fishable waters in the state due to recent wet years and stepped-up fish stocking efforts.
Other large walleyes have been caught in North Dakota in recent years. Alecia Berg, of Minot, caught a 15-pound, 4-ounce whopper at the Garrison Dam Tailrace in 2011. Leier said his brother, Leon, caught a 15-pound, 1-ounce fish on the Missouri River just a few weeks ago. State fisheries crews in North Dakota and South Dakota have caught 17-pound walleyes in nets recently, according to Power.
Fishing in the Missouri River system has been good in recent years due to healthy populations of larger bait fish.
"There are a lot of cisco and shad feeding those (walleye)," Power said. "Which are bigger forage, and lead to bigger walleye."
Neal Leier, a supervisor at the oil refinery in Mandan, has been fishing for about 20 years and had never landed a walleye bigger than 7 pounds. When he caught his whopper — a female full of eggs — the first scale in the boat bottomed out and the second one indicated he might have a record. He his fishing buddies left the river and took the whopper to the nearest certified scale.
"The adrenaline was really going," he said.
Now that's it's an official state record, Leier plans to have it stuffed and mounted so he can proudly display it.
"Hopefully in the house," he said with a laugh. "My wife wants me to put it in the garage, but I've got a spot picked out in the house."