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Have your state record fish and release it, too

Posted on April 19, 2012

Antioch, Ill. — It wouldn’t be easy, but a conservation-minded Illinois fisherman inclined to release the state record he was lucky enough to land could potentially have his cake and eat it, too.

That is, get officially recognized for breaking a state record and still have the satisfaction of letting it swim away, to be caught another day by another angler.

It’s one reason the South of the Border Chapter of Muskies, Inc., based on the Fox Chain, is in the process of purchasing a certified scale that would be located somewhere handy on the Chain.

“We don’t want to kill the fish just to get the record,” said chapter President Len Szulc.

When club member Ryan Stochl caught a 50¾-inch muskie on the Chain last fall, he didn’t think twice about releasing the fish, which, with the measurements Stochl took, wouldn’t have been short by much of the state muskie record.

Length and girth equations placed the fish about a pound short of the 38-pound, 8-ounce muskie pulled from the Kaskaskia River in 2002.

But with muskies seemingly growing fatter and fatter in the Chain, thanks to a recently introduced and burgeoning gizzard shad population, Chain muskie fishermen are hopeful.

And they’re not the only group of muskie fishermen around the state that thinks their home lake could yield the next record fish.

The Lake Shelbyville Muskie Club has discussed doing the same, though has run into logistical issues with the 11,000-acre lake, which was created by an impoundment of the Kaskaskia River.

Earlier this month, Denny Sands, who owns Shabbona Lakeside Bait & Tackle, held an event called “Muskie Record Weekend,” noting that the lake has held four muskie records (two hybrid and two pure) and that the current muskie record is only 11 ounces heavier than the biggest muskie pulled out of Shabbona.

“We can do better,” Sands said. “I think the chances are better [here] than at any other lake in Illinois.”

Sands followed up the muskie event (which took place after press time) with “Walleye Record Weekend” at the lake.

The first person to break either record was set to win a 9.9-horsepower four-stroke outboard.

Sands said he’s had a certified scale at his business “all 14 years we’ve been here.”

This is the best time of the year to shoot for a state-record muskie or walleye, Sands said, noting that female specimens should still be full of eggs.

That was certainly the case with the new state-record walleye caught by Jim Zimmerman out of the Pecatonica River in March.

Fisheries biologist Dan Sallee, who inspected Zimmerman’s fish and the previous state record caught only two months earlier by Nick Tassoni, said Zimmerman’s fish was flush with more than two pounds of eggs.

“I would bet you the Tassoni fish would have weighed this much if it had this much egg maturation,” Sallee said the day he inspected Zimmerman’s fish.

Tassoni illustrated that it’s not just muskie fishermen that wouldn’t want to kill a trophy fish.

He and his father, Dave, spent hours trying to revive their short-lived record fish after it had been weighed on a certified scale.

“I wanted it to live,” Tassoni said.

But it probably would have created issues had the fish swam off. Sallee, the biologist, wasn’t able to certify the fish until the next day.

And that gets us back to the Fox Chain. By having a certified scale nearby, Fox Chain muskie anglers will have eliminated one of the obstacles of getting a potential state record certified quickly enough to be released.

But they’d still need two witnesses, and for a state biologist to inspect the fish.

It’s why several muskie fishermen on southern Illinois’ Kinkaid Lake keep the cellphone number of district fisheries biologist Shawn Hirst programmed into their own cellphones. Hirst also happens to keep a certified scale, which must also be officially checked every year. There’s also the matter of getting the fish to the scale. A record-sized muskie isn’t going to fare very well being bounced around in a live well on a boat that’s traveling 50 miles an hour.

“You might want to run the scale to the fish, rather than the fish to the scale,” said Dan Stephenson, DNR assistant fisheries chief.

With some species of fish, the biologist would want to take a piece of the fish for DNA testing, mainly to make sure the fish is properly identified since there are several hybrid species present in Illinois waters. Those species include black crappie, white crappie, hybrid striped bass, white bass, yellow bass, sauger, most sunfish species, channel catfish and largemouth bass.

With largemouth bass, Stephenson said, it would be to check to make sure the fish was not of the Florida strain, which are not legally present in the state.