Youngster rips state fish record

Rockford, Ill. – Nick Tassoni woke up just in time.

The 15-year-old freshman at Rockford Auburn High had been curled up on the floor of his father's 1973 14-foot Starcraft after a morning of fishing on the Pecatonica River on Jan. 7.

The two were on the river at first light and by noon, the younger Tassoni was ready to go home, but he knew his dad, a walleye die-hard, wouldn't be easily convinced to stop fishing even after a slow morning.

So he took a nap and woke up about 45 minutes later, complaining about the cold weather and tried again to talk his father into heading home.

"I said, ‘We're staying ‘til dark; Would you rather be at the mall?'" said Nick's father, Dave, 42, a supervisor at Rockford's public works department.

Nick's first cast after his nap would ultimately slay one of the longest-standing and most sought-after records in state history: the 50-year-old state-record walleye, which stood at 14 pounds since 1961, a fish pulled from the Kankakee River.

At first, the boy thought he might be snagged or had accidentally snagged a carp or buffalo.

"He really couldn't move the fish," Dave Tassoni said. "There was no excitement. He was almost trying to shake it off."

Neither of the Tassonis had any idea that the fish was a walleye.

Dave Tassoni put the boat into reverse, with the fish roughly 100 yards away.

As the duo closed in on the fish, it gave the classic walleye head shake, the only sign the boy needed to know what he had on the line. He has been his father's loyal fishing partner since he was 10 years old, the two having fished tournaments together.

Moments after the head shake, the fish broke the surface, and they realized they were dealing with a massive walleye.

They still had no idea it was a state record on the end of the line. "From that point on, there wasn't much of a fight," said Dave Tassoni, who netted the behemoth. "He more or less came to the boat like a garbage can."

While the son's previous best walleye was about 4 pounds, the dad has a walleye more than 11 pounds hanging on his wall, a fish pulled from the Rock River, which the Pecatonica flows into.

"I thought it was a 12-, 13- pounder," Dave Tassoni said.

"It looked like it had swallowed a football," Nick Tassoni said.

They pulled out an old electronic scale, which read 14.9 pounds. And they knew that was better than the previous record.

"For a nanosecond, my first instinct was to throw it back out there," Dave Tassoni said.

Then common sense kicked in, and they put the fish in an empty cooler and filled it with water from the river; the old boat had no livewell.

Their new 17-foot boat – with a modern livewell – had already been stored for the winter.

They were in Winnebago County, on the roughly 10-mile stretch between Two Rivers and Macktown forest preserves.

They throttled the 25-horse engine for 10 minutes back to the ramp and had the boat on the trailer in record time.

Minutes later, Pinnon's IGA, a local meat counter, got a call from the Tassonis, asking if they had a certified scale.

"They were here 15 minutes later," said Bradley Bloom, one of the store's butchers.

Dave Tassoni also called the state police headquarters in Pecatonica, and they were connected with game warden Brian Alt, who was working at Rock Cut State Park, and agreed to meet them at Pinnon's shortly.

"We didn't want to blow it," Dave Tassoni said. "We wanted to do it by the book."

The fish weighed 14.6 pounds on an uncertified scale in the back room of the store, as they waited for Alt to arrive.

"It was a pleasant surprise," said Alt, who had never been contacted in regards of a potential record fish in his 18-year career with the state.

With customers standing in front of the meat counter, and Alt having arrived, they tried to position the fish on the scale and also take a picture of the measurement.

"It was flopping around," Bloom said.

Tassoni was also hoping to get a printout from the scale, but that was forgotten until after the fact.

"We thought that was important," Dave Tassoni said.

So they moved the scale to the back room, where they were finally able to settle the fish down.

The official measurement was 14.75 pounds.

Alt looked up the state record guidelines and measured the fish, which was 31 inches long with a 20¼-inch girth.

Later that evening, the Tassonis decided they wanted to release the fish, which was still alive. They headed back to the river and filled a horse trough with water from the river and took turns with the fish while the other scoured the Internet for ways to revive the fish.

"It wouldn't stay upright," Dave Tassoni said.

The fish expired sometime after dawn.

"We were tired but we had the drive to try and bring it back," Nick Tassoni said. "I would have rather seen it released."

The next day, DNR regional biologist Dan Sallee arrived to examine the fish and was surprised the fish wasn't scarred or slightly deformed, which is often the case with state-record fish.

"They're never pretty fish," Sallee said. "They're battle-scarred yet fast-growing animals in most cases. This fish was in perfect condition."

Four days after the fish was caught, the state made the record official, speeding up a process that often takes much longer.

"It was very helpful that Brian Alt [the game warden] was present," Sallee said. "The paperwork was already properly filled out by the time I got there."

Sallee was proud to see the fish come out of the river. He was involved in the research back in the 1980s on the Rock River, when the state learned valuable information about walleye reproduction on the river. As a result, up to 160,000 two-inch walleyes are stocked into the river system each year.

The elder Tassoni said he was glad his son caught the fish, and not himself.

"It means so much more to me that he caught it," Dave Tassoni said.

The young Tassoni had trouble summing up what the fish meant to him, but knew one thing.

"I think it's always going to be part of my life," he said.

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