Angler tops Illinois' walleye record lickety-split

Pecatonica, Ill. — A little more than two months after Illinois’ longest-standing gamefish record fell, the same record was broken on the same river.

James Zimmerman, of Beloit, Wis., pulled a 15.08-pound walleye out of the Pecatonica River in Winnebago County on March 11. It is the first walleye to breach the 15-pound mark in the state.

Before 15-year-old Nick Tassoni, of Rockford, caught a 14.75-pounder from the same river on Jan. 7, the previous record, a 14-pound fish out of the Kankakee River, stood for 50 years.

Zimmerman, 52, who was fishing with his long-time friend, Larry Stangl, caught the fish in the morning, jigging close to the boat with an 1⁄8-ounce Northland Fire-Ball jig and a minnow.

“The battle lasted maybe 25, 30 seconds,” Zimmerman said. “It was maybe 10 yards from the boat.”

Added Stangl, “I don’t think the fish knew he was hooked.”

The men knew it had state record potential, and it weighed 15.5 pounds on a digital scale they had handy. But Zimmerman resisted Stangl’s suggestion that they move quickly to get the fish certified.

“I told Jimmy, ‘Let’s get out of here. Let’s go take care of this,” Stangl said. “He said, ‘I’m fishing.’ I kept telling him we better take care of this. At about 11 o’clock, I finally talked him into getting out of there.”

The men took the fish to Blackhawk Meats in South Beloit, Ill., where Illinois DNR conservation officer Dennis Frichtl assisted the certification process.

“Most people were just in awe,” Zimmerman said of onlookers at the meat market. “Those big walleye, they don’t look right when they’re that big. They’re just huge. There were people stopping in and checking it out. They saw two wardens parked out front and thought somebody was getting into trouble.”

DNR regional fisheries biologist Dan Sallee traveled to Wisconsin to view the fish and finish up the paperwork on March 12, and the state made the record official a day later. The fish measured 31½ inches, with a girth of 203⁄8 inches.

“It was more typical of what we see in state records,” said Sallee, who had noted in January how clean Tassoni’s record was. “Most records are almost deformed they’re so big. This fish was like that. This one had all the markings of an old, old fish.”

Sallee said the fish was most likely stocked. Illinois has been putting walleyes into the river since 1987, after research showed there was little natural reproduction.

Sallee said timing of the catch was just about right, as it was full of eggs. Spawning typically occurs in another month or so.

“The eggs were much more mature, which probably made a big difference,” Sallee said. “This fish was big. It was just a block. I’m sure that fish had an excess of 2 pounds of eggs. In July, that fish might have weighed 12, 13 pounds. I would bet you the Tassoni fish would have weighed this much if it had this much egg maturation.”

Zimmerman, who said he’s missed three days of fishing all year, built bridges and buildings as an iron worker for about 15 years, until he was injured. The father of two lives off a settlement from that injury.

“Every day out there he’s hurting,” said Stangl, who works in a machine shop. “But he keeps fishing,” even as Stangl heads off to work after a morning on the water.

“I have Jimmy drop me off at the bridge and then I go straight to work,” Stangl said.

The two men love the Pecatonica River, as the quiet, little stream offers some solace, along with big fish.

“It’s deep,” Zimmerman said. “There’s so much structure. There’s so many unfishable spots. This river is amazing. It’s super deep in a lot of places and it’s a small river. I see the record getting broke again out of this river. They’ve got everything they need to grow here. And it’s not a pressured river. It’s going to get pressured now.”

Stangl said the word on the river has been out for about three years. He said they used to be able to have a spot to themselves.

Sallee said he’s not concerned that the Pecatonica will now get even more fishing pressure.

“I’m not worried about it,” he said. “I’m excited about it. When we stock large numbers of fish like this, we do it for people to enjoy.”

Asked what he thought the prospects were for another state record to come out anytime soon, Sallee offered, “It could be tomorrow or it might be another 50 years. Who can say?”

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