Bismarck, N.D. — Shane Johnson had just one bite during five hours of fishing from the late evening of Jan. 3 to the early morning of Jan. 4.
But that one bite was taken by a mighty big fish – a 41 3/4-inch, 19-pound, 5-ounce burbot that could be North Dakota’s new state record.
Johnson, of Minot, N.D., was fishing at the Garrison Dam tailrace that connects Lake Sakakawea with the Missouri River. He and his friend, Brandon Gullickson, fish there a few times each year, but their target is usually walleyes.
The two anglers were fishing in about 20 to 30 feet of water at the Garrison Dam around 10 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 3. Johnson said he was using a long rod and jigging for walleyes in the open water. He had a quarter-ounce jig and a 4-inch plastic bait and was popping it about 10 inches from the bottom.
The two didn’t have any bites until around 11 p.m., when Johnson felt a hard strike. Then, he felt dead weight and knew it could be a nice fish.
“It slowly started to swim upstream, which is pretty much what paddlefish do, and there are a lot of paddlefish in that river system,” Johnson said. “So then I started thinking more that it was a paddlefish, but then I felt some big head shakes and got really excited because I thought maybe it was a big walleye.”
The fish took off, peeling line from the reel against the drag. During the battle, Johnson’s thoughts shifted. Was it maybe a big salmon? A northern or a trout? The fish started to roll, and Johnson said that often suggests catfish.
While he was thinking of all of the possibilities, about six to eight minutes passed, then the fish nearly surfaced.
“Soon the fish got about 8 inches below the surface of the water and (I was) looking down at it with a headlamp and in the magnification of the water, it looked like it was 6 feet long!” Johnson said. “We’re like, oh God, this thing is huge! It was really wide and we were thinking maybe catfish. We didn’t know it was a burbot until it got into my basket.”
The net that Johnson had brought along was about 24 inches around and he was situated about 20 to 30 feet above the water. So, the process to get the fish in the net took another six to eight minutes.
Johnson said he could’ve dragged the fish around the wing of the dam, but it would’ve increased the chances that the fish come unhooked.
Gullickson was in charge of hoisting the net and fish up. Once it reached the top, they looked up the state record because it was such a large specimen.
Johnson had a scale in his backpack, which indicated the fish to be 20 pounds, 6 ounces. The previous state record was 18 pounds, 4 ounces. It was caught June 4, 1984 from the Knife River. That fish was 41 inches long.
“Right away, when it came over the wall, we looked at each other and thought, this thing is huge,” Johnson said. “We had to look up the record because we knew this was a really big burbot.”
But it was 11:30 p.m. and there was nowhere to officially weigh the fish. So they put it in a garbage bag and placed it in their vehicle to make sure it wouldn’t freeze. Then they continued fishing until 3 a.m.
In the morning, Johnson traveled around the Minot area to receive two Whopper Club weights. One of them was 19 pounds, 13 ounces, and the other was 19 pounds, 8 ounces. Then, he went to a meat processor with a North Dakota game warden at 10 a.m. on Jan. 4 to receive a certified weight, which was 19 pounds, 5 ounces.
(According to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s Whopper Club website, only species listed and meeting minimum weight requirements will qualify for a recognition sticker and certificate. Only one application may be made for each species in a lifetime. An application card must be filled out, giving weight and length of fish, date and where caught, signature of applicant, and signature of person weighing the fish. Applications must be submitted within 90 days of when the fish was caught. The minimum for a burbot is 8 pounds.)
Scott Gangl, a fisheries management supervisor for the NDG&F, said confirmation of the fish being a state record is still in process. The new record could be officially recognized as soon as next month.
“It’s a pretty cool experience,” Johnson said. “It’s kind of, right spot at the right time. … If there’s one record that a guy wants to break, like a cool one, it’s burbot.”
For the record, the largest burbot caught in Minnesota was 19 pounds, 10 ounces. It’s a record that’s stood since Dec. 19, 2016.