Of the 44 states with walleye records, South Dakota is tied with Nebraska for 18th place for the biggest walleye.
South Dakota would be pushed even further down the list if not for Georgine Chytka’s catch at the Fort Randall Tailrace on the Missouri River in November 2002. Her walleye, which weighed 16 pounds, 2 ounces, broke the 23-year-old state record by nearly a pound.
Fourteen years later, Chytka’s seat at the top remains unchallenged. However, with fishing technology and walleye management progressing every year, it seems inevitable that her record will also fall. Trends from other states seem to point to that happening, with 16 percent of all walleye records being broken during the last decade.
So, where will South Dakota’s next record-breaking walleye come from?
There are some requirements a body of water must possess to produce a 17-pound walleye. First, the fish has to be able to mature and reach its full growth potential. Chytka’s record 32-inch walleye, for example, was estimated by fisheries staff from the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks to be 15 to 20 years old. That’s about as old as a walleye can get around here
For a 1996 year-class walleye to be still living today, it’s likely that it would need a big body of water in which to stay hidden. Other examples from neighboring states seem to support this requisite. Montana’s state record came from Lake Elwell (15,000 surface acres), and Wyoming’s record came from Boysen Reservoir (20,000 acres). Nebraska’s largest walleye on record came from Lake McConaughy (36,000 acres).
Surprisingly, it’s not always the biggest lakes that produce the biggest fish, though. For example, North Dakota’s record comes from Wood Lake, which covers only about 200 acres.
Not only will the next record walleye need to be fully mature, but it also needs to be well fed. Chytka’s fall walleye had an amazing girth of 20 inches. Cruising the waters below Lake Francis Case, the giant female would have had a smorgasbord of shad, shiners and small game fish to dine on without having to exert too much energy. The next state record would need to come from a lake that offers a similar diet.
Finally, a record-breaker would need to come from a body of water that’s a dedicated walleye fishery. In other words, not only would the lake or reservoir need to be managed for walleyes by the state, it would also have to be a destination where anglers pursue the prized species. It is highly unlikely someone fishing for panfish on a small lake or slough will accidentally land a record-breaking walleye.
A number of lakes offer one, but not the other, of these trophy requirements, and finding that 17-pound walleye needs the perfect storm of both. There are a couple bodies of water, however, that come to mind that hit both of the benchmarks.
Lake Oahe is an obvious choice, mainly because it covers 370,000 acres of water and has a maximum depth of more than 200 feet that give it plenty of real estate for walleye to grow. With more than 2,200 miles of shoreline, it’s the nation’s largest man-made reservoir in terms of surface area.
Oahe is known for more than just walleye fishing, which is apparent when you visit its 29 recreational areas. Those recreational areas are key to making the massive lake more accessible for anglers, as otherwise it would have unreachable spots.
In terms of fat walleye, Oahe has a surprisingly delicate food cycle. In years such as 1997 and 2011, great floods swept through the Missouri River and caused crucial bait fish, particularly rainbow smelt, to get washed down stream. The flushing out of the smelt left a lot of walleye skinny for years to come, making record-approaching fish impossible to find.
For Oahe to grab headlines with a walleye in the upper teens, it’ll need to develop a more stable food source — and that’s exactly what it’s doing. A walleye-intensive study between North Dakota and South Dakota on Oahe is set to wrap in 2017. Of particular interest to walleye enthusiasts is that the study is looking into how fisheries biologists and staff can enhance habitat for rainbow smelt or develop alternative prey species to support and sustain the walleye population.
A hundred years ago, Waubay Lake would have had as good a chance at producing a trophy walleye as a trophy woolly mammoth. Today, it’s one of the best fisheries in the state, and the only mammoths are those pursued by anglers.
Thanks to relentless flooding in the 1900s, water levels rose to create the boundary-ignoring Waubay chain of glacial lakes. What was once a series of dry depressions that farmers planted around and hunters shot pheasants over became a premier walleye destination in northeastern South Dakota.
Waubay is 15,000 acres, but its connection to Blue Dog, Rush, Minnewasta, Hillebrands and Spring lakes make it feel twice as big.
Not every acre of Waubay is fishable because a lot of spots still resemble the slough it once was. The rest of the lake is full of textbook walleye habitat, though, with plenty of submerged timber, rock piles, road beds and farm implements.
The primary food for Waubay’s walleye is also the primary target for a lot of panfish anglers. Perch and white bass, whose populations show a strong correlation to walleye’s weight, have seen rising numbers in the 2000s.
Waubay also benefits from being a productive fishery the entire year. Its jagged shorelines and series of islands allow fishermen to play the wind in any situation, and its pickup-supportive ice every winter gives anglers access to the whole lake.
About the Author: Spencer Neuharth is the Outdoor Forum’s fishing columnist. He studied biology at the University of South Dakota and worked as a fish biologist for five years.