HAZELTON, N.D. — He’ll never know for sure, but Jason Mitchell of Devils Lake caught a walleye the morning of April 22, on the Missouri River that might have been a new North Dakota state record.
The behemoth walleye measured 34 inches, Mitchell says, a full inch-and-a-half longer than the 15-pound, 13-ounce walleye Neal Leier of Bismarck caught in May 2018, which stretched the tape at 32½ inches and stands as the current state record.
Mitchell didn’t have a scale in the boat so he decided to release the walleye rather than kill the fish so it could be weighed on a certified scale.
“I didn’t want to kill the fish unless I knew for sure,” Mitchell said. “It was an incredible fish I’ll remember vividly my entire life.”
Host of the “Jason Mitchell Outdoors” television show, Mitchell and a cameraman were on the Missouri River near Hazelton, N.D., when he hooked the walleye while pitching a Northland Tackle Slurp Jig tipped with a Salmo Slick Shad soft plastic into about 4 feet of water. He’d been on the river a few days trying to film a show but said he didn’t have enough good footage for an episode.
Pulling crankbaits, Mitchell says he and a buddy were able to catch plenty of 13- to 19-inch walleyes earlier in the week, but those aren’t the kind of fish that make for a memorable episode.
That quickly changed Wednesday morning. His buddy had returned to work and so Mitchell and his cameraman hit the water alone in an effort to salvage a show.
He’d seen other anglers catch some better fish pitching jigs in shallow water so he decided to switch gears and give the technique a try.
A boat was in the first spot he wanted to fish, Mitchell says, and the second place he tried didn’t produce.
That’s when they noticed a jug floating in the water and scooped it up with a landing net. Wednesday was Earth Day, after all, and his cameraman said picking up litter might be “good mojo,” Mitchell recalls.
The hunch proved correct at the next spot they tried.
“The second cast, I popped a really good fish,” Mitchell said. “It was about an 8½- or 9-pound fish. I thought, ‘That’s a start.’ I told my cameraman, ‘We’re going to shoot a show today.’ ”
The monster hit 5 minutes later, Mitchell says, but it wasn’t the kind of spectacular strike you’d expect from a big walleye.
“I honestly thought I snagged the fish,” he said. “I thought I was reeling in a 25-inch walleye sideways against the current because it was so heavy. And the bite and the hookset felt so funny.”
A snagged fish doesn’t make for good footage, and so Mitchell was just trying to land the walleye and be done with it.
Then he saw the fish, which had engulfed the jig.
“It was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s not snagged,’ ” he said. “I’d never seen anything like it. I’d just caught a really nice walleye, and here was a fish that would eat that one. I’ve touched a fair amount of big walleyes, and this was like a whole other species.”
Trying to land the walleye by himself so the cameraman could shoot video proved to be an adventure, as well. Complicating matters, the jug they’d fetched from the river was still in the net.
“I was trying to shake the jug out of the net, and I’m trying to net the fish by myself in the current,” Mitchell said. “When that fish started swinging its head back and forth, it’s like 2 to 3 feet each side. His mouth was wide open like a 5-gallon bucket.
“It was just unbelievable. The net’s stretched out, I’m cranking on the reel handle with my teeth trying to gain another 6 inches or foot, and I still can’t reach so I cranked on the reel handle a little more with my teeth and finally get it close.”
The walleye was too big for the net, Mitchell says — especially with the jug taking up space — but he was lucky enough to land it.
“Finally, it kind of rolled up at the top and the fish just kind of slid right into the net and coiled up in the bottom of it,” he said. “I just pulled that net as far as I could to keep that fish from flopping out to get the net back up in the boat.”
Whether the walleye would have been a state record, he’ll never know for sure, but if he was a betting man, Mitchell says he’d put odds that it was.
“What I can guarantee is that it’s among the top two or three biggest walleyes ever in the state of North Dakota,” he said. “It’s a pretty special fish. The odds of me catching it? I just can’t imagine that it ever happened.”
As a member of the North Dakota Fishing Hall of Fame who fishes for a living, Mitchell said he actually feels “kind of awkward” catching a walleye that size, especially considering the number of great walleye anglers in the state.
“Records like that, they’re not supposed to be caught by people like me,” he said. “They’re supposed to be caught by kids or some guy who never fishes and he goes out with a friend who fishes all the time and the guy that never fishes catches the fish.”
Watching the walleye swim away is an experience he’ll never forget, Mitchell says.
“The fish was (angry) when it swam off,” he said with a laugh. “It had a tail like a whale. Just the fins — everything was so big.
“It was one of the coolest experiences of my life and to have it on camera filming it for a show, what are the odds?”