Right or Wrong, North Dakota Rejects Record Walleye

Based on interviews with eyewitnesses, North Dakota Game and Fish officials removed a 16-pound 9-ounce walleye from its record book.

Right or Wrong, North Dakota Rejects Record Walleye

Tom Volk and his controversial catch, a 16-pound 9-ounce walleye from North Dakota's Heart River.

Few topics draw as much attention among anglers as record fish. While it’s true state record catches don’t often make the national news, the stories of these amazing fish are certainly a big deal locally. And this was certainly the case when Tom Volk of Lincoln, North Dakota, caught a new state record walleye.

Quote from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department Facebook page (April 22, 2019): 

Congratulations to Tom Volk for reeling in a new state record walleye! On April 21, the Lincoln angler caught the 16-pound 9-ounce fish from shore along the Heart River in Mandan, besting the old record by three-quarters of a pound that was set last May by Neal Leier of Bismarck while fishing the Missouri River.

If you don’t live in the Midwest, then you probably don’t comprehend the magnitude of a new state record walleye. While the northern pike is the official state fish of North Dakota, ask almost any diehard NoDak angler which species is No. 1 in their home state and they’ll say walleye. And truth be told, northern pike would probably slip to third behind perch.

A new state record walleye in North Dakota is a big deal. Or, as President Trump would say, “YUGE!” Before Neal Leier’s 15-pound 13-ounce record walleye in 2018, the state record had stood for nearly 60 years.

Fair vs. Foul Hooked

I wish I could end this article by offering congrats to Tom Volk on his giant walleye, but the story of this record fish is seemingly as murky as the waters of the Heart River.

Here’s what we know for sure.

According to a detailed story from The Dickinson Press, Volk was fishing shoulder to shoulder with other walleye anglers from the banks of the Heart River. Using a jig with a plastic trailer, Volk and his fishing buddy were having good luck, landing about a dozen walleyes. 

“I cast my jig out and felt that nice thump you get when a nice fish takes it,” Volk said. “I set the hook and knew right away it was a big fish. I was hoping it was a walleye, but when it got up near the surface and splashed its tail somebody said, ‘Oh, it's just a big carp.’ I fought it a while longer and it finally tired and gave up. Then it came to the surface and you could see it was a big walleye. It was like whoa.” 

Apparently, the massive walleye rolled a few times during the battle in the heavy current, which caused the line to wrap around the fish. For that reason, the fish was coming in sideways instead of head first.

Volk’s fishing buddy knew bringing a huge walleye to the bank wouldn’t be easy, especially when it was wrapped in line, so he ran downriver and was able to net the fish. Distance from angler to netted fish was 30 to 40 yards.

Volk’s family was playing in a nearby park when he landed his 16-pound 9-ounce walleye with help of his friend/net-man Joe Gibbs.
Volk’s family was playing in a nearby park when he landed his 16-pound 9-ounce walleye with help of his friend/net-man Joe Gibbs.

As detailed in The Dickinson Press story from April 22, rumors immediately surfaced about the fish possibly being foul hooked (snagged). Quote: “Volk, a community prevention specialist for the state Department of Human Services and also a member of the Lincoln city council, asked to put to rest a rumor that he snagged the fish. He hooked the fish in the mouth, he said, and it wrapped itself in line as it fought. The mouth hook was certified by Game and Fish, Volk said. A snagged fish would not count as a record.”

And this is where the story of the Volk’s record walleye takes a turn.

North Dakota Game and Fish Department Facebook page post (May 13, 2019):

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department has completed an investigation into the 16-pound 9-ounce walleye taken April 21 from the Heart River, and based on evidence provided, department officials have concluded the fish was foul hooked, and therefore cannot be recognized as a state record.

After the fish was visually verified by Game and Fish, and information was released about its record weight, we started receiving information that the fish may have been foul hooked, which led to the subsequent investigation. Statements from eyewitnesses and other information contributed to the eventual finding. 

The North Dakota fishing proclamation states that: “Possession of foul hooked fish is illegal. Any foul hooked fish must be immediately returned to the water regardless of condition. A foul hooked fish or snagged fish is defined as any fish hooked or caught in any area from behind the gill covers to the tail.”

To qualify as a state record, a fish must be harvested in accordance with rules for recreational fishing.

Volk denies his Heart River walleye was foul hooked. He told the Billings Gazette, “There’s a hole in the mouth of the fish. There’s string burn on the side of the fish’s cheek. There’s no indication of any damage to the body of the fish.”

Volk hopes eyewitnesses will come forward to substantiate his claim.

My Opinion

Do I think Volk and his buddy were snagging walleyes? No. And I wasn’t standing on the banks of the Heart River on April 21, so I have no idea whether Volk’s whopper walleye was hooked in the mouth or somewhere in the body behind the gill covers (NoDak definition of foul hooked).

I’ve caught enough fish of various species on jigs in murky spring rivers to know foul hooking happens occasionally regardless of angler intentions. And while I’ve never hooked a 16-pound walleye on a jig, it certainly seems reasonable to believe Volk initially hooked the fish in the mouth with a jig, then during the fish rolling, the hook slipped out of its mouth and embedded elsewhere.

It’s also possible Volk’s walleye was hooked in the mouth at the time it was netted, then while it thrashed in the net, the hook moved from its mouth and then became embedded elsewhere. I’ve had this happen many times.

Online rumors claim there’s a cell phone video of the Volk walleye netting and unhooking. Thus far I’ve been unable to find it on Facebook, YouTube, etc. Some people chiming in to the ND Game and Fish Facebook page claim the video shows a jig in the fish’s back, while others who watched the same video (apparently blurry) say it looks like the jig is hooked in the net. If I’m able to find the video, I’ll update this story. (See May 16, 2019 update at bottom of page.)

A Final (and Odd?) Response from ND Game and Fish

According to the Billings Gazette article, North Dakota Chief Game Warden Bob Timian said statements by eyewitnesses and other information contributed to the department’s final decision. Okay, that seems reasonable. But this next statement is perplexing: “Timian said Volk's fish should have been returned [to the river], but Game and Fish won't contest his keeping it.” 


If Volk’s walleye was foul hooked and kept, then North Dakota game wardens should follow through with all the logical enforcement steps, which certainly includes confiscating the fish, correct?

If the walleye wasn’t foul hooked, then it should be North Dakota’s new record, correct?

You either have proof/evidence it was foul hooked and kept, or you don’t.

Evidently, North Dakota Game and Fish officials can have it both ways. And maybe this is the correct decision for a massive walleye that perhaps was legally hooked initially, then somehow became foul hooked during the fight or netting process.

Update (May 16, 2019)

I was finally able to find and watch the walleye netting video. It can be found online through the Grand Forks Herald. This very detailed follow-up article about the state record walleye controversy includes an 11-page Officer's Report, which resulted in Volk being given a warning ticket. Click here to check out the article and video.

Walleye pics from Tom Volk Facebook


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