Gettin’ jiggy: Beloit man hauls in Illinois’ largest walleye

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By Paul A. Smith of the Journal Sentinel

Jim Zimmerman of Beloit spent a career as an ironworker.

Now retired, he still works with metals almost daily.

But these days, it’s part of his favorite avocation – fishing – and mostly portioned out one-eighth to three-quarters of an ounce at a time.

“I’d rather jig than anything,” said Zimmerman, 52, of his favorite fishing technique. “I really like feeling the fish hit.”

Few anglers are better acquainted with that feeling. Zimmerman has fished all but a couple days of 2012, mostly on the rivers of southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois.

Most of that time has been spent jigging. And most has been spent in pursuit of his favorite species, the walleye.

It should come as no surprise that on March 11, Zimmerman made plans to fish.

The water: the Pecatonica River in Illinois’ Winnebago County. His partner: longtime fishing buddy Larry Stangl, 53, of Beloit.

The pair hit the river just after sunrise. Zimmerman motored to a favorite spot, a back-eddy in about 7 feet of water, and dropped the anchor.

The first hour yielded no fish. But about 8 a.m., Stangl hooked and landed a 2-pound walleye.

Ten minutes later Zimmerman cast to about the same spot Stangl had connected with his fish.

Zimmerman’s offering – a one-eighth-ounce jig tipped with a 3-inch plastic grub – hesitated on retrieve.

He set the hook to resistance. He said it felt like a “good” fish.

It would be the last time that adjective was used to describe the fish.

Reeling and lifting, Zimmerman worked the fish to the surface. As anglers are prone to do, they used that first glimpse to assess the species – a walleye – and its size.

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“Yeah, it was special,” Zimmerman said.

Stangl prepared the net. After 30 seconds, the fish was boat-side.

“It’s a giant,” Stangl said, landing the fish with his first scoop.

The Pecatonica River rises in Wisconsin’s Iowa County and flows south into Illinois, where it joins the Rock River. The “Pec” is well-known as a top walleye fishery in the region.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources has stocked 38,000 to 160,000 walleye fingerlings annually in the Pecatonica since the 1980s, said Dan Sallee, regional fisheries biologist for the agency.

In addition, some walleye and sauger stocked in Wisconsin in the Rock River system are swept over dams and into Illinois during periods of high water.

The result is a “very good” population of walleye in the Rock and Pecatonica rivers in northern Illinois, Sallee said.

The Illinois record walleye – a 14.75-pounder – was caught in the Pecatonica in January.

No stranger to trophy fish, Zimmerman knew the walleye in his boat was a potential record.

He weighed it on a hand-held scale: 15.5 pounds.

Zimmerman and Stangl exchanged a knowing smile.

“Larry wanted to leave immediately and get it registered,” Zimmerman said. “I said ‘No, let’s keep fishing.’ “

Though he prefers to release big fish, Zimmerman decided to keep the potential state record.

The pair spent another 2 1/2 hours on the water, boating a couple small northern pike but no more walleye.

When they headed for the boat landing, they called Dan Palmer of Rockford, Ill., a friend and fishing tournament organizer. Palmer met them at the landing, photographed the big fish and directed Zimmerman to the Illinois DNR to register the fish.

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The fish was weighed on a certified scale at Blackhawk Meats in South Beloit, Ill. The official weight: 15.08 pounds.

The fish was 31 1/2 inches long and had a girth of 20 3/8 inches.

After a few more steps, including statements from witnesses and an examination of the fish by an agency biologist, Zimmerman’s walleye was registered as the Illinois record.

Zimmerman plans to have the fish mounted. He also plans to continue with a steady diet of his favorite pastime.

Friday morning he fished the Rock River in southern Wisconsin. If you were wondering, the Wisconsin record walleye is 18 pounds; the fish was caught in 1933 on High Lake in Vilas County.

Very few walleyes more than 15 pounds are caught each year in North America.

“It’s hard to explain to some people, but the important thing to me is getting out on the river, not setting any records,” Zimmerman said. “I’ll keep that up as long as I’m able.”

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>