By Amy Kent Herald Staff Writer
The Clinton Herald
---- — CLINTON — Fishing is in season, and one local angler has snagged the fish of a lifetime.
During the peak of walleye season, Dale Merchant and his long-time fishing partner, and uncle, Charlie Sexton, headed out on the morning of March 26 for a day on the river.
What they came home with was something they never anticipated — a 13 pound, 8 ounce, female walleye measuring 29 inches long.
"It was the fish of a lifetime, there's no doubt about that," Merchant said. "We started probably about 9:30 a.m., because that morning was about 23 degrees. We fished our spots and I'm thinking about 10:30 a.m. we caught the big one."
Coming in one pound shy of the state record, a 14 pound, 8 ounce behemoth caught in 1986 by Gloria Eoriatti in the Des Moines River, Merchant's fish joins a relatively short list of near record-breaking walleye catches in Iowa.
According to Iowa Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Biologist Scott Gritters, only about .001 percent of walleye reach the size of Merchant's prize fish.
"We rarely see a fish that big," Gritters said. "Female walleye get bigger than male walleye but I've never seen one that big."
One reason Merchant was able to nab the mammoth female, says Gritters, is because it's nearly spawning season for walleye and the closely related sauger fish. When female sauger and walleye prepare for spawning season, they become more apt to biting because they need extra food and strength for the spawn.
For that reason, walleye are one of the most sought-after fish soon after the river thaws.
"Walleye is the first thing that people go after," Gritters said. "As soon as they can get their boats in, even when the ice is still flowing, that's the first thing that they're after."
In addition to walleye, anglers also are on the lookout for sauger and paddlefish this time of year.
Finding a sauger the size of Merchant's walleye is a nearly impossible feat, but Gritters said the two are commonly mistaken for the same.
The two fish have similar traits and common habitat trends, but the two are different when it comes to size and weight.
While catching a 13.8-pound walleye is something of legend, nabbing a sauger weighing in at more than 5 pounds is even more rare.
"A sauger is a fish that looks a lot like a walleye but a five pound sauger is huge," Gritters said. "Anglers have got to know the difference because they carry different regulations."
There are no restrictions on sauger but walleye carry a limit of six per day and must measure between 15 to 20 inches. In Merchant's case, he was able to keep his 29-inch female because she was considered a prize fish, but decided to release her back into the water.
He said he and his partner Sexton typically release 99 percent of all their catches, keeping only one or two a trip for dinner.
To him, it is more about the sport, and by releasing her that day, he offers someone else an opportunity to catch the big one. That is something Gritters appreciates in an angler.
"I applaud him for releasing it," Gritters said. "Once they get that size, it's nice to get those eggs back into the system."