Steve Pohlmeier was fishing the Rock River with his friend Troy Gustafson, who broke the shovelnose sturgeon record in 2021. Marty Gustafson, Troy’s uncle, broke the record about a month later, and almost a year later, in January 2024, Troy’s son, Kashten Gustafson, again broke the record with a 12-pound, 15-ounce catch. IDNR fisheries biologist Rob Hilsabeck and the INHS Rock River Sturgeon Research Scientist witnessed the fish, which was tagged with PIT and Floy tags. Tissue samples were taken for genetic and age analyses and the fish was turned to the Rock River.

May 1, 2024

How to Earn Bragging Rights for a Record Fish

All photos courtesy of the angler.

Once in a blue moon, the fish at the end of the line of a long-fought battle is a personal best—and just may be a contender for a state record. Remarkably, from 2021 to 2022, 10 Illinois state records were broken, and already in 2024 one record-breaking fish has been certified.

On the edge of a paved road, a young man holds up a long gray narrow fish. In the background is a green lush  agricultural field.
In July 2022, 15-year-old AJ Downing caught a state hook-and-line record spotted gar from Kidd Lake Canal in Monroe County. Ironically, he broke the existing record of a spotted gar hooked by a friend from the same body of water. Downing’s fish weighed in at 8 pounds 14.7 ounces and had a girth of 12 inches and a length of 38.5 inches.

Nerissa McClelland, an Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) Illinois River Fisheries Biologist who also coordinates the Record Fish Program, explained that one reason for the increase in record-breaking fish is that “As a community, each and every day fish managers and scientists understand more about aquatic ecosystems and managing fish communities.”

IDNR fisheries biologists go through extensive training while studying to be a biologist. To be hired by IDNR, candidates must have earned a Master’s or Bachelor’s in Fish Management and have at least two years of experience in the field.

“Not only are fisheries biologists able to manage sportfish communities better than ever, anglers are also getting better at fishing,” McClelland explained when asked why there has been a recent uptick in record fish. “Technological advancements have provided anglers with some pretty impressive gear to help land a record fish. With 11 records broken in the span of just three years, now is the time to renew your fishing license and try your luck at catching a state record fish!”

Should you be one of the lucky anglers to be standing with an impressive fish at the end of your line, a fish you suspect might be a record-breaker, what should you do? How do you go about certifying that the monster fish you are admiring is the biggest of that species landed in the state?

The IDNR Big Fish Recognition Program

The IDNR Division of Fisheries recognizes anglers who have legally taken the largest fish on record either by hook-and-line or by bow-and-arrow. The process for submitting entries is similar for both techniques.

A man holds up a massive gray and speckled black fish. In the background is a lake with autumn trees along the shoreline.
2023 was a record year for bowfishing records! On Feb. 20, Phillip Albert took a 20-pound, 4-ounce freshwater drum at Sangchris Lake in Christian County. On June 1, Scott Battin took a 50-pound silver carp from a private pond in Logan County. The next day, Battin took a 92-pound, 1.6-ounce bighead carp from a private pond in Logan County. Silver carp and bighead carp are large, injurious invasive species, and the IDNR appreciates bowfishers’ help in removing them from Illinois waters.

Keep it Legal

Indeed, there are some rules for what may qualify as a state record fish, whether taken by hook-and-line or bow-and-arrow. IDNR reserves the right to reject an entry based upon its investigation on the identification, methods used in catching, or the accuracy of measurement and weighing.

Topping the list of rules is that the fish must be caught in Illinois waters, and must be landed using legal techniques as outlined in the annual Illinois Fishing Information guide. Check out the specifics on the hook-and-line and bow-and-arrow rules at this link.

What Fish Species are Eligible for Certification?

Currently, 55 species of fish are eligible for hook-and-line certification. Click here for the list of these fish. Eighteen species of fish are currently eligible for the Illinois bow-and-arrow state record certification program. This list is available here.

Check Out the Current List of State Record Fish

Take a moment to scan the list of record fish taken by hook-and-line anglers and you will see that the current placeholders include a 31-pound, 7-ounce striped bass taken in 1994 from Sangchris Lake State Park in Christian County. Also standing as state records are a 36-pound, 11.5-ounce brown trout taken in Lake Michigan in 1997 and a 15-pound, 1-ounce walleye harvested in 2012 from the Pecatonica River. Peruse the entire list here.

The bow-and-arrow list contains an impressive number of monster fish, including a 92 pound 1.6 ounce bighead carp taken in 2023, a 78-pound, 8-ounce grass carp harvested in 2024 and a 31-pound, 14.4-ounce blue catfish pulled from the Kaskaskia River in 2019. The current list of bow-and-arrow records can be accessed here.

Contact an IDNR Fisheries Biologist

A fish entered for state record must be kept intact until it has been certified by an IDNR Fisheries Biologist. In some instances, the biologist may take tissue samples for genetic analysis to confirm the species.

A photo collage with various images of men posing with their very large record breaking fish. One of the images if of a fish being weighed on a scale.
Left: James Zimmerman of Beloit, Wisconsin will always remember the day in March 2012 when he caught a 15-pound 1-ounce walleye on the Pecatonica River in Winnebago County. The fish was measured at 31.5 inches in length and had a girth of 20 and 3/8 inches. Middle: Congratulations to Joseph Capilupo of LaGrange who in 2019 caught a state-record smallmouth bass from the Chicago Lake Michigan shoreline. The fish weighed a whopping 7 pounds and 3 ounces, breaking the standing 1985 record by 12 ounces. The new record smallie was 22.25 inches long and had a girth of 16.5 inches. Far right: In August 20215, Jim Klauzer landed the state record flathead catfish from Lake Sangchris. The official weight of the fish was 81 pounds 6.4 ounces. It was successfully released.

Weighing Your Catch

Do not clean or freeze the fish. Keep the fish cool and on ice until it can be weighed. Weigh your fish as soon as possible on a scale certified legal for trade in Illinois, which may be found in grocery stores, meat markets and some bait shops. Your local District Fisheries Biologist also will have such a scale. Two people must witness the weighing process and be listed on your official entry form.

How to Measure Your Catch

You need to submit two measurements for your fish: total length and girth.

Total length is measured from the tip of the snout, with the mouth closed, to the tip of the tail. Measurements are taken to the nearest one-eighth of an inch. If your catch is a sturgeon, lay the fish on its side and measure from the tip of the snout to the fork of the tail.

Girth is measured at the greatest distance around the fish, or its circumference.

Take Photos

Your application must include a clear, side-view image of the fish, preferably with the angler holding the fish. Images may be mailed or submitted electronically. An IDNR Image Release Form must be included as you and your record-breaking fish very well may appear in a future edition of the Illinois Fishing Information Digest and on the I Fish Illinois website.

A photo collage of different people holding up really large freshwater fish.
Illinois record-breaking fish images, clockwise starting at upper left: shovelnose sturgeon, Marty Gustafson, 2021; skipjack herring, Travis Strickland, 2022; pink salmon, Karri Jo Cromwell, 2022; shorthead redhorse, Olaf Nelson, 2021; shovelnose sturgeon, Steve Pohlmeier, 2024; pink salmon, Alex Niemiec, 2022; shovelnose sturgeon, Kashten Gustafson, 2022; lake trout, Atul Mallik, 2021.

Fill out the Application Form

You can access the state record hook-and-line application form here. The form for a potential bow-and-arrow record is available here.

The local District Fisheries Biologist must sign the application form before it is mailed to IDNR Havana Field Headquarters, Attn: State Record Fish, 700 S. 10th Street, Havana, IL, 62644.

What’s in it for the Angler?

A lifetime of bragging rights, even if your record is eventually broken! And a commemorative plaque from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Division of Fisheries.

While some records are broken every year, some long-standing records should be viewed by anglers as exciting challenges. For instance, since 1936 the record 48-pound buffalo harvested from the Illinois waters of the Mississippi River in Adams County has remained unbroken. A 5-pound, 4-ounce yellow bullhead reeled in from the Fox River in Kane County has held the state record since 1955. The record 5-pound, 12.5-ounce sauger pulled from the Mississippi River in JoDaviess County has remained unchallenged since 1967. Record-holding fish of several species—coho salmon, yellow perch, Atlantic salmon, chinook salmon, black crappie, white crappie, largemouth bass, tiger trout and warmouth—date back to the 1970s.

Perhaps this will be the year some of those records are broken! Purchase your fishing license, pack up the gear and spend some time fishing the waters of Illinois. There you can witness, first-hand, the impressive results of the management of Illinois’ fisheries communities. And, with luck, you might just earn yourself a commemorative state record fish plaque.

Kathy Andrews Wright is retired from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources where she was editor of OutdoorIllinois magazine. She is currently the editor of OutdoorIllinois Journal.

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