In early March, I was wondering why I wasn’t reading all about more trophy-sized walleye coming out of the Pecatonica River west of Rockford.
Thom Matejewski, Spring Valley Walleye Club president and overall fishing fanatic, told me to ask Dan Palmer, Masters Walleye Circuit tournaments promoter, who lives near the Pecatonica and knows it well enough to be a guide there.
So why isn’t there as much news this year as last year, when a teen caught the state record walleye there in early winter and a few weeks later an even bigger one was pulled out of the river?
“It’s frozen,” Palmer replied.
Should have thought of that.
Anyway, Matejewski figures when the little river does thaw, anglers and fame-seekers are going to flock there and “beat it up.”
A warm winter kept the river open last winter, and it’s a winter hangout for walleye. Last January, Nick Tassoni ofRockfordwas trolling when he hooked the 14-pound, 12-ounce walleye that broke a half-century-old state record. Less than two months later, Palmer was able to photograph Beloit, Wis., angler Jim Zimmerman’s 15-pound, 31-inch fish.
Palmer fishes the river at Harrison, Ill., near the Wisconsin border, and said there are few public access areas for bank fishing other than in the Two Rivers Forest Preserve in Winnebago County. The river is navigable between Rockton and Pecatonica, although it’s also shallow, narrow and treacherous. It’s a great place to damage a boat by striking a sunken “dead-head log” or rocks.
To picture it, think of the Vermilion River, only instead of being loaded with smallmouth bass and typical river fish, it’s inhabited by monster pike and a few massive walleye that have grown up gorging themselves on white suckers.
“It’s small, narrow, lots of dead-head logs,” said Palmer, who sometimes wishes the river remained was a secret.
Still, after ice-out, he anticipates seeing a steady stream of anglers to the unusual spring-fed river.
Palmer said fishing the Pecatonica is not like fishing the Illinois for sauger, although if the level’s high enough, anglers can troll in spots or vertical jig. It’s more of a game of searching for the big walleye that might be in deep holes at bends in the river or on flats between holes.
“It’s not a numbers game; it’s pretty much a trophy hunt,” he said, adding that anglers rarely catch their limit there.
In addition, anglers can count on losing a lot of tackle at the snag-filled Pecatonica.
Palmer said he’s positive there are bigger walleye in the river than the two that broke state records last year.
“I have caught fish longer than the state record,” he said, but they were not full of eggs at the time of year when he caught them.
While Palmer’s convinced another state record walleye lurks in the Pecatonica, Matejewski has his doubts about repeats after record-breakers. Referring to people expecting to catch 4- and 5-pound sauger in the Illinois River like they did in the late 1990s, he believes sometimes there just is a “year class” of fish, for which conditions and food supply always was excellent. When an Illinois walleye reaches 14-15 pounds, that fish is “near the end of its life.” Folks shouldn’t expect to release a 4-pound sauger in theIllinoisor a 13-pound walleye in the Pecatonica and then catch it again when it grows to record size.
“That’s like catching your 98-year-old grandmother. She might be there next year; she might not,” Matejewski joked.