When Rockford Auburn freshman Nick Tassoni caught a 14.75 lb walleye on January 7, 2012 most were shocked that the Pecatonica River held such a fish. Nick's fish broke a record that had stood for 50 years. Two months later a new record walleye weighing 15.06 lbs. by Jim Zimmerman out of the same stretch of the Pecatonica River.
If one were to quiz fisherman across the state where the next state record walleye would have come from one would hear Lake Michigan, the Kankakee River (which held the record for 50 years), the Mississippi River and maybe the Rock River as a sleeper. If one were to quiz fisherman in Stephenson and Winnebago county one would have heard the Pec, as the locals call it, from a lot of people. This includes Dan Palmer, tournament director for the MWC, who has been telling this to anybody who would listen!
I have been fishing the Pec as long as I can remember as it rolls through my hometown of Freeport, IL. The stretch of river where the two record fish were caught are less than 5 miles away from my grandparents farm and I fished it often. The Pec does not have the best reputation because, like many other rivers in the MidWest, industry abused the river by dumping their waste into the river. Burgess Battery in Freeport was one of the biggest abusers, when it was running and for many years after it closed. Their waste lingered, polluting the river and the area around the plant before finally being cleaned up. The river is also muddy for most of the year as it flows through fertile farmland.
The Pec is known for it's excellent cat fishing and it is loaded with rough fish most notably the common carp. The locals also know it as a producer of big walleyes. Every spring there are reports of large walleyes being caught. When I heard Nick's fish was 31 inches I knew that it could be beat if the walleye was caught prior to spawn. There have been rumors of fish over 14 pounds being caught as long as I can remember. There was even a picture that made the Freeport Journal Standard of a walleye that was claimed to be 36 inches caught near McConnell in the early 2000's.
Ted Peck, an outdoor writer who lived in Shirland, used to write about the Pec often. His column ran in the Freeport Journal Standard and he also wrote for Illinois Game & Fish Magazine. I also remember seeing big walleye's being listed in Phil Pash's Big Fish contest that ran in the Rockford Register Star.
So how does a river that has been known for big walleyes and now has produced two state walleyes stay a secret? The river is not easily accessible, although access is much better know than it was when I was growing up. Most of the river travels through private farmland and, under normal water conditions, it is not easy to navigate with a boat. There are areas that allow for bigger boats but for the most part a flat bottom boat is the best boat to navigate through the log jams and shallow areas. I think this has been the major reason, if you do not know this river you might lose a lower unit. This also makes the river tough to fish especially if it is for one or two fishing trips a year.
Another reason is the locals don't want anyone to know about their diamond in the rough. I get several pictures a year from friends and old classmates who send me a photo of big walleyes they catch out of the Pec. Some are caught while actually fishing for walleyes while others are caught while fishing for catfish. Usually the photo is accompanied by a "if you tell anyone where I caught this I will make you pay"!
With two record walleyes being caught in two months I think it is fair to say that the secret is out! I am a little disappointed that both of these fish have come out of Winnebago County. There will be plenty of people that head over to that stretch of the Pec to try their luck for a record. Hopefully, while everyone is concentrating on the Winnebago stretch of the river, one of my friends or classmates will catch the record in Stephenson County. Then again, they probably won't tell anyone so they can keep it a secret!