Montana Angler Catches State Record Sunfish

Montana fishing guide and retired lure-maker Pete Jellar was just out to catch some bait from a backwater of the Flathead River on Tuesday when he felt an unusually heavy thump on the end of his line. “When the fish first hit, I figured it had to be a big crappie,” he tells F&S. “Then, while I was reeling it in, I thought it might be my best crappie ever.” But when Jellar finally got the fish to the surface and saw it was a pumkinseed sunfish, he turned to his boat-mates and hollered: “That’s a state record, boys!”

Jellar, his brother-in-law, and a mutual friend were targeting peamouth chubs and pike minnows. “We were using one of the bigger flies I make to catch baitfish when we started getting into some 9- to 10-inch yellow perch and small crappies,” says Jellar, who guides for Captain Mike’s Fish’n. “So, we decided to have some fun with that.” At one point, Jellar reeled up and added his favorite plastic trailer to one of his flies—a Chancey’s Crappie Candy, which he makes himself and named after a good friend and fellow guide. Just before leaving for the day, Jellar said to his friends, “You guys have been catching fish left and right. I’m the guide, and I haven’t caught a thing in a half hour.” And that’s when he felt the thump.

photo of record sunfish
Jellar’s state-record sunny, on the seat of his boat. Greg Limberis and Duane Neilson

When Jellar saw the fish break the surface, he almost couldn’t believe it was a sunfish. “The place were were fishing has some really big crappies, but it’s not known for record-size pumkinseeds,” he says. “Most of the ones we get here are about half a pound.” Knowing the fish had a chance at the record, the fishermen took some pictures and measured the sunny at 10 inches long with an impressive 11-inch girth. “On my boat scale, it went 1.08 pounds,” says Jellar. “So, we raced back to the boat ramp to get an official weight.”

photo of record sunfish
Jeller’s pumkinseed weight 1 pound even on the first official scale, but it had to be weighed again. Debby Paine

Jellar brought the fish to Chancey and Dave’s Fish Camp (yup, the same Chancey that Jellar’s Chancey’s Crappie Candy trailer is named for). On that scale, the fish went 1 pound even. It was losing weight by the minute. “We went straight to the fish and game office to get it certified, but they weren’t happy with Chancey’s scale because it didn’t print out a label, or a ‘weight stub.’” says Jellar. So, they rushed to Albertson’s grocery store in Kalispell to put it on yet another scale. It’s illegal in Montana to transfer fish in water (to combat the introduction of non-native fish ), and as Jellar’s sunfish dried out, his chances at breaking the record were quickly drying up. Finally, they put the fish on a third official scale, and it printed out a stub that read 0.995 pounds—enough to beat the previous state mark by a few precious ounces.

photo of record sunfish
It’s finally official. Jellar’s big pumkinseed, with all the required paperwork. Debby Paine

Jellar’s slab pumpkinseed is the latest in a string of Montana state fish records to fall recently. Since March of last year, a 9.58-pound largemouth bass, a 32.41-pound brown trout, a 4.21-pound longnose sucker, and a 2.39-pound Utah chub (caught just last month) have all set new marks. At barely shy of a pound, Jellar’s may be the smallest of the bunch, but it’s no less impressive, as the 0.96-pound previous-record pumkinseed, caught by Nathan Bache from Upper Thompson Lake, had held the top spot for 16 years.

“You know, I’m 56 years old, and I’ve always wanted to get a state record,” Jellar says. “I got it now. And I’m still giddy and overwhelmed.”

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