SHERIDAN — At first, fish biologist Andrew Nikirk didn’t fully believe Sheridan College student Caleb Salzman’s story. Upon answering the phone one Friday morning last month at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Nikirk talked with an excited Salzman, who believed he had just carved his way into the record books.
Salzman had landed a significantly big largemouth bass late one Thursday night at Kleenburn Ponds near Sheridan, and when weighing the catch, he believed he had broken a 26-year old record.
“I asked him, ‘Do you have any idea how much it weighs?’” Nikirk said.
“Based on my tackle box scale, it’s over 12 pounds,” Salzman responded.
“I’m thinking, absolutely no way,” Nikirk said. “You’ve obviously got the wrong fish. You don’t know what you’ve caught.”
Dayton game warden Dustin Shorma — who previously held the record — was in the office that Friday, as well, and had a similar reaction to Salzman’s claim.
“I thought it was a bunch of crap,” Shorma said.
Well, Salzman knew what he had reeled in, and when he brought it in for Nirkirk to confirm the species, seeing was well, believing.
“He came in and opened the cooler and there it was, and under my breath I said, ‘Oh my God,’ Nikirk said. “It was an amazing fish.”
The two weighed the monster on a scale at the WGFD office, and then Salzman took it to get officially weighed at Sackett’s Market where it registered at 11.51 pounds — shattering the old record of 7.81 pounds.
Nikirk estimated the record-setter at nearly 20 years old — almost twice as old as the majority of largemouth in Kleenburn. The fish likely ate some of the stocked lake trout, among other things, to grow 24.5 inches in length and 20.75 inches in girth.
Largemouth bass, which are not native to the area, were introduced to Kleenburn Ponds in 1993. That means the fish Salzman found was born and spent its entire life in Kleenburn, surviving harsh winters, droughts and anglers for nearly two decades.
Largemouth bass are not raised in Wyoming. When WGFD stocks a pond with a non-native fish, it makes a trade with another state’s fish hatchery in order to bring the fish to Wyoming.
Shorma remembers everything about his then record-setting fish. He grew up with a certain air of arrogance that he’d placed his name in Wyoming angler history.
“At that time I actually told my dad I was going to break the thing, pretty cocky for a 15-year old kid,” Shorma said. “As soon as I caught that fish back then, I knew I had it.”
The largemouth Shorma caught in 1992 at another northern Sheridan County pond knocked off a record that had stood for 50 years.
Shorma knew the day would come when he’d no longer have the largest fish on record and believes there are plenty more largemouth bass out there bigger than his from 1992. However, neither Shorma nor Nikirk anticipate receiving any calls like the one they got from Salzman last month.
“Wyoming is pretty high latitude, has pretty cold winters and a short growing season, relatively speaking” Nikirk said. “So to produce a fish of close to 12 pounds for the official state record is quite phenomenal. To beat it, it’s possible. Record are meant to be broken. … I just think it would be very difficult.”
The Sheridan area — stretching east to South Dakota, south to Kaycee, north to Montana and west to the Bighorn Mountains — boasts six state game fish records and one non-game fish record. Keyhole Reservoir housed the northern pike and freshwater drum record; a farm pond near Big Horn has the Pumpkinseed record; the rock bass record came out of a Sheridan County pond; the Powder River in Campbell County holds the goldeye record and the largest longnose sucker came once called Little Goose Creek home.
And now, Kleenburn Ponds and Caleb Salzman own the largemouth bass record.