Former Powell resident recovers from accident to set new walleye world record

Posted 8/22/19

In a way, a former Powell resident’s world record walleye was harvested by accident: Specifically, a bike accident.

To be clear, Christopher Sheets meant to catch his 15.4-pound walleye at …

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Former Powell resident recovers from accident to set new walleye world record


In a way, a former Powell resident’s world record walleye was harvested by accident: Specifically, a bike accident.

To be clear, Christopher Sheets meant to catch his 15.4-pound walleye at Lake DeSmet earlier this summer. He didn’t know it was a world record-class fish at the time, but he was looking for dinner — and who doesn’t love the sweet, nutty flavor of walleye? But he probably would not have been at the lake, nor trying out a new style of fishing, if not for a life-threatening mountain bike accident he suffered in Laramie last September.


Spearfishing as rehab

Sheets is a wildlife biologist for the Bureau of Land Management in Buffalo and known throughout the state as an accomplished athlete and outdoorsman. In 2017, he won a multi-day survival contest held in the Bighorn Mountains as a pilot for a television show called Life Link. In the show, Sheets showed off his expertise with his traditional bow, making surviving through a snowstorm look like playtime while his competitors were either forced to drop out of the contest or starved.

“When he was fighting to survive in freezing temperatures, with little food, he was sending squirrels to the production team to try,” said Garrett Burbank, a Powell resident and executive producer of the Life Link pilot. “He [Sheets] literally had next to nothing but chose to share his food — not because they needed it but because he wanted them to experience it.”

Sheets’ days of perceived youthful invincibility are all but over, however. Last year, he wanted to get in a short mountain bike ride before a family dinner in Laramie and decided to pedal through the campus at the University of Wyoming, his alma mater. Sheets came to a familiar set of stairs. It was an obstacle he’d cleared many times in the past. Without much thought, he went for it.

He came off the bike, landing hard on the cement.

At first he tried to walk off the pain, thinking he had the wind knocked out. But despite having a “pretty high” pain tolerance, Sheet only made it a half-block before collapsing. He had separated his shoulder, broke a vertebrae and 11 ribs, and punctured his left lung.

He called his wife, Gina, for help. Even though she was nearby, Sheets had a hard time giving directions. “I could barely make out street signs because my eyes were swelling shut,” he said.

Sheets would find himself hospitalized and forced to spend nearly three months recovering on his couch at home. “It was a thump for sure.”

Sheets started looking into activities that were low impact to speed recovery. His doctor suggested water therapy. He couldn’t see himself doing “jazzercise with a bunch of 80-year-old ladies” — and he wasn’t capable of spending a day without thinking about outdoor sports — so he turned his attention to spearfishing.

“I watched a bunch of Youtube videos and eBayed the equipment,” he said. By spring he was geared up and ready to go.

Typical of his nature, Sheets wanted the exercise to be as taxing as possible. “I don’t know when to stop,” he said.

So instead of investing in scuba gear, Sheets trained himself to hold his breath for more than two minutes and took up free diving. He also opted for a pole spear, which has an effective range of about 5 feet, instead of a much easier to use and longer ranged speargun.


A ‘casual dive’ becomes a record

June 17 was a stormy day in Buffalo, but late in the afternoon the clouds started to break. So after putting his 1-year-old down for a nap, and “with the good graces of my wife,” Sheets loaded up the truck and headed to the dam at Lake DeSmet. He had been fishing for carp at the reservoir for a couple weeks. But on this trip he was looking for walleye.

“This was a spot that I had anticipated walleye would be cruising later in the evening,” he said.

Sheets’ visibility was fading along with the light as the sun started to set in the west — and all he was seeing were carp. So he headed for deeper water. Sheets scanned the bottom of the lake in about 25 feet of water and a dark shape. “As I approached from above I saw the distinct flash of white on the fins,” he said, “and I knew it was walleye.”

Sheets had no idea how big the walleye was other than thinking it looked decent-sized. As he approached, the fish realized Sheets was in pursuit and headed for deeper water.

“I matched his speed as best as possible and gave three last hard fin kicks and coasted in close for the final few feet,” Sheets later wrote of the account for the International Underwater Spearfishing Association.

“With the tip of my pole spear about 5 feet from his tail fin, I released just as it started to turn. The spear hit hard behind the dorsal fin and bounced off without engaging. The fish was shocked by the blow,” Sheets wrote. “I closed the remaining distance with the fish still stunned just off the bottom. I re-powered the band and this time the angle was better. I released again with a perfect hit.”

After spearing the fish, Sheets realized he’d gone deeper than he’d expected. “It seemed like forever as I worked my way to the surface.” But once he resurfaced, “I started to giggle out loud,” he said, “as I knew this was just not another fish.”

Upon weighing his catch, Sheets found that his “casual evening dive” had yielded a 15.4-pound walleye. The International Underwater Spearfishing Association awarded him the world record for a walleye caught by sling or polespear.


‘It’s not a sport we see a lot’

Surprisingly, Sheets’ walleye isn’t the largest to come out of Lake DeSmet. Colorado Springs resident Matthew Deichsel used a speargun to take a 17-plus pound walleye from the lake last year, shattering the previous spearfishing world record of 13.3 pounds.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department doesn’t recognize fish harvested by spearfishing, keeping only hook and line records. Wyoming’s hook and line record walleye was caught from Boysen Reservoir in 1991 and weighed 17.42 pounds.

Not everyone is a fan of spearfishing.

“Some think it’s cheating,” said Paul Mavrakis, Sheridan Region fisheries supervisor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. But he disputes the common myth. “Sitting up in a boat is probably easier,” Mavrakis said.

Few can hold their breath for more than two minutes underwater. Even fewer can do so while chasing a fish and still have the composure to find the target.

Mavrakis doubts there will ever be a huge surge in spearfishing in the state. “It’s not a sport we see a lot,” he said. “You’d need a mentor of some kind to get into it.”

The state has a list of regulations for the sport, including a requirement to use a buoy and flag to mark dive areas. Divers are also required to be totally submerged while fishing — no snorkeling — and there is a list of areas off limits, such as swim areas and near boat ramps. Spearfishing is only allowed in Wyoming lakes.

As a scientist and conservationist, Sheets knows that if the sport becomes popular — especially for those using spearguns and scuba gear — additional regulations may be needed; the state already has different limits for spear fishermen (a limit of two) than hook fishermen (a limit of six) in most waters.

In the meantime, Sheets is determined to take fewer risks — including on his bicycle. His love for solo hunts in grizzly habitat and pushing himself to the limit will now take a backseat to his family.

“I’m going to slow down and spend less time in the back country by myself,” Sheets said. “Not because I can’t, but because I’m a father.”

He’s proud of his record fish, but refuses to let results guide him in the future.

“If you’re focused on records or not filling a tag, you’re missing the point,” he said. “It’s more about the process than the end results.”