Earlier this week South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks (GFP) confirmed that a 127-pound, nine-ounce paddlefish caught on May 7 is now the new state record. Bill Harmon broke a 35-year-old record when he snagged the massive fish in Lake Francis Case, just behind Fort Randall Dam on the Missouri River. The fish did not come without a fight—Harmon and his fishing partner, Justin Bryan, were repulsed the first few times they tried pulling the fish out of the water.
“On the fourth try we decided it was going to take both of us to stabilize her before trying to load her,” Harmon told GrindTV. “When she surfaced again, I set down the rod and got one hand on her lower jaw. Then the hook came completely out. Justin got her by the jaw. We moved her away from the boat as far as we could reach, leaned back, and pulled her into the boat.”
Paddlefish are among the largest freshwater fish in the Missouri River and can pack a wallop. There are only two living species of paddlefish still in existence—the Chinese paddlefish and the American paddlefish—and both are in decline. The construction of dams and other structures had a large negative effect on the species and greatly reduced their spawning habitat. It is believed that the Chinese paddlefish may actually be extinct.
The GFP began to stock paddlefish in Lake Francis in the early 1990s. Over the last several years, natural paddlefish reproduction in South Dakota boosted the number of fish in the stretch of the Missouri River below Fort Randall Dam. Paddlefish have been historically popular with anglers, and South Dakota is seeing a slight resurgence in interest. Currently only a limited number of licenses are available for for snagging or bowfishing in Gavins Point Dam and Lake Francis Case. Experts said that the recent record catch is a great indicator of the progress that has been made in recent years.
“One of the original goals of the paddlefish stocking program was to initiate a sport fishery for this species, Paddlefish are a long-lived species and the Lake Francis Case population has some very old fish,” GFP fisheries biologist Jason Sorensen said in a press release. “There is potential for anglers to harvest large paddlefish and Bill’s recent catch is proof of that.”
Biologists estimate that Harmon’s catch could be near 60 years old and lived in the reservoir well before stocking efforts began. The previous record was caught by Don Gregg in 1979 in the Fort Randall tailwaters. That fish weighed 120 pounds and 12 ounces.