The prehistoric paddlefish, fossils of which date back 60 million years in the Missouri River basin, feeds on zooplankton, and since they don’t eat large bait, fishermen targeting the odd-looking fish must snag them.
Then the trick is getting them into the boat—or at least that was the case with the record-sized paddlefish Bill Harmon snagged last week in Lake Francis Case off the Missouri River in South Dakota.
It took four attempts, but Harmon and his friend Justin Bryan finally pulled the whopper of a paddlefish into the boat, where they admired it for a couple of seconds before Harmon spoke.
“Now there is a big %$#@*&^* fish,” Harmon said, according to his email to GrindTV Outdoor.
Yes, it was very big. Turns out, the paddlefish was the largest fish ever recorded in South Dakota, according to South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks. It weighed 127 pounds, 9 ounces, and broke the 35-year-old state record.
The previous record was 120 pounds, 12 ounces, by Don Gregg in April 1979 in the Ft. Randall tailwaters.
Interestingly, the largest American paddlefish on record weighed 144 pounds and was caught in Kansas in 2004, though there have been unofficial reports of bigger fish, the largest being 206 pounds taken from Lake Cumberland in Kentucky.
At first, Harmon had no idea his paddlefish was a state record. But after weighing it on his hand scale twice, he took it to South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks to have it weighed on a certified scale. That’s when he learned he became a record-holder.
“It feels pretty good,” he told GrindTV Outdoor about the record. “It’s nice to know anything is possible when you’re fishing.”
The month-long snagging season in South Dakota began May 1. Anglers cast and retrieve a lure blindly through the water, hoping to snag the fish, which is just what happened with Harmon.
“When she was hooked, she rose towards the surface slowly until you could see part of her,” Harmon explained. “Then she headed to deeper water. The boat moved towards her and her to the boat. I then looked down so I could reposition myself in the boat. She surfaced and Justin … got a good look at her and said, ‘She’s pretty big.’ Then down she went. She didn’t like seeing the boat at all. She stayed down for a while.”
Digital scale, which records by tenths of a pound, shows paddlefish weighing 127.60 pounds, or 127 pounds, 9 ounces; photo courtesy South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks
After 10 minutes, Harmon had the fish at the boat, where Bryan attempted to grab its bill without success. On his second attempt, Bryan was smacked around against the side of the boat by the paddlefish. The third try was also unsuccessful.
“On the fourth try we decided it was going to take both of us to stabilize her before trying to load her,” Harmon said. “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.”
Fourth time was the charm.
Biologists estimated the fish’s age to be around 60 years old. Paddlefish are among the largest and longest-living species of freshwater fishes and are distinguished by their very large mouths and a paddle-shaped snout that is about one-third their body length.
Annual stocking efforts that began in the early 1990s in Lake Francis Case have resulted in quality numbers.
“One of the original goals of the paddlefish stocking program was to initiate a sport fishery for this species,” said Jason Sorenson, a fisheries biologist for South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks. “Paddlefish are a long-lived species and the Lake Francis Case population has some very old fish. There is potential for anglers to harvest large paddlefish and Bill’s recent catch is proof of that.”
Fisherman Bill Harmon broke a 35-year-old state record with this paddlefish. Photo courtesy South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks