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127-pound paddlefish ranks fifth in nation among state records

Bill Harmon, of Chamberlain, holds his 127-pound, 6-ounce paddlefish he caught May 7 on the Missouri River's Lake Francis Case. (Photo by the Department of Game, Fish and Parks)

CHAMBERLAIN -- A 127-pound, 9-ounce paddlefish caught earlier this month by a Chamberlain man is the fifth-largest state-record paddlefish in the nation.

Bill Harmon landed the monster fish May 7 on the Missouri River's Lake Francis Case, breaking the old state record of 120 pounds, 12 ounces that was held since April 1979.

Harmon's catch is the largest fish ever recorded by an angler in South Dakota.

"That's a big fish for sure," said Steve Zigler, a research fishery biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey who is stationed in La Crosse, Wis. "Paddlefish are a real interesting species and one of the most primitive fish we have in our systems. They've been around for about 3 million years, a real ancient fish."

Harmon drew a permit for the Lake Francis Case paddlefish snagging season to legally catch the fish. In South Dakota, the month-long season to snag paddlefish began May 1. With paddlefish snagging, anglers cast and retrieve a lure, hoping to snag a fish.

Four states have paddlefish records larger than Harmon's recent catch. The national record came on May 5, 2004, by Ralph Westerman, a 144-pound paddlefish caught in the Missouri River in Kansas. That's according to data from, a website devoted to tracking records of state-record fish across the nation.

Four of the five largest state-record paddlefish came from the Missouri River. The species -- which has a long, paddle-shaped snout -- is native to the Mississippi River drainage system and is known as a prehistoric fish, according to the Department of South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. From the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers in the west to the Ohio and Allegheny Rivers in the east, paddlefish are believed to have made long seasonal migrations throughout the Mississippi River basin.

Larry Branstetter caught a 142-pound, 8-ounce paddlefish that's been a Montana record since May 20, 1973, the longest standing of the top-five largest paddlefish state records. It trails only Westerman's catch from Kansas.

On May 2, 2010, then-16-year-old Alex Mergen caught a 130-pound paddlefish on the Missouri River in North Dakota, which is the fourth largest state-record paddlefish in the nation.

Harmon's now-South Dakota record surpassed the old record, set by Don Gregg in April 1979 in the Fort Randall tailwaters. Harmon, who could not be reached for this story, works for the GF&P in the Chamberlain Regional Office in the Wildlife Division.

The only state paddlefish record in the top five in the nation not caught on the Missouri River came on Table Rock Lake in March 2002 in Missouri. The 139-pound, 4-ounce fish was caught by George W. Russell and ranks as third largest among state-record paddlefish.

Zigler said the largest paddlefish ever reported to be landed was a 198-pound fish, which was speared in Lake Okoboji in 1916. It does not count as a state record because it was not caught with a hook and line, Zigler said.

He has studied the species and found there are 10 states, including South Dakota, where paddlefish populations are "stable," according to a report on the USGS website. There are 10 states where the species is endangered, threatened or a species of special concern, two states where populations are declining and four states where the species has been destroyed. The other states have no data on paddlefish.

Zigler said in 1989, paddlefish were petitioned to be placed on the endangered species list. The fish never made the list and are not at risk of being eliminated.

"I don't think it's as much of a concern," he said. "There are a lot of states that have efforts to try and re-establish them. As long we we take good care of them, I wouldn't think they'll go extinct."

According to the GF&P, annual stocking efforts of paddlefish in South Dakota began in the early 1990s and have resulted in quality numbers in Lake Francis Case.

Jason Sorensen, GF&P fisheries biologist, said in a state news release, "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. There is potential for anglers to harvest large paddlefish and Bill's recent catch is proof of that."

Zigler explained there are 11 states that allow paddlefishing as a sport, 12 states are completely closed to harvest and six states allow some commercial harvest, primarily for caviar.

"Paddlefish are also protected from illegal international trade," he said. "Despite protections illegal harvest has been an ongoing problem. Last year, there was arrest or citation of more than 100 people in eight states for poaching and illegal trafficking of paddlefish caviar."