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Reclaiming habitat for SD's largest fish

Bill Harmon, of Oacoma, poses with a replica of his state-record paddlefish, a 127-pound, 9-ounce fish he caught on Lake Francis Case in 2014. (Jake Shama / Republic)1 / 5
An angler holds up a paddlefish he caught on the Missouri River in South Dakota in this file photograph. (Photo courtesy of the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department)2 / 5
Bill Harmon, of Oacoma, shows how he prepares his equipment before snagging for paddlefish, which includes heavy rods, nets and rope attached to a crane on his boat. (Jake Shama / Republic)3 / 5
Anglers target paddlefish on the Missouri River in South Dakota in this file photograph. (Photo courtesy of the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department)4 / 5
Bill Harmon, of Oacoma, demonstrates how to rig a line before snagging for paddlefish, which unlike traditional angling doesn't include bait. (Jake Shama / Republic)5 / 5

Like many other South Dakotans, Bill Harmon spent his Memorial Day on the Missouri River, hoping to hook a bite to eat.

Unlike most anglers, however, he snagged a 50-pound descendant of a species that's lived in South Dakota since prehistoric times.

The catch is called a paddlefish due to the paddle-shaped rostrum protruding from its head, which can be one-third the length of its body.

While the fish may be an unusual sight for many anglers, catching one has become rather common for Harmon, an Oacoma resident who in 2014 caught the largest fish on record in South Dakota, a 127-pound, 9-ounce paddlefish that he estimated to be 70 years old.

And the fish is believed to be older than Lake Francis Case itself, with the Fort Randall Dam power house beginning operations in 1954.

"To be honest with you, it's probably one of the biggest rushes you can have when you hook onto one of these fish," Harmon said.

Harmon said the fish put up quite a fight. They can take out 100 feet of line in seconds, and it could take an hour to bring the fish into the boat or onto the shoreline.

"You should try it at least once. You're in the middle of South Dakota and you have a chance to land a fish that's like an ocean fish as far as fighting," Harmon said.

And it may become even easier for South Dakotans to hook one.

Jason Sorenson, a wildlife biologist for the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department based in Chamberlain, said the department released 15,000 large fingerling paddlefish in Lake Sharpe about two years ago and is considering adding more in the future, which would make Lake Sharpe the third paddlefish sport fishery in the state.

Sorenson said paddlefish are stocked in Lake Francis Case every year from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Gavins Point National Fish Hatchery, located at the Gavins Point Dam west of Yankton, and GF&P may look to the same hatchery for stocking in Lake Sharpe.

"It just depends on the production from the hatchery to see how many fish we have when it comes time to stock them," Sorenson said. "That's one of the things we're looking into, keeping in mind that might be 10, 15, maybe even 20 years down the road."

But GF&P is already receiving fewer fish than desired. Sorenson said he requests 25,000 paddlefish per year for Lake Francis Case, but only 5,000 to 15,000 are delivered every year.

Nick Starzl, assistant manager at the Gavins Point National Fish Hatchery, said the hatchery has at times met the state's request but is adapting its tactics to try to improve both hatch success and fish survivability.

As for releasing paddlefish in Lake Sharpe, Starzl said the hatchery would have to review its capacity and determine an overall budget before deciding if the request could be filled, but he's open to the idea.

"We're trying to focus on the requests at hand right now, but we would certainly be open to the conversation," Starzl said.

So far, there is no evidence the fish can breed naturally in Lake Francis Case or Lake Sharpe, which are too deep to form rocky sandbars where paddlefish lay their eggs, so GF&P will have to continue stocking to maintain a fishery in either location.

Restoring the population

The hatchery lists paddlefish as an endangered or threatened species, but Sorenson said they've always been considered a sport fish in South Dakota. Their numbers started to plummet, though, after the Missouri River was divided into reservoirs, leading GF&P to close the fishing season except in the area from the Gavins Point Dam to the Big Sioux River.

As paddlefish fingerlings — which are about one foot in length — were stocked in the 1990s, the paddlefish population in Lake Francis Case rebounded, Sorenson said. That lake is now home to the state's largest paddlefish, although they exist in greater numbers east of Gavins Point Dam, where the fish are still breeding naturally.

"In terms of a sport fishery, that area below Gavins Point Dam is probably one of the best fisheries in the nation for paddlefish in terms of fish number," Sorenson said.

But management on that section of river has changed as well. Prior to 1997, Sorenson said the department managed paddlefish with a harvest quota policy.

The quota was set at 1,600 fish, but anglers were catching well over 1,000 fish on the first day of the season, Sorenson said, and with a requirement to give a 48-hour notice before closing the season, anglers were harvesting paddlefish in numbers well above the harvest quota, and the season remained open for only three days each year.

The current tag system means not everyone can fish every year, but it gives the department greater control over how many fish are harvested and allows seasons to remain open for a full month.

The state also collaborates with the hatchery and caught approximately 16 paddlefish at the mouth of the White River this year, including seven females, according to Starzl.

Starzl said the hatchery typically spawns the fish in the third week of May, and the eggs will hatch about a week later. Starzl said the hatchery enjoyed strong reproduction this year, as the paddlefish laid 1.5 million eggs with a 70 to 80 percent hatch success rate. Hatch rates can vary from zero to 80 percent.

And although the fish can't reproduce in Lake Francis Case and are released primarily for sport fishing, Starzl still sees the process as a contribution to the hatchery's goal of protecting paddlefish populations.

"One of our highest priorities is to work with native species, threatened and endangered species, for the Fish and Wildlife Service, so it aligns pretty closely with our strategic plan," Starzl said.

A challenging catch

Catching a paddlefish not only requires heavier gear, anglers must take advantage of a type of fishing that is actually illegal when targeting other fish species.

Paddlefish feed on plankton, meaning they can't be caught with bait. Instead, anglers tie a heavy weight below a large, three-pronged hook and cast until the hook attaches somewhere on the fish's body.

The process is called snagging, and according to GF&P's 2017 Fishing Handbook, the practice is prohibited except for paddlefish, a salmon snagging season and "designated, liberalized fishing waters."

Snagging is more exhausting than traditional angling, Harmon said, and landing the fish is even more difficult.

"We've caught a lot of fish, and everybody that does this says, 'This is the hardest fishing I've ever done,' " Harmon said.

Still, the adrenaline from hooking a monster fish gives Harmon the strength he needs, and he said anyone without a back injury or similar ailment can do it.

In 2012, Harmon's daughter drew her first paddlefish license. She snagged a 40-pound fish that started drawing her across the rocks, but she planted her feet and reeled the creature to shore.

"There's nothing funner than watching a 12-year-old girl with that smile on her face," Harmon said.

Harmon's record catch in 2014 was an unusual for more than just its size. After bringing the paddlefish into the boat, Harmon realized the hook never broke the skin. Instead, the hook and weight wrapped around the rostrum and nearly slipped off.

"If he would have flopped one more time, he would have been gone," Harmon said.

Harmon uses a 9-foot rod, a 4-ounce weight and 60- to 100-pound line, in addition to a hand-crank crane and net to pull fish from the water before weighing them. But before running to the store for the most expensive equipment, Harmon recommended only bringing supplies that can be damaged or lost.

"Don't spend so much that you're afraid to lose it," Harmon said. "Don't use grandpa's favorite fishing pole because you might not bring it back, or it may come back in several pieces."

While Harmon was happy to keep a state record fish, he said he'll usually release any paddlefish over 50 pounds because the lighter ones taste better. He compared the texture of the meat to chicken or pork loin but said it tasted like Alaskan halibut.

And it can take a while to find a fish worth keeping. When Game, Fish & Parks first opened a paddlefish season on Lake Francis Case in 2012, Harmon said he and a friend caught about 100 fish, with some weighing up to 115 pounds.

Sorenson said the average female paddlefish harvested on Lake Francis Case is more than 43 inches long and weighs 50 pounds, while males are about 38 inches long and 31 pounds on average. In the Gavins Point area, the average paddlefish is between 33 and 35 inches long and weighs 16 pounds.

High demand

But anglers can keep only one paddlefish, and only if they drew a $25 tag from GF&P. According to GF&P Division Staff Specialist Shon Eide, 350 tags are issued every year for Lake Francis Case, where the fish could be caught throughout the month of May.

Eide said 1,600 tags are issued for the Missouri River east of the Gavins Point Dam near Yankton, where the fish can be caught during October, although Nebraska also issues 1,600 tags for that section of river. An additional 275 archery licenses are issued in South Dakota for the same area, which are valid in June.

But demand for the tags has long exceeded the allocation. Eide said 1,654 people applied for a tag for the Lake Francis Case season. The greatest demand for Lake Francis Case tags came when the season opened in 2012 and GF&P received 2,089 applications.

Applications for the river east of Gavins Point have also exceeded demand, with between 3,300 and 4,100 snagging applications and between 420 and 600 archery applications being received annually over the past six years.

With so much demand, Eide said purchasing preference points — a $5 purchase that makes drawing a tag more likely the following year — has become a necessity.

"For Francis Case, you need at least two years' preference to draw that license ... there's just that much demand for them," Eide said.

Despite the demand, Sorenson said many tags go unfilled. On Lake Francis Case, he said 40 to 60 tag holders don't even go fishing.

Of those who do cast a line, 40 to 65 percent are successful. In 2016, GF&P recorded its lowest estimated harvest for the lake at 123 fish, compared to its highest of 195 in 2014.

For the Gavins Point seasons, Sorenson said 200 to 250 snagging tag holders and 50 to 100 tag holders don't participate each year, and about 62 percent of snaggers are successful.

"It just varies by person. We have some really diehard paddlefish anglers who would love to do it every year if they could," Sorenson said.

Totals from this year may be low as well, Harmon said, at least on the southern section of the lake. During the spring, paddlefish can generally be found in two areas on Lake Francis Case: the mouth of the White River, about seven miles south of Oacoma, and the Big Bend Dam at Fort Thompson.

Harmon said water temperatures near the White River were colder this year, sitting just over 40 degrees. Paddlefish seek warmer water, so they may have continued upstream to the dam, which Harmon called the "hotspot" this year.

"This is one of the slowest years I've seen," Harmon said.

Although Harmon has already caught the largest paddlefish ever seen in South Dakota, he said it's still his favorite fish, and he'll keep applying for tags and chasing after the prehistoric creatures.

People often ask Harmon if he's afraid his record will be broken, but he said that would simply give him the drive to catch another.

"Records are meant to be broken," Harmon said. "He would be one lucky fisherman, and that's what it takes is a lucky fisherman."