These state fishing records are probably unbreakable

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By Spencer Neuharth

Special to the Farm Forum

South Dakota has over 100 entries in its record-fish database. It’s a diverse group, with species stretching from household names, such as walleye and perch, to lesser-known fish, such as smelt and paddlefish.

Around 2010, the state enacted a rule that required record-eligible fish to weigh at least 1 pound. Previous to that, any fish of any size would be considered for the record book.

I imagine they created this stipulation so record keepers from the state Game, Fish and Parks Department weren’t constantly bothered with tiny fish by anglers who just wanted their name amongst the greats. Another reason might be that it would be hard to get an official weight on a fish the size of your finger, where the presence of a drop of water could be the difference between a state record or bait. For example, the state-record red shiner is a fish that officially weighs 0.0448 ounces.

Besides, bigger is better when it comes to fishing, and many people hit the water each year dreaming of landing a trophy fish, perhaps even a state record. While it’s fun to dream, here’s a look at eight state records that are unlikely to be broken anytime soon.

Pallid sturgeon

The current pallid sturgeon record is just under 30 pounds and came from Lake Sharpe in 1971. In other states there have been pallid sturgeon documented at sizes over 6 feet long and 85 pounds, making our current state record less than impressive.

However, what makes this record untouchable in South Dakota is the fact pallid sturgeon are listed as a federally endangered species. As the rarest fish in North America, it’s unlikely they’ll ever be delisted to the point where sport fishing for them is allowed. Even if they would be delisted, it’s unknown if their altered habitat in the Missouri River’s reservoir system would allow them to grow to their historic sizes.

Channel catfish

South Dakota has the second largest channel catfish in U.S. history, with a 55-pound entry that came from the James River in 1945. Although the James River still churns out big catfish to this day, it never has and never will produce channel cats of this size.

I believe this record is a farce, because the fish is actually a blue catfish that was misidentified as a channel cat. If you look closely at the picture of the record fish, you can it has a long, flat anal fin. This distinction actually belongs to the blue catfish, while channel catfish have a shorter, rounded anal fin. Unless GFP revokes this 73-year record, it’ll never be dethroned.


The channel catfish is South Dakota’s oldest record, while the sauger is the second-longest standing record. The 7-pound, 7-ounce record sauger was caught in 1960 in the newly constructed Oahe Dam’s tailrace. The fish was likely born before the dam projects started, likely making it the last giant sauger that the state will ever see.

Sauger, unlike their walleye cousins, prefer murky, flowing waters. After the dams were built, water clarity in the reservoirs increased, and as a result, sauger populations plummeted to less than 25 percent of what they once were. In addition, the abundance of walleyes in the Missouri River system has also caused a lot of hybridization that makes finding a big sauger even less likely.

Shovelnose sturgeon

Shovelnose sturgeon are listed as a federally threatened species. Although they have fairly good numbers throughout the Missouri River and its tributaries, they’re listed because of their resemblance to the endangered pallid sturgeon.

States such as Montana and Nebraska allow anglers to keep shovelnose sturgeon, but South Dakota hasn’t since the 1990s. I find it unlikely that the state will ever open them up to sport fishing again. Even if the state would allow them to be caught again, the current record of nearly 7 pounds seems pretty safe.

Black crappie, bluegill, largemouth bass

All three of these records are giant fish that came out of small ponds.

South Dakota’s record 3-pound, 8-ounce black crappie came from a South Dakota State University research pond in 2004, which is only five years after the state’s biggest largemouth bass, which weighed 9 pounds, 3 ounces, was caught out of a gravel pit near Hudson. Likewise, the state-record bluegill — a 3-pound, 4-ounce monster — was pulled from an unnamed stock dam in Stanley County in 1980.

For one of these three records to be broken, I believe it’ll take a private pond with strong genetics that’s strictly managed to produce record fish for one of these individual species. I just can’t imagine one of our public lakes or rivers creating a 10-pound largemouth or 4-pound bluegill on its own.

Kokanee salmon

South Dakota’s record Kokanee is a measly 2-pound, 11-ounce fish that was caught in 1974. It came from Pactola Reservoir in the Black Hills, which is one of the only bodies of water in the state where the species is found. Kokanee were stocked there in the 70s and 80s, but Pactola never became an established Kokanee fishery.

South Dakota just doesn’t have the clear, cold, plankton-rich waters that are found in the Kokanee’s native range of the Pacific northwest. The state’s last observed Kokanee was found in 2006.

Outdoor Forum fishing columnist Spencer Neuharth studied biology at the University of South Dakota and worked as a fish biologist for five years.

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Spencer Neuharth
Outdoor Forum fishing columnist Spencer Neuharth holds up a large pallid sturgeon netted a few years ago by a GFP fisheries crew on the Missouri River near Yankton. Because it’s currently a protected species, it’s unlikely the state’s current record for pallid sturgeon will ever be broken. Courtesy photo