Call it, “the year of the fish” in South Dakota.
State fish records are falling repeatedly with six species set in 2016. That matches 2009 for the most record species set in a single year, according to the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks website.
Is it just a lucky day of fishing for these anglers? Or is there something more behind these monster catches this year?
“It’s just kind of the luck of the draw, I’d guess,” said Geno Adams, fisheries program administrator for GF&P. “I can’t think of anything that would cause there to be a bunch of big fish caught. We’ve had decent weather more than recent years.”
State records are split into two categories, restricted catches, meaning it was caught on a rod and reel, and unrestricted catches, which means the fish was taken by any legal means other than a hook and line, including snagging, bow and arrow or spearing.
Lyal Held set the tone for 2016 with his 7-pound, 3-ounce smallmouth bass, caught in April on Horseshoe Lake in northeast South Dakota. It was one of two restricted state records set this year, the other being a 31-pound, 8-ounce chinook salmon caught on the Missouri River’s Lake Oahe by Darrick Koch, of Watertown.
Four unrestricted records have been set. They are Alex Portice, smallmouth bass, 6 pounds, 1 ounce, underwater spearing, on Lake Francis Case; Tyler Manning, smallmouth buffalo, 51 pounds, 3 ounces, bow and arrow, on Firesteel Creek; Russ Oetken, european rudd, 1 pound, 8 ounces, underwater spearing, on Interstate Lake; and Riley Stanga, longnose gar, 24 pounds, 2 ounces, bow and arrow, on the James River.
Todd St. Sauver, regional fisheries biologist for GF&P, explained the smallmouth buffalo, the european rudd and the longnose gar — all considered rough, non-game fish — were likely landed this year due to an increase in popularity in bow fishing.
“There might be slightly greater odds in setting a state record as you get more people out there,” St. Sauver said.
The most recent state record landed was the unrestricted smallmouth bass, which was harvested on Aug. 6 by Alex Portice. It was the second time the unrestricted smallmouth bass record was broken this year and fourth time since August 2015.
As for the restricted catches, St. Sauver said Held’s smallmouth bass on Horseshoe was specifically sought after. After it was verified as a state record in Webster, S.D., it was released.
“Especially on Horseshoe, it has a long history of producing large smallmouth bass,” St. Sauver said, “and this particular one taken in April, it wasn’t that extraordinary for length. But it was a pre-spawn fish that was extremely heavy for its length.”
Each state record fish has to go through a process of verification. The fish needs to be weighed on a registered scale and have a GF&P biologist approve of the catch. Then, a form is completed and sent to Adams.
“When a state record is broken, the state record form comes to me and I make sure the person had a license and do some checking to make sure everything seems correct,” Adams said.
And while Adams says five of this year’s record fish were probably caught because of luck and chance, there may be more to the chinook salmon record.
Adams, based in Pierre, said there have been multiple salmon weighing more than 20 pounds caught this year in Lake Oahe. Koch’s record fish this summer topped the previous record by more than 7 pounds.
Since the early 1980s, GF&P has stocked millions of chinook salmon — between 200,000 to 300,000 annually — into Lake Oahe, where water depths exceed 100 feet in places. That gives the fish species plenty of needed cold water.
Bob Hanten Jr., a regional fisheries biologist in Pierre, said Lake Oahe has an abundant number of cold-water prey fish, such as rainbow smelt and lake herring, for the chinook salmon to feast on.
“The reason we’re seeing these large-size salmon is because we have an abundance of lake herring populations that are 5 to 10 inches long,” Hanten Jr. said. “Lake herring are a high-energy, oily, cold-water food fish. It really is the ideal food to grow big salmon.”
Anglers are not catching a high number of salmon this year, Hanten Jr. explained, but said they have an opportunity to catch large fish.
Koch is hoping his record holds for at least a year.
“Since I caught that one, there have been a half-dozen 20 pounds or bigger caught,” he said. “You know how fishing is, you have to be lucky and you have to drag the bait in front of the one that’s hungry.”
The longest-standing state record fish is the channel catfish, caught on a rod and reel in 1949. The 55-pound fish was caught on the James River.
Perhaps the most coveted state record is the walleye, a record held by Georgine Chytka, who caught the 16-pound, 2-ounce fish in November 2002 at the Fort Randall Dam tailwaters.
2016 records set
• Darrick Koch, chinook salmon, weighing 31 pounds, 8 ounces, on Lake Oahe.
• Lyal Held, smallmouth bass, 7 pounds, 3 ounces, on Horseshoe Lake.
• Alex Portice, smallmouth bass, 6 pounds, 1 ounce, underwater spearing, on Lake Francis Case.
• Tyler Manning, smallmouth buffalo, 51 pounds, 3 ounces, bow and arrow, Firesteel Creek.
• Russ Oetken, european rudd, 1 pound, 8 ounces, underwater spearing, Interstate Lake.
• Riley Stanga, longnose gar, 24 pounds, 2 ounces, bow and arrow, James River.