The 12 Largest Fish Ever Caught in North Dakota

Written by Micky Moran
Published: October 26, 2023
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With over 400 lakes and rivers to set up your rod and reel, North Dakota has some of the most exciting opportunities to fish west of the Mississippi River. With northern pike, catfish, and other game fish species, local anglers always have a challenge waiting for them in the water. If the weather reaches the point of freezing, ice fishing is one of the most popular winter activities to try. Though you need a license if you are over 16, anyone with fishing gear can set a new record for the biggest fish caught in North Dakota.

The abundance of recreational fishing options creates the perfect opportunity to set new records. Many river systems are well-stocked with introduced species, though many endemic species live in the North Dakota waters. If you think you caught a noteworthy fish, take a moment to get all the proper documentation if you want to be considered.

North Dakota’s Requirements to Establish a Record-Breaking Fish

For the weight of a record-breaking fish to be approved, the angler must weigh it on a commercial scale. Using a personal scale does not provide accurate or submissable weight.

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©USFWS Mountain-Prairie / CC0 – License

Fishing in North Dakota comes with a few restrictions and requirements. While they are no stranger to record-breaking catches, each fish has to meet the standards to set the record. Every fish on record must come from legal fishing methods, and they have to measure their catch on a commercial scale. The scale has to have certification from the North Dakota Public Service Commission, and all catches are rounded up to the nearest ounce for accuracy.

Once they weigh the fish, they must submit a Whopper card application with all the details about their fish. Along with the angler’s signature, they need someone else to witness the measurement and add their signature to the paperwork. All of these applications must include a photograph of the fish.

With this information considered, North Dakota Game and Fish maintains records of all of the largest fish ever caught in the state. Any submissions for new records must go through them. Let’s take a look at the trophy fish of the last few decades in North Dakota.

Biggest Fish Caught in North Dakota

Paddlefish – 131 lbs

Paddlefish in the Aquarium of Toronto

Snagging is the main way to catch a

paddlefish

because of their planktivorous diet.

©AndresDica/Shutterstock.com

The biggest fish that a North Dakota local ever caught was the paddlefish, weighing 131 pounds. The fish was 71 inches long, caught in the Upper Missouri River by Grant Werkmeister. In a May 2016 news article by the West Central Tribune, Werkmeister compared the experience of reeling in the paddlefish to “hooking a log that wants you to go with it.”

Paddlefish are in the same family as lake sturgeons. These ray-finned fish are one of the earliest species in fossils from 300 million years ago. In China, the largest on record was 23 feet long and weighed several thousand pounds. However, their normal size in the United States is around 60 pounds with a length of 5 feet, which is less than half of the state’s record.

Bigmouth Buffalo – 60.5 lbs

Bigmouth

buffalo

are the largest sucker species in North America, often living to be 125 years old in the wild.

©USFWS Mountain-Prairie / CCO – License

The next record fish in North Dakota’s history happened on May 16, 2022, when Mitch Estabrook caught a bigmouth buffalo. This particular catch tipped the scales at 60.5 pounds. Estabrook caught the bigmouth buffalo in the Heart Butte Reservoir, though officials did not record the length of the fish. He used a bow and arrow rather than angling with a fishing line. Though he initially planned to go to work that day, Estabrook decided to use some paid leave to see what the water held for him instead. He surpassed the former high record for bigmouth buffalo – a 54-pound, 42-inch paddlefish caught by Keith Huschka 2011 along Heart River.

Bigmouth buffalo usually grow to about 50 pounds, though they are rarely heavier than 70. They prefer freshwater lakes and ponds, which is why so many of them are in the Minnesota, Mississippi, and Missouri river systems. Though other fish require more clarity to swim around, bigmouth buffalo prefer warm and cloudy water.

Pure Muskellunge – 46.5 lbs

Muskellunges respond to many different types of bait, but the most common among fishermen is bucktail.

©James St. John / CC BY 2.0 – License

Cory Bosch holds the third-highest record for a fish caught in North Dakota with his 46.5-pound muskellunge. Caught on July 3, 2007, at New Johns Lake, Bosch told a local news publication that it took him about half an hour to reel it in at New Johns Lake.

Muskellunge, frequently called “muskies,” are predatory fish in the pike family, living exclusively in freshwater areas. They look fairly similar to the northern pike or the American pickerel because they have flat heads with long bodies. Normally, they range from 28-48 inches long, making the 54-inch musky caught by Bosch even more impressive. Though their average weight is 15-36 pounds, a few catches globally reached 70+ pounds.

Channel Catfish – 42.06 lbs

head, barbels and large mouth of a juvenile dangerous freshwater predator channel catfish, Ictalurus punctatus in cold-water reservoir biotope fish aquarium

Nearly 8 million channel

catfish

are caught by anglers yearly, making them one of the most common catfish in the northern hemisphere.

©Aleron Val/Shutterstock.com

Tina Willis of West Fargo holds the record for the largest channel catfish caught in North Dakota. Weighing in at 42 pounds, 1 ounce, Willis caught it at Moon Lake on July 25, 2009, using a frog as the bait. On a mission to catch a few large catfish, they got more than they bargained for when they reeled it in. When asked about the experience, Willis said that it felt like she’d “hooked into a log,” and she had a feeling that it would set a new record.  

When the catfish takes the bait, they swallow the entire hook. They are easy to catch, primarily in rivers, lakes, and ponds. At their heaviest, they sometimes reach 40-50 pounds. Anything beyond 20 pounds is quite impressive, though the world record was 58, caught in South Carolina.

Tiger Muskellunge – 40 lbs

tiger muskellunge

The

tiger

muskellunge has a feisty personality, avoiding capture from anglers so well that they are called the “fish of 10,000 casts.”

©M Huston/Shutterstock.com

To set the record in North Dakota, Marvin Lee took himself to Gravel Lake to go fishing. He caught the 40-pound tiger muskellunge in 1975, measuring 45 inches long. While several anglers have claimed to catch a larger tiger musky, none of these other catches fall within the criteria to beat it.

Tiger muskies are carnivores, genetically bonding northern pike with true muskellunge to develop a hybrid species. It needs fresh water to survive, growing 1.5 times as fast as its parent species. Some of the top catches weigh about 10 pounds, making the catch by Lee even more impressive across the country.

Northern Pike – 37.5 lbs

Pike

The northern pike gets its name from the weapon with the same pole shape as their snout.

©bekirevren/Shutterstock.com

The biggest northern pike came from Lake Sakakawea, offering one of today’s biggest marinas in North Dakota. Melvin Slind caught this 37.5-pound northern pike in 1968, measuring 4 feet long. At their largest recorded sizes, they can be over 60 pounds and up to 5 feet long. The biggest northern pike caught in the United States was 46 pounds, caught in New York.

Northern pike have a reputation for growing large, regardless of the waters that they inhabit. Once they pass 3 inches long as juveniles, they start feeding on any fish that are smaller than themselves. They aren’t picky in their diet, sometimes eating leeches, insects, and crayfish when available.

Brown Trout – 31.68 lbs

Wild brown trout caught and released in early spring on the Owyhee River, Oregon

The brown trout works with many ecosystems, including rivers, lakes, and streams.

©CSNafzger/Shutterstock.com

Tommy Johansen cast his line in the Missouri River to set the record for brown trout. On February 1, 2005, Johansen brought in a 31-pound, 11-ounce trout measuring 3 feet long. The Missouri River System is regularly stocked by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department with brown trout, allowing them to thrive in warmer temperatures.

Brown trout have a narrow head with an elongated body. They range from a reddish-brown to a silvery body, depending on the water they are in. The average brown trout weighs about 44 pounds in large rivers. In small rivers, they may only grow to be 1-3 pounds instead. They like to swim and hunt at night, eating a diet of invertebrates, other fish, insects, and frogs near the surface. Most anglers seek them out as sports fish.

Common Carp – 31.56 lbs

Wild common carp (Cyprinus carpio). Wild life animal.

The North and South Poles are the only parts of the world without common carp.

©Vladimir Wrangel/Shutterstock.com

The record for the common carp in North Dakota is 31 pounds, 9 ounces, and it was caught by Derek Barrick. Barrick went out to the Etta-Alkaline Complex on April 21, 2017, reeling in the 3-foot fish. His catch of the common carp surpasses the former record, which was an even 31 pounds. Austin Loberg of Thompson set the record when he caught his common carp on the Sheyenne River in 2003.

Common carp are vulnerable to extinction, according to the IUCN. While they usually exceed 88 pounds at their highest weight, their growth depends on how much they eat and how much room they have to spread out. The largest recorded common carp was just over 100 pounds, caught by a British angler in France in 2013.

Chinook Salmon – 31.13 lbs

Chinook Salmon jumping at fish ladder on the Bowmanville Creek, Ontario. In preparation for the spawning season, the Chinook suddenly changes color to an olive brown, red, or purple-hued body.

The largest trout in North Dakota is the chinook salmon, giving anglers a challenge with their hook and line.

©Evan Linnell/Shutterstock.com

Thomas Schwartz set the record for the next fish – a chinook salmon that weighed 31 pounds, 2 ounces. It was 41 inches long and caught on the Missouri River on June 10, 1986. The same area includes the records for the largest lake trout (14.25 pounds) and largest cutthroat trout (10.13 pounds) for the state.

Chinook salmon are trophy fish for sporting anglers. Even when caught for food, the incredible omega-3 fatty acids from it make it a coveted fish. In some areas, adult chinook fish weigh over 100 pounds, growing to lengths of almost 5 feet long. North Dakota stocks them heavily in Lake Sakakawea, though the local environment lacks the nutrients to help them reproduce.

Freshwater Drum – 26.13 lbs

Freshwater Drum swimming over a shipwreck in the St. Lawrence River

The color of the freshwater drum is brown in clear waters and gray in murky waters.

©RLS Photo/Shutterstock.com

Larry Harris went fishing at Lake Sakakawea in 1988 to set this record. His adventure to this popular body of water resulted in a catch that weighed 26 pounds, 2 ounces. It was 37 inches long, caught during a recreational fishing outing. He holds his records as one of the only anglers outside of North Dakota, calling Montana his home.

Some anglers mistake freshwater drums for carp or buffalos because they have a deep body and the front of their face is blunt. They don’t require much skill to catch, though most anglers opt for rod and reel, pairing it with live bait. They usually weigh no more than 15 pounds, making the North Dakota record impressive.

Rainbow Trout – 21.25 lbs

Rainbow trout swimming in natural underwater habitat, shallow depth of field.

Antarctica is the only continent without rainbow trout, though they prefer freshwater lakes more than any other habitat.  

©Henrik A. Jonsson/Shutterstock.com

The rainbow trout on this list was 21 pounds, 4 ounces; Wade Weltz of Anamoose caught it on the Missouri River in 1998. When measured by officials, it was 32 inches long. Considering that the average size of a rainbow trout is just 1-5 pounds, this impressive feat is more than 4 times that weight.

The easiest way to identify these fish, apart from their size, is by the red stripe that decorates each side of their body, starting at the gills. The strip goes to the end of the tail, but males have much bolder hues. They eat almost anything, making them a dangerous predator for nearby fish. They are game fish for anglers, fighting harder than any other trout to get away.

Burbot – 19.5 lbs

Burbot on the bottom

Freshwater cusks, coney fish, freshwater cod, and and eelpout are just a few of the names of the burbot, a coldwater fish of North America.

©thomasmales/iStock via Getty Images

The last record-breaking fish in North Dakota is the burbot. Shane Johnson was fishing along the Missouri River when he caught this 19-pound, 8-ounce, 41-inch fish on January 3, 2023. In a Field & Stream article, Johnson explained that he was leisurely fishing when he felt the tug on the line. While he initially thought that he caught a paddlefish, he noticed the length and shape of the fish with his headlamp, confirming that it was a burbot.

The name “burbot” comes from a Latin word for beard because of the single whisker on the bottom of their chin. It looks like a hybrid fish from a catfish and an eel, but this ray-finned fish is more closely related to salmon and cod. They range from 2-26 pounds, potentially measuring 12-47 inches long.

Record-Breaking Fish of North Dakota

WeightType of FishDate CaughtAngler
131 poundsPaddlefishMay 7, 2016Grant Werkmeister
60.5 poundsBuffaloMay 16, 2022Mitch Estabrook
46.5 poundsPure muskellungeJuly 3, 2007Cory Bosch
42.06 poundsChannel catfishJuly 25, 2009Tina Willis
40 poundsTiger muskellungeJune 26, 1975Marvin Lee
37.5 poundsNorthern pikeJune 21, 1968Melvin Slind
31.68 poundsBrown troutFebruary 1, 2005Timmy Johansen
31.56 poundsCommon carpApril 21, 2017Derek Berrick
31.13 poundsChinook salmonJune 10, 1986Thomas Schwartz
26.13 poundsFreshwater drumJune 20, 1988Larry Harris
21.25 poundsRainbow troutMarch 26, 1998Wade Weltz
19.5 poundsBurbotJanuary 3, 2023Shane Johnson

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Ken Lund / CC BY-SA 2.0 – License / Original


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About the Author

Micky Moran is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering mammals, travel, marine life, and geography. He has been writing and researching animals and nature for over 5 years. A resident of Arizona, he enjoys spending time with family, going on adventures across the United States with his wife and kids by his side.

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