At some point in life, our strength and will is tested. We reach our limit and must rise above it—or walk away in failure. Although I often speculated about the circumstances of this moment of truth in my life, I never envisioned it would involve a white-knuckled grip on a fishing rod.
Don’t get me wrong, I had anticipated high excitement on this fishing trip. We were chasing paddlefish, which commonly grow to 60 or more pounds (the largest on record weighed in at 198). Having spent my life drowning worms for “monster” 1-pound bluegill and throwing crankbait for newsworthy 8-pound bass, I was about as prepared to tangle with a paddlefish as a miniature golf player is for the PGA tour.
My guide handed me a rod that resembled the lower limb of a mighty oak. I am not sure what action was written on the rod, but “none” would have been the appropriate description. The large, round saltwater reel was like nothing I had ever seen and was complemented by a spool of what could only be classified as rope. At the end of this was what appeared to be a grappling hook and, dangling below that, a pound of lead.
I was beyond relieved when my guide explained that we wouldn’t need to cast—we would troll instead. He put the boat in gear and, when we reached trolling speed, I pushed the release. I engaged the reel, the line tightened, and I could feel the massive lead weight bouncing along the bottom.
There is something hypnotic about trolling across a lake at slow speeds. The constant hum of the outboard motor, the splashing of waves as the boat cuts through the water, and the shoreline scenery gliding by like a film in slow motion all lull a person into a more relaxed state. And then my treble hook lodged in a 60-pound behemoth, and I gained a new respect for the cliché “hitting a brick wall.”
It was everything I could do to keep the rod from being ripped from my hands, and then I struggled to keep myself from being pulled into the water. The only thing that saved me was the reel’s drag, and I was surprised there wasn’t smoke off the line as it flew into the water.
Just reeling in a 60-pound weight is a daunting task, but this weight had a powerful tail and no desire to come toward the boat. The fight was enough for me to question my manhood. As my knuckles turned white and my legs and arms quivered, I had to decide my fate. I planted my feet and, after what seemed like an eternity of pumping and reeling, the slick-skinned paddlefish emerged from the water. The guide wrestled the fish into the boat despite the fish’s attempts to pull him overboard.
The sight of my arms hanging by my sides, my legs still quivering, and the lack of color in my knuckles brought no sympathy from the guide. “Ready to get another one?” he asked, enthusiastically. It must have been the combination of adrenaline and testosterone that caused me to say yes, as the next thing I remember is closing the release on the reel again, feeling the lead bump along the bottom and holding on for dear life.
The Lovin’ Spoonbill
Paddlefish, otherwise known as spoonbill, possess unique physical characteristics that reveal their prehistoric beginnings. They have small eyes, no scales and a boneless structure, but their elongated rostrum (the fish’s paddle, bill or shovel) is what really sets them apart from other fish and is the source of their varied common names. Even though the rostrum is their most recognizable trait, the purpose is still not entirely understood. “There is a lot of speculation about the rostrum,” said Trish Yasger, fisheries management biologist for MDC. “Some think there are electrical sensors on it to help locate food and navigate, but the ones that get their rostrum knocked off by a boat prop or other accident do just fine and grow to a large size.”
Paddlefish are one of MDC’s restoration success stories and another example of how conservation makes Missouri a great place to fish. They historically roamed the waters of the Mississippi basin and the free-flowing Osage River, but their ability to reproduce was severely hindered by the introduction of dams. “When the Bagnell Dam and Truman Dam were put in, they blocked the spawning migrations and flooded the spawning grounds,” said Yasger. Without the right conditions for reproduction, this long-time resident of Missouri waters was headed for a dismal future. MDC began raising and stocking paddlefish into Table Rock Lake in 1972, Truman Lake in 1978 and Lake of the Ozarks in 1982.
Today, Blind Pony Hatchery, just outside of Sweet Springs, raises thousands of paddlefish fingerlings each year. When they reach 10 to 12 inches in length, they are released into state waters. “Right now, the stocking plan calls for 15,000 fish each year in Truman Lake and Lake of the Ozarks, with a pulse stocking of 30,000 fish every third year, 3,000 in Table Rock Lake, with a pulse stocking of 6,000 fish every third year and 750 in the Black River,” said Yasger. “The pulse stocking is a boost because they are a river fish, and fish don’t consistently reproduce in river systems every year. You get a pulse every few years, so we try to mimic natural reproduction.”
To produce the stocking brood, the staff at Blind Pony Hatchery temporarily relocate a few mature paddlefish from the James River arm of Table Rock Lake to their facility each year. “Usually we try to bring back 12 males and 12 females for the year,” said Bruce Drecktrah, Blind Pony Hatchery manager. “We hold them in one of the 1/10-acre ponds and then we bring them into the hatchery building and spawn them. When we catch them in the James River, they are naturally looking for a place to spawn. They are wanting to do it on their own—we just kind of help them along.”
It’s during this predictable spawning pattern each spring that anglers from every corner of the state and beyond head to the water in search of paddlefish. The three stocked reservoirs are a good place to start. “In the reservoir environment, the fish grow bigger because they are not fighting the current and there is also more food for them to eat,” said Yasger. Unlike most other fish, paddlefish reach their impressive size by only feeding on microscopic plankton. “They are filter feeders, so as long as they are swimming and have their mouth open they are constantly feeding,” said Yasger. “It takes about 6 to 8 years for a paddlefish to reach legal harvest size.”
Expect Snags in Your Plan
In the reservoirs, spawning paddlefish can only go as far as the dams and then begin to stack up in higher concentrations. Because they have no interest in traditional lures and bait, and microscopic plankton are pretty difficult to thread on a hook, those pursuing paddlefish have to do so by snagging. Higher numbers of fish in smaller areas of water definitely increases success. “All you have to have is a 16-ounce sinker, two treble hooks and a stout pole, and you can catch a 50- to 100-pound fish by the end of the day,” said Anthony Ford, a paddlefish angler from Warsaw. “I think that’s what a lot of people like.”
The unique and simple method of catching spoonbill levels the playing field for men, women and children alike. “You pull the rod tip up, let it back down, feel the sinker at the bottom and pull again,” said Ford. “I have taken buddies, husbands and wives, parents and kids and people from 10 to 80 years old. I’ve seen women who caught six fish and their husband never caught a fish. You just never know. It’s always better to be lucky than good.”
Many of the anglers come every year, and trolling along at a leisurely pace provides the opportunity for paddlefish season to become a social event. “After you’re down there a year or two, you start knowing people,” said Ford. “You see a lot of the same people every year. You’re only moving about 3 miles per hour and there are enough boats on the river. You can have conversations with the people in the other boats. A lot of people trick out their boats, name them or decorate them with flags. It’s not like high-speed bass fishing. You’re just cruising down the river having a good time.”
Despite the laid-back style of fishing, many spoonbill anglers are taking advantage of modern-day technology. “Five years ago, everybody thought I was crazy for having a $3,000 graph, but now five out of 10 boats have them. The sonar is getting so good that you can usually tell if they are male or female by how big the fish are, and you can even see the hooks and sinkers from the other boats going through the water. People are a lot better at catching spoonbill than they used to be, and there’s a lot more people fishing, but the quality still seems to be there.”
Word is spreading about this unique opportunity and the successful efforts of MDC. “Our goal is to manage paddlefish statewide as a trophy sport fishery,” said Yasger. “It brings in a lot of people. I write a snagging report during snagging season that I post on our Web page. I’m getting more and more viewers from out of state. Paddlefish are found throughout the entire Mississippi basin so they are in many states, but a lot of people are coming here to fish.” Ford has also noticed the change in popularity. “The number of fishermen has increased by probably 300 percent in the last five years,” said Ford. “There are people coming from all over. I take a lot of people from
Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and South Dakota. When the fish are stacked up, I can take five guys out in the morning and have 10 fish caught and be back by 10:30 a.m. Spoonbill fishing in Missouri is the best there is.”
Paddlefishing in Missouri
For more information, including the paddlefish snagging report and a video, visit mdc.mo.gov/node/11813.
For more information on fishing regulations, pick up the latest copy of A Summary of Missouri Fishing Regulations available at vendors, or download a PDF at mdc.mo.gov/node/3104.
Paddlefish season is March 15–April 30. Mississippi River paddlefish season is March 15–May 15 and Sept. 15–Dec. 15.