Warsaw, Mo. – Paddlefish are an ancient creature playing a modern role in Missouri. The fish that swam when dinosaurs roamed provide a rewarding challenge for anglers, and a financial boost for Warsaw -- the community billed as the “Paddlefish Capitol of the World.”
Paddlefish grow to huge sizes even though their food is tiny zooplankton that they filter from the water. Missouri’s state record paddlefish topped 139 pounds. With their long, flattened snouts stretching out the body length, they’re truly a trophy fish.
“That’s why anglers flock to Warsaw in early spring,” said Trish Yasger, a fisheries management biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) who oversees its paddlefish management program. “Where else is a 40-pound fish considered small? There’s a possibility of getting one over 100 pounds. Sixty-pound paddlefish are not uncommon, and people catch 80-pound fish.”
Anglers drag hooks on the bottom to snag paddlefish, and it takes heavy tackle to land the big ones. But fishing where paddlefish numbers are highest also improves chances for success.
Warsaw is on the upper end of Lake of the Ozarks but not far below the outlet from the dam for Truman Lake. Paddlefish migrate upstream from both lakes in the Osage River basin in an attempt to spawn. But dams block spawning migration routes and lakes cover traditional gravel bars where females laid eggs. MDC sustains the fishery by stocking thousands of young paddlefish in the lakes.
Paddlefish snagging is also a strong tradition at Osceola, Mo., on the upper end of Truman Lake. Plus, MDC has created a paddlefish fishery with stocking at Table Rock Lake.
For cities near spring paddlefish spawning runs, the fishery brings a financial bonus. Reservoir communities are accustomed to welcoming tourists and anglers in late spring and summer. But the paddlefish snagging season from March 15 through April 30 occurs when the weather isn’t always warm and welcoming. Yet thousands of anglers arrive.
“We get a lot of people coming into town to catch paddlefish,” said Betty Mewszel, director for the Warsaw Chamber of Commerce. “They come in from all over the state and from other states. Of course, they eat in our restaurants, and they’ve got to sleep somewhere. They buy gas and groceries. After March 15, our harbor and ramp fills up with boats and trailers.”
Paddlefish hatched and raised at MDC’s Blind Pony Fish Hatchery and stocked in the lakes make a vibrant sport fishery possible. Some natural reproduction may be occurring during some years in the upper Osage River tributaries, Yasger said. But most fish caught come from the MDC hatchery.
Warsaw’s location makes it a hotspot for paddlefish snagging. The fish thrive in Lake of the Ozarks, she said. But in the upstream spawning migration, they are blocked by the dam for Truman Lake just upstream from Warsaw. The fish congregate in the lake near the city.
“It’s our best paddlefish snagging location in Missouri,” Yasger said, “and it’s one of the best in the United States.”