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Missouri's Ancient Fish

Mar 01, 2020

Meet the American Paddlefish, our oldest species and largest fish.  Paddlefish look like sharks and are nicknamed “spoonbills” or “spoonbill cats” because of their large, paddle-shaped snouts.

Paddlefish are large. They can grow longer than five feet and weigh more than 60 lbs. They are also long-lived and can survive more than 30 years. Paddlefish are primitive creatures whose skeletons are composed of cartilage rather than bone. Their mouths are enormous, but they have no teeth. Amazingly, paddlefish survive on tiny microscopic water animals. The fish feed by swimming with their mouths open wide. They filter food from hundreds of gallons of water passing through a complex system of gills.

Only one other species from the paddlefish family existed in modern times. The Chinese Paddlefish was found only in the Yangtze Valley in China, and was recently declared extinct. The last one spotted was in 2003. In the Midwest, paddlefish are found in the Mississippi River Valley and some large reservoirs. During most of their life, paddlefish live in quiet or slow-moving rivers that supply the microscopic life it feeds on. When spawning, the fish requires larger free-flowing rivers with clean gravel bars where they deposit their eggs.

Paddlefish, Missouri's official aquatic animal, are found in big rivers.  They can no longer reproduce naturally, so today, they are raised in hatcheries and stocked in the wild. They are a highly valued sportfish with a special snagging season in the spring. 

Snagging Paddlefish

Paddlefish are popular among many Missouri anglers. Their size, strength, and speed gives anglers a thrilling experience. Here are some tips for how to fish them.

  • Because they are filter feeders, the most popular and dependable way to catch paddlefish is by snagging. Anglers harvest paddlefish by snagging during a 45-day snagging season that runs March 15 through April 30.
  • You must possess a valid fishing permit if you are snagging or driving the boat being used. Once you have taken two legal paddlefish into your possession, you cannot continue snagging for any other species of fish that day.
  • Successful snagging depends primarily on water temperature and flow. Early in the season, smaller male paddlefish comprise the bulk of the harvest. As flows and water temperatures increase, the fish move upstream, and the number of larger females increases.
  • When lakes and rivers are rising, there can be a lot of logs and other debris in the water. Snaggers and other boaters need to watch out for these hazards.

In Missouri, snagging for paddlefish can occur at:

  • Table Rock Lake
  • Truman Lake
  • Lake of the Ozarks
  • Osage River

Discover more about snagging.


Paddlefish underwater
American Paddlefish, Missouri's oldest and largest

Paddlefish DiscoverNatureNotes

Paddlefish Restoration Story
Paddlefish Restoration Story


Paddlefish side view
Paddlefish, Polyodontidae spathula

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