Cassville man's paddlefish catch has historical angle for MDC

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CASSVILLE, Mo. – Joe Richter had a hunch Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) biologists would be interested in the small metal ring attached to the jaw of the paddlefish he had snagged, but he didn’t know the interesting story Tag S-777 revealed about successful paddlefish management at Table Rock Lake.

When Richter landed his 57-pound paddlefish on Table Rock’s James River arm in March and saw the tag, the Cassville resident recalled hearing about a paddlefish tagging program MDC conducted several years ago. His efforts to report his tag connected him with MDC paddlefish biologist Trish Yasger and that’s when things got interesting.

“She was excited about me catching a tagged fish and thanked me for calling,” Richter said. “She took all my information. Then a couple of days later, she called back.”

The reason for the call-back was that Yasger and MDC Fisheries Biologist Sara Tripp had a list of the 8,970 tags that were put on paddlefish in MDC’s 2015-2019 tagging project. And Richter’s tag number wasn’t on that list.

“Sara told me our tag numbers are five digits long. I assumed that I had made a mistake in recording his information, so I called him to get the correct number,” Yasger said. “He told me, no, the number was 777 and there was an S in front of the number. I knew that wasn’t a tag from our current project.”

The still-legible words “Cons. Dept.” on the tag’s pitted surface showed this was an MDC tag and indicated this tag could have been the work of former MDC Fisheries Biologist Kim Graham, who tagged many paddlefish in the 1980s and early ’90s.

“I had very little tag information from Table Rock, so I reached out to (MDC Table Rock Fisheries Biologist) Shane Bush in the hopes that he had some old records,” Yasger said. “Luckily, he found what we needed.”

Bush’s search through old records revealed Graham had placed Tag S-777 on a paddlefish at Table Rock in March, 1990. The size Graham recorded for that fish – 49 pounds, 40 inches in length – made Richter’s catch even more interesting. Those dimensions indicated this fish had been part of MDC’s initial stockings of 84,159 paddlefish fingerlings into Table Rock in the 1970s.

MDC’s paddlefish stocking at Table Rock that took place from 1972-77 was part of the agency’s strategy to maintain this unique fishing opportunity in Missouri. MDC biologists knew the construction of Harry S. Truman Dam in the early 1970s would block the paddlefish spawning migrations that occurred annually out of Lake of the Ozarks and would flood the paddlefish’s spawning grounds on the Osage River near Osceola. It was speculated that, if a paddlefish population could be established at Table Rock through stocking, that would provide clear evidence that MDC could maintain paddlefish numbers at Lake of the Ozarks and Truman through annual stockings. These efforts would also create a “spoonbill” snagging opportunity at Table Rock.

“Shane and I talked and, after looking at the stocking records and based on the size of this fish when it was tagged in March of 1990, we determined it had to be from the original stocking of 1972-77,” Yasger said. “That makes the fish 44-49 years old when Joe Richter harvested it.” In addition to being a unique find, Yasger said this is a good indicator that MDC’s paddlefish management methods are working.

“Paddlefish at Table Rock – actually at all three reservoirs (Table Rock, Lake of the Ozarks, Truman) – are thriving,” she said. “They have good growth rates, are healthy, and are in good condition.” Today, Table Rock receives paddlefish stockings in most years.

Richter’s tag reporting had meaning to Yasger that went beyond growth rates and stocking numbers. She worked with Graham in her early years with MDC and has great respect for the now-deceased biologist.

“Kim Graham and the other biologists before us laid the groundwork for paddlefish management in Missouri,” she said. “Thanks to all of their work, we have a thriving paddlefish population in our reservoirs for snaggers to enjoy today. I was fortunate to work with Kim on paddlefish before he retired. It is special to me to know that fish he tagged are still out there and occasionally, we get tags from his work that allow us to learn more about these amazing fish.”

She said Missouri’s paddlefish snaggers also deserve credit for the state’s spoonbill success.

“Thanks to all the snaggers for reporting their tagged fish,” she said. “We owe a lot to the snaggers for working with us and reporting their tagged fish. We work together to learn and to keep snagging great in Missouri."