Great things ahead for paddlefish snaggers

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WARSAW, MO.–With paddlefish season fast approaching, the Missouri Department of Conservation has encouraging news for snaggers.

Missouri’s paddlefish snagging season runs from March 15 through April 30. The state’s paddlefish snagging waters include the Osage River below Bagnell Dam, Lake of the Ozarks, Truman and Table Rock lakes, the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, and their larger tributaries. Artificial stocking sustains the reservoir fisheries. The quality of fishing varies from year to year because the Conservation Department stocks more paddlefish some years than it does in others.

That happened in 2001, when the Conservation Department’s Blind Pony Fish Hatchery produced its second-largest crop of paddlefish in history. More than 145,000 young paddlefish found their way into Missouri waters that year. Blind Pony had a moderately good year in 2007. Then in 2008, a particularly favorable set of conditions produced the largest crop of all time, an astonishing 260,000 paddlefish.

“Spoonbills,” as they also are known, take seven or eight years to grow to legal size. After that, the number of fish from a particular year-class dwindles because of angler harvest and natural mortality. The 2001 year-class of paddlefish is mostly gone now, though a few large survivors – now weighing well over 50 pounds – remain. Much more significant than these few holdovers is the slug of fish from the 2007 and 2008 stockings. Anglers should notice these 6- and 7-year-old fish this year.

“The 2007 year-class is 7 years old and should start providing a good number of legal, 34-inch fish weighing 25 to 30 pounds,” says Trish Yasger, a fisheries management biologist with the Conservation Department. “When the 2008 year-class starts to come of age next year, we hope to see some really good paddlefish snagging, and it should continue over the next several years.”

Yasger is cautious about predicting a huge paddlefish boom in the coming years as a result of the bumper crop of 2008. Conservation agents broke up an international paddlefish trafficking operation in Warsaw last year, and she says the results of this large-scale poaching are hard to predict.

“We aren’t sure what effect that illegal activity might have had on the population,” says Yasger. “Poachers stole a lot of fish from legal snaggers. I think this will be a good year, but don’t want people to think that there will be a lot more 50-pound-plus fish in the near future.”

Yasger noted that weather always plays an important role in determining paddlefish anglers’ success. Paddlefish are easiest to catch when they swim upstream and congregate below dams in response to warm spring rains. The best snagging conditions occur when water temperature reaches 50 to 55 degrees and there is an increase in flow.

Yasger says this year’s peak action could be delayed by unusually cold winter weather.

“The heavy snowfall and extremely cold weather we experienced in February are still making themselves felt in stream temperatures,” said Yasger. “A spell of unusually warm, sunny weather could speed things up a little, but that doesn’t seem likely to happen before March 15, based on the extended weather forecast.”

Yasger said paddlefish season often gets off to a slow start. That is because the opening and closing dates are set to ensure that the season brackets the fish’s spawning run.

“Paddlefish don’t often start running upstream as early as March 15,” said Yasger, “and it would be very rare for the run to extend past April 30. We don’t usually see lots of big fish being caught on opening day. Harvest early in the season is typically dominated by local fish and small males. As water temperature and flows increase, you will start seeing more of the larger females.”

The minimum legal length limit for paddlefish at Lake of the Ozarks, Truman Reservoir, Table Rock Lake, and their tributaries is 34 inches, measured from the eye to the fork of the tail. The minimum length limit is 24 inches in the Osage River below Bagnell Dam and in other Missouri waters.

Anglers need current fishing permits to snag paddlefish or to operate a boat for snaggers. If you are fishing on Lake of the Ozarks and its tributaries, the Osage River below U.S. Highway 54, or on Truman Lake and its tributaries, you must stop snagging for any species after taking a daily limit of two paddlefish. Check the Wildlife Code book for further details about paddlefish regulations.

Yasger notes that many snaggers land paddlefish with gaffs. This can fatally injure sublegal fish. Using large landing nets prevents injury, so anglers can release sublegal fish unharmed, allowing them to grow to legal size.

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