Modern MDC program helps ancient paddlefish

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Warsaw, Mo. – A few decades from now, a lucky angler posing for photos with a giant paddlefish snagged in Missouri's major snagging waters will be smiling. The smile and giant, prehistoric fish will likely be provided by a Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) fisheries program with a long-term view. MDC's hatchery and stocking program provides a healthy paddlefish sport fishery, among the nation's best.

Time and a science-based fisheries management program are needed to produce a fish where the "big ones" are considered 70- to 150-pounders measuring 3- to 6-feet long. A new state record paddlefish was caught March 21 that weighed 140-pounds, 9-ounces. Paddlefish take 12 to 20 years or more to reach those size ranges, said Trish Yasger, an MDC fisheries management biologist who oversees the paddlefish program.

"They're a slow growing but long lived fish," Yasger said. "They're very unique."

Missouri's paddlefish snagging season began March 15 and continues through April 30. Anglers flock each spring to places where the big fish, also called spoonbills, congregate in upper tributary arms of Lake of the Ozarks, Harry S. Truman Lake and Table Rock Lake. Paddlefish are also caught in the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and their tributaries.

"Where else can you catch a fish that might weigh 70 or 80 pounds or more," Yasger said.

Paddlefish swam when dinosaurs roamed the earthy millions of years ago. Dam construction blocked traditional spawning migrations and flooded spawning areas in the Osage River system, she said. But stocking paddlefish keeps a sustainable fishery in reservoirs for anglers. An upside to reservoirs is they produce big paddlefish. Reservoirs offer plentiful food – the cartilaginous fish filter plankton from the water – and the fish burn less energy than if they were in big rivers with swift currents.

For MDC biologists, this is the season to net adult paddlefish for hatchery brood stock. About 64 adult males and females combined were collected in recent weeks from the James River arm of Table Rock Lake and the upper Osage Arm of Lake of the Ozarks. Brood paddlefish are transferred to MDC's Blind Pony Fish Hatchery near Sweet Springs, Mo. Hatchery staff spawn the fish, collect eggs and raise the larvae when they hatch into fingerlings. Brood fish are released back to where they were netted after the snagging season has concluded.

The goal this year is to stock 15,000 paddlefish in Lake of the Ozarks, 30,000 in Truman Lake, and 15,000 in Table Rock Lake. Stockers are 12- to 16-inch fingerlings. Survival rates are better when larger young are stocked. When an angler boats a giant paddlefish this spring, chances are good it started life at Blind Pony Fish Hatchery years ago. Paddlefish were not present in Table Rock Lake until MDC began stocking them in 1972. They were present in the big rivers and the Osage system.

Natural reproduction sustains the fishery in the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Some natural reproduction may also be occurring in the lake tributaries, especially in the Osage River basin. MDC biologists this spring began a study to determine if and where paddlefish are spawning in Truman Lake tributaries.

Also new this year, biologists placed metal jaw tags on paddlefish fish netted in the lakes and Mississippi River. The tags are for a five-year study to monitor harvest rates and improve fisheries management. Paddlefish were netted, weighed, measured, tagged and released.

Angler cooperation in providing tags and information from them is important to the study's success, Yasger said. Paddlefish snagging boosts tourism revenue for Missouri and provides an outdoor spring tradition long valued. For more information about paddlefish, regulations, and a weekly snagging report produced by Yasger, visit

"This is a very large fish, a unique fish," she said, "and they get really big."


Anglers are encouraged to report all tagged paddlefish and to NOT remove tags from undersized (sublegal) paddlefish.

"We will send a special 'I caught a Missouri paddlefish!' t-shirt to each snagger who returns or reports their first tag on a legal-sized fish," Yasger explained. "Rewards will not be given for sublegal fish. All returned and reported tags for the season will be placed into drawings each summer for a small number of cash prizes with a grand prize of $500."

Tags or photos of tags from harvested paddlefish must be submitted for rewards.

Snaggers must include the following information with each tag:
• Date caught
• Location of catch including reservoir or river, mile marker, and county
• Tag number
• Fish length from eye to the fork of the tail
• Snagger's name and complete address
• Report tags by calling MDC at 573-579-6825 with the information, or mail the information with the tag to: Missouri Department of Conservation, 3815 East Jackson Blvd., Jackson, MO 63755.

Paddlefish were netted and given jaw tags this year to a begin and five-year study to monitor harvest rates and improve fisheries management. These fish were collected in mid-March at Truman Lake for taggin. Similar adult fish were recently caught from Lake of the Ozarks and Table Rock Lake as brood stock to produce the next generation. Paddlefish are slow growing and can take years or decades to reach the largest sizes. Stocking young paddlefish produced at MDC's Blind Pony Fish Hatchery provides a sustainable fishery for anglers.