Snaggers can expect another good crop of paddlefish

News from the region
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JEFFERSON CITY–If heaving big treble hooks and doing battle with man-sized fish is your idea of fun, you will love this year’s paddlefish season forecast.

The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) is offering morning and afternoon paddlefishing clinics through its Discover Nature Family program. The clinics will take place April 16 in Warsaw. Participants will learn about paddlefish biology and snagging techniques and then go out for hands-on experience. To register for clinics, call 660-530-5500 by April 11.

Missouri’s fishing regulations say that paddlefish season opens March 15 and runs through April 30. However, weather and, more importantly, water conditions get the final say about when the action starts. Paddlefish spend most of the year dispersed throughout large reservoirs and rivers. Snagging is an inefficient way to find them until warm spring rains increase flows and raise the water temperature to 50 degrees, prompting the big fish to swim upstream on their spawning run.

Missouri’s best paddlefish stream, the Osage River, is blocked by dams. When a slug of amorous paddlefish reaches one of these barriers, they stack up, dramatically increasing anglers’ chances of hooking one with a random jerk on a fishing line equipped with one or more miniature grappling hooks.

Fisheries Management Biologist Trish Yasger says the action likely will get off to a slow start again this year, thanks to snowmelt and chilly 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 fishes’ 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, so naturally we don’t usually see lots of big fish being caught on opening day. Harvest early in the season is dominated by local fish and small males. As water temperature and flows increase, you will start seeing more of the larger females.”

Yasger said anglers’ success depends mostly on how many legal-sized fish are available, and that depends on how many fish MDC stocked between seven and 11 years ago.

That is because paddlefish need approximately seven years to grow from stocking size – 10 to 16 inches – to the legal minimum length of 34 inches at Lake of the Ozarks, Truman and Table Rock lakes and their tributaries. Stockers reach legal size a little sooner in other Missouri waters, where the legal minimum length is 24 inches.

The legal measurement of paddlefish is different from the method for measuring other game fish. Instead of measuring from tip of snout to tip of tail, paddlefish are measured from the eye to the fork of the tail.

Most paddlefish are harvested between seven and 11 years after stocking. After that, a particular year-class becomes much less significant in providing fishing action. However, paddlefish can live more than 20 years, and older fish are the ones anglers dream of hooking.

It so happens that Blind Pony Hatchery produced a bumper crop of paddlefish in 2001. Those fish, now 10 years old, are in the neighborhood of 40 inches long. A 40-inch paddlefish weighs approximately 40 pounds.

“This should be a good year for paddlefish snaggers,” said Yasger. “We have a lot of legal fish out there, and lots more coming up.”

“Lots more” is something of an understatement. In 2008, Blind Pony Hatchery produced an astonishing 260,000 paddlefish stockers – the largest number in the paddlefish stocking program’s 30-year history. Those fish – which went to Lake of the Ozarks, the Missouri River, Truman Lake, Table Rock Lake and the Black River, now are 4 years old and approximately 25 inches long.

To make sure as many of those fish as possible reach legal size, Yasger urges anglers to handle them gently. This means leaving obviously sublegal fish in the water while unhooking them, handling possibly legal fish gently when measuring them and returning them to the water immediately.

The most obvious way to avoid unnecessary injury is to exercise care when unhooking paddlefish. Yasger said anglers sometimes get in a hurry to go back to fishing and jerk hooks out of fish instead of patiently working the hook out to avoid additional injury.

Another important thing is wetting your hands before handling fish. This reduces disturbance of the protective slime layer on their skin. Laying fish flat on a solid surface while measuring them reduces the likelihood of causing internal injury. Yasger says anglers should never grip fish by the gills or eyes. This is particularly harmful.

The Wildlife Code requires anglers to release sublegal fish unharmed immediately. Using a gaff to land fish makes this impossible. Landing paddlefish using large nets is much less harmful.

“Every sublegal fish that survives being caught is a fish you can catch next year,” said Yasger. “The fish we stocked in 2008 will be a big part of the fishing action between now and 2018 if anglers take good care of them.”

Yasger reminds anglers that anyone snagging paddlefish or operating a boat for snaggers must have a fishing permit. Check the 2011Summary of Missouri Fishing Regulations for full details of paddlefish regulations.

Artificial stocking is necessary to maintain the Osage River Basin’s paddlefish population, because dams prevent them from reproducing naturally. Each year, MDC raises tens of thousands of paddlefish at Blind Pony Hatchery near Sweet Springs in Saline County.