Paddlefish, one of America’s largest freshwater fish, are popular among many Missouri anglers. These fish can weigh more than 100 pounds, and their strength and speed gives anglers a thrilling experience.
Paddlefish, also known as spoonbill, have a long, paddle-shaped rostrum that accounts for about one-third of their body length. Paddlefish are cartilaginous, which means that they have no bones. They have small eyes and no scales. They are filter feeders, and they spend most of their lives in open water eating microscopic animals called zooplankton. During warm weather they can often be seen jumping from the water.
Paddlefish require specific flows, temperatures and substrate to reproduce. Spawning is triggered by a combination of daylight, water temperature, and water flow. When water temperatures climb between 50-55 degrees and spring rains cause the rivers to rise, paddlefish migrate upstream to spawn. Male paddlefish reach sexual maturity at 4-5 years and make spawning runs annually. Females reach sexual maturity at 8-10 years and make spawning runs every 2-3 years.
In the past, paddlefish were abundant in Missouri, but their numbers declined because of dams, increased contaminant levels, and the illegal harvest of adult paddlefish for caviar.
Paddlefish are native to the Mississippi, Missouri and Osage river basins in Missouri. In 1972, the Missouri Department of Conservation established a paddlefish population in Table Rock Lake by stocking hatchery-produced fingerlings. Paddlefish fisheries in Table Rock, Truman and Lake of the Ozarks are maintained by annually stocking hatchery-produced fingerlings that are 10-12 inches long.
To accomplish this, the Department collects paddlefish brood stock in the spring at Table Rock Lake. Paddlefish are spawned at Blind Pony Hatchery in Sweet Springs, and the young are raised until September, when they are large enough to release. Paddlefish stocking and management are directed by a statewide paddlefish management plan developed by the Conservation Department. The goal of this plan is to manage paddlefish statewide as a trophy sport fishery.
Typical snagging gear includes a stiff, 6- to 7-foot rod equipped with a level-wind saltwater reel spooled with 100-pound test (or heavier) braided line. Some snaggers choose 7- to 9-foot, medium-heavy action surf rods and large-frame, large-capacity spinning reels. This combination allows more play than the standard snagging rig, which typically is as stiff as a broom stick.
Attach a large, teardrop-shaped, 8- to 16-ounce sinker to the end of the line. Use the heavier weights in deep water or where there is current. Use lighter weights in slack water or when the fish seem to be suspended, instead of close to the bottom. Bank anglers also tend to use lighter weights.
Attach No. 8 to No. 14 treble hooks to the line. Anglers usually use two hooks, one about 18-24 inches above the weight, and the other 2 feet farther up. Rigging so that the hook or hooks ride upright helps you hook more fish.
Have plenty of extra hooks and weights in the boat because you will lose a few. Many snaggers pour their own weights. It’s cheaper than buying them.
Heavy line doesn’t break easily. You will probably have to wrap your line around the handle on a paddle or gaff and use the boat’s power to free stuck hooks. Be careful at this because when the line breaks, you might be thrown off balance.
Bring leather gloves. They give you a better grip and protect your hands from the line.
Landing gaffs are useful. You can land small fish by hand, but the large hooks require extra caution. Paddlefish tend to roll, often at the side or on the floor of the boat.
Heavy needle-nose pliers are a must. You will need them to remove hooks from the fish’s tough skin and to reshape bent hooks.
Small metal files are important, too. Out of the box, some large hooks aren’t sharp enough for snagging. Sharpen hooks before snagging and resharpen throughout the day.
You also need some way to measure the fish. Length limits vary across the state. Paddlefish length is measured from the eye to the fork of the tail. Read information on measuring paddlefish.
Bring along short pieces of heavy nylon or cotton rope, cut into 4-5 foot lengths, to tie fish too big for livewells alongside the boat.
How to set up your tackle to catch a paddlefish
Create a loop in the heavy line using an overhand knot. Thread the loop through the sinker and pull it tight.
Double the line about 2 feet above the sinker and run it through the hook eye and pull it tight.
Loop the line below the hook, bring the loop over the treble points and tighten it on the shank.
Repeat the last step, but finish with a loop around only one of the hook points. This rigging keeps hooks from dangling.
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.
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.
On Table Rock Lake, most snagging occurs in the upper reaches of the James River Arm, within 3 miles of Flat Creek near Point 15. During high-water years, fish and snaggers can go further up the James River.
Public accesses include Cape Fair and Bridge Port accesses.
On Truman Lake, paddlefish make spawning runs up the Osage River Arm into the Marais des Cygnes River.
Early in the season, snagging is good above the Talley Bend Access and near Osceola. As water temperatures and flow increase, paddlefish move upstream toward the Roscoe and Taberville accesses. You can also find paddlefish in the lower Sac River.
During years of high water, snagging can also be good in the Marais des Cygnes River up to the Kansas border. Snagging is primarily done from boat, but some anglers snag from the banks at public access areas and bridge right-of-ways.
Public ramps include Talley Bend, Brush Creek, Crowes Crossing, City of Osceola, Highway 83, Roscoe, Taberville and Old Town accesses.
Most of the snagging and harvest occurs in deep pools on the upper 40 miles of the Osage River Arm.
Early in the season, snagging is good in the Ivy Bend/Coffman Bend area near the 50 mile marker and above. As water temperatures and flows increase, paddlefish move upstream toward Truman Dam. However, snagging is not permitted from Truman Dam downstream to the Highway 65 Bridge. Snagging is popular in the Niangua Arm between the mouth of the Little Niangua Arm and the Highway 54 Bridge.
Public ramps include Bledsoe Ferry, Warsaw Harbor, Brown’s Bend and Larry Gale accesses. Boater can also launch for a fee at one of the numerous private ramps on the lake.
Snagging occurs for a few miles below the Highway 54 Bridge, about 1.3 miles downstream from Bagnell Dam. The area between Highway 54 and Bagnell Dam is closed to snagging. Paddlefish are also taken in the lower 25 miles of the Osage River.
Public ramps can be found at Bagnell Dam, Pike’s Camp, Mari-Osa and Bonnots Mill accesses.
A boat with a depth finder is probably the most useful tool for a paddlefish snagger. Usually, paddlefish stay near the bottom, often congregating in deep holes near drop-offs. Paddlefish display as large images on most modern depth finders. Good electronics also help you stay in the main channel and avoid most underwater obstacles.
It’s sometimes possible to “troll” for paddlefish. Let out enough line so the hooks are a good distance from the boat and you can feel the sinker hitting the bottom. Troll just fast enough to keep the slack out of your line.
When snagging for paddlefish, use a sweeping motion, swinging the rod toward the boat and then releasing it back in the other direction, preventing excessive slack in the line. Use your legs and back to lessen arm fatigue.
Some anglers prefer to snag from set locations on the bank. For the most part, the equipment is the same as that used in boat snagging. It is important to use a rod that allows you to cast your hooks a long way from the bank. A sweeping motion jerks the hook through the water, followed by reeling to take up slack from the jerk. Several of the areas mentioned above are traditional haunts for bank snaggers and allow good open access to the water.
Whether you cast or troll, set the drag so you can barely pull line off the spool with your hand. It should be tight enough that it won’t slip when you jerk or come into contact with a fish, but loose enough that it will disengage if you get hung up or when a large fish makes a run.
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.
To clean a paddlefish, hang the fish by its rostrum (nose) at a convenient height and cut in a circle through the meat above the tail down to the tough lining of the notochord. This cartilage is the backbone of a paddlefish and has the texture of dry silicone. Rotate the tail back and forth to break the outer lining of the notochord, then pull downward to remove its outer end. This will let blood drain from the fish.
Next, start behind the gill cover and cut in toward the casing of the notochord. You will now be able to slice fillets off the fish by moving the knife toward the tail, along the notochord lining on both sides of the fish.
With the fillets skin-side down on a sturdy board, slice the flesh free from the skin. Also remove the V-shaped piece of red or dark meat that runs down the center of the fillet.
Rinse and soak your catch in saltwater until you are ready to cook it. You can batter and deep-fry paddlefish pieces, or cut the fillets into 1-inch thick “steaks” and cook them on the grill. Paddlefish flesh is very firm and contains enough fat that it will not dry out on the grill as quickly as most fish. Try soaking the steaks in your favorite marinade or covering them with lemon pepper before grilling.