Imagine a prehistoric-looking fish swimming lazily through the water eating microscopic organisms. Its snout is long, flat and resembles a boat paddle. A shark-like tail propels the somewhat homely fish through the rivers and reservoirs on its way to spawning grounds many miles upriver. It can attain weights of nearly 160 pounds. Its closest living relative is in the Yangtze River Valley in China. There isn’t a single bone in its body. It is none other than the paddlefish.
Paddlefish have a strange prehistoric look that has earned it the names "shovelnose catfish" and "spoonbill."
Paddlefish have been around longer than people, and early settlers to the Midwest must have been quite taken when one emerged or was caught. Sometimes called a “spoonbill” or “shovelnose catfish,” the paddlefish has a face only a mother could love. Its skeleton is cartilaginous, similar to that of a shark with skin to match.
This odd fish was once quite abundant throughout the Midwest. But early reports of overharvest, followed later by widespread dam building and channelization on many of their home rivers, caused a dramatic decline in numbers.
In order for fish to grow to such large proportions, one could assume they are ferocious predators eating anything and everything. Actually, paddlefish feed on prey not visible to the average eye in the form of micro crustaceans and insect larvae. They cruise through the water with their mouth wide open, filtering the tiny organisms out with intricate gill rakers. Although they have been known to eat other fish, the majority of their diet is made up of the thousands of these microscopic creatures.
Reproduction plans for this unique fish occur typically in late March, April and early May. These monsters of the deep spend much of their time in major reservoirs and then move upstream to spawn when water conditions and temperature are optimum. Floods often stimulate migration of the huge fish, and spawning movements of 260 miles in six weeks have been recorded.
Female paddlefish seek gravel bars on which to lay their eggs with escorts of several males. The adhesive eggs are laid, fertilized and sink and stick to the first rock they touch. They hatch in just over a week and the young paddlefish begin their journey as they are swept downstream by the water’s current.
Newly hatched paddlefish don’t have snouts, but they soon show up after a few weeks and grow rapidly thereafter. Young fish may reach 14 inches during their first year and grow to more than 20 inches after the second year.
Paddlefish are typically long-lived fish, with many more than 20 years old and weighing 50 to 60 pounds. Females grow larger than males, and have been exploited in some parts of the country for their roe (eggs).
A Welcome Snag
Many devoted anglers enjoy fishing for these prehistoric monsters each spring. If you have never fished for paddlefish, don’t bother picking up your traditional bass or panfishing gear. It simply won’t do the job. Snagging, something normally illegal in many states, is the only way to catch them and the technique requires substantially heavier tackle.
Fishing methods for paddlefish are anything but conventional. Large hooks and heavy sinkers are used to snag the fish across the back or tail.
Many paddlefish-catching veterans opt for equipment better suited for ocean fishing. But considering some of the weights of these bruisers, the giant tackle is welcome when one of them figures out they’re hooked. Line weight varies by anglers but ranges from 25- to 50-pound test, with most at the upper end since the fish are strong and the rocks they live among are sharp. Treble hooks bigger than 6/0 are preferred and tied directly on to the line with a heavy sinker tied to the bottom of the rig.
Fishing consists of casting into the river and retrieving the rig in a jerking, sweeping motion. Some prefer to troll from a boat covering much more water. A hook-up in either situation isn’t hard to detect and it’s often difficult to tell who might win the battle, especially when one is hooked in the tail.
The rewards of a physically demanding day of paddlefishing may very well be in the form of its tasty flesh. The fish can be filleted and fried, similar to other fish, or steaked in large cross sections and prepared on a hot grill.