Skip to main content

In Pursuit Of Paddlefish

In Pursuit Of Paddlefish
What American fish can grow to over 100 pounds, has no teeth, eats microscopic plankton, and resembles a shark with a big nose? If you solved this riddle, you're familiar with the paddlefish, one of our largest, oldest, and most fascinating fish.

Early European explorers encountered this strange beast in North America's large rivers. Records of the paddlefish date back to DeSoto's Expedition through the Southeast from 1539 to 1542. A writer known only as "A Gentleman of Elvas" wrote, "There was another fish called pexe pella (translated 'peel fish'). Its snout was a cubit in length and the tip of its upper lip was shaped like a shovel."

Archeologists have uncovered fossils of paddlefish similar to our Polyodon spathula in rock formations around the Green River in Wyoming that date back over 50 million years. Yet major aspects of its biology remain mysterious. And its common name, spoonbill cat, suggests that some anglers remain unsure of its place in the animal kingdom.

BIOLOGY

In early America, paddlefish inhabited the large free-flowing rivers of the Mississippi Valley, extending north into Ontario and west to the Missouri River in Montana. Commercial fishing and dam construction later eliminated paddlefish from several river drainages and four states. They thrive in some impoundments, however, and today are found in 22 states.


The paddlefish skeleton is cartilage, except for a small amount of bone in the jaw. To feed, adult paddlefish swim through clouds of zooplankton, engulfing whatever can't swim out of their way. Their long thin gill rakers then strain the water, filtering food organisms from it. Young paddlefish feed by sight on zooplankton until their gill rakers fully develop at a length of about 16 inches.


Paddlefish do not spawn until they are relatively old--about 8 for males and 10 for females. Harvest of immature fish (females may weigh 30 pounds and be immature) has hurt populations in several areas. Spawning takes place over shallow gravel bars with current, but only when appropriate water temperature, day length, and flow rate coincide. Throughout its range, spawning may take place from late March to late June, when water temperature is in the mid-50F range.

Dams have flooded many natural spawning sites and even where spawning sites persist, sudden fluctuations in water level caused by flood control and hydroelectric operations strand fertilized eggs or hatchlings.

Young paddlefish grow quickly, reaching up to 20 inches at age-1. After age-5, growth rate slows to about 2 inches per year. Maximum age is around 40 years.

FISHING


Commercial harvest has been severely limited throughout the United States but anglers have sought paddlefish for food and the thrill of battling a big fish. Since these filter feeders rarely take bait or lures, weighted snagging hooks are cast on heavy tackle and blindly jerked to stick fish. This method works when paddlefish migrate upstream in spring, congregating below dams.

Where paddlefish populations are stable, fishing may be legal, though the season and bag limit are restricted. In some regions, stocking has buoyed paddlefish numbers. On Missouri's Osage River, the paddlefish population was doomed by construction of Truman Dam, which blocked their migration from Lake of the Ozarks. An innovative hatchery program has maintained a strong fishery, with the state record set at 130 pounds. Kansas and Arkansas also have obtained fingerlings from this hatchery to strengthen populations in their rivers. And artificial spawning has been successful at the Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery in North Dakota.

CONSERVATION


Because of the grave problem of poachers slaughtering paddlefish for their roe, the sale or barter of paddlefish or their eggs is illegal. The value of the roe has spurred the development of commercial aquaculture of paddlefish.

Where natural spawning areas for paddlefish remain, it's critical that channelization or damming be prohibited and that pollution be minimized. Harvest must be carefully monitored to ensure that populations aren't reduced to a point that spawning is limited. Where populations are sustained by stocking, harvest must be limited so these ancient fish can maintain the place in our rivers they've held for millions of years.

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Saltx 4000 And 6000 Spinning Reels

Saltx 4000 And 6000 Spinning Reels

Fully sealed design to The new Saltx 4000 & 6000 Spinning Reels will come with a fully sealed design to keep to prevent saltwater or sand intrusion. It features a titanium-coated line roller, and Saltx a 50-pound max drag. MSRP $399.99to prevent saltwater or sand intrusion.

What

What's Next for ASA & ICAST?

American Sportfishing Association president talks ICAST, coronavirus and the fishing industry.

Trailer Bass

Trailer Bass

Doug Stange introduces us to some terrific jig trailer lures for largemouth bass.

Sight Fishing Carp

Sight Fishing Carp

The In-Fisherman staff slips into stealth mode sight tactics for barrel-shaped carp.

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

It is buoyant and enhanced with garlic and salt.Venture Lure's Finesse Worm Midwest Finesse

Venture Lure's Finesse Worm

Ned Kehde - August 25, 2020

It is buoyant and enhanced with garlic and salt.

Introduced species often directly or indirectly adversely affect native species.Questioning Fish Introductions Other Fish

Questioning Fish Introductions

Dr. Hal Schramm - July 06, 2020

Introduced species often directly or indirectly adversely affect native species.

Lunar followers often check moon phases as well as timing of minors and majors.The Effects of Solunar Forces on Bass Fishing Bass

The Effects of Solunar Forces on Bass Fishing

Steve Quinn - June 22, 2020

Lunar followers often check moon phases as well as timing of minors and majors.

See More Trending Articles

More Other Fish

To consistently catch saugers, particularly super-size spots, anglers must first understand a bit about their behavior.Tips & Tricks for More Saugers Other Fish

Tips & Tricks for More Saugers

Dan Johnson - May 20, 2020

To consistently catch saugers, particularly super-size spots, anglers must first understand a...

Here is a fish that may grow to 400 pounds, may live for 75 years, and fights like a professional wrestler with a system full of steroids.Texas Alligator Gar Other Fish

Texas Alligator Gar

Doug Stange - March 23, 2016

Here is a fish that may grow to 400 pounds, may live for 75 years, and fights like a...

With all the focus on the millions of salmon and steelhead in the Northwest, it's easy to overlookFishing For Sturgeon Other Fish

Fishing For Sturgeon

Jeff Simpson - May 01, 2015

With all the focus on the millions of salmon and steelhead in the Northwest, it's easy to...

In the landmark book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell takes us on an intellectual journey, which focusesLocal Legend:
Bruce Chard
Other Fish

Local Legend:
Bruce Chard

Tony Weaver - May 05, 2015

In the landmark book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell takes us on an intellectual journey, which...

See More Other Fish

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE Arrow

Buy Digital Single Issues

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the In-Fisherman App

Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All In-Fisherman subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now