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The Oklahoma Marlin: Paddlefish, aka Spoonbills, have become a popular sport fish

Jason Schooley, fisheries biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, weighs a paddlefish during a recent research mission on Grand Lake O' The Cherokees. (Blake Podhajsky/ODWC)

Jason Schooley, fisheries biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, weighs a paddlefish during a recent research mission on Grand Lake O' The Cherokees. (Blake Podhajsky/ODWC)

On March 1, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation will open its Paddlefish Research Center near Twin Bridges State Park in northeastern Oklahoma.

This will be the 10th year of existence for the center, manned by Wildlife Department employees who filet the paddlefish brought to them by anglers in exchange for the eggs from female paddlefish.

Those eggs are then used to make caviar that is sold by the Wildlife Department each year to a wholesaler. It has generated almost $14.7 million of revenue for the agency in nine years with much of the money going to paddlefish research and management.

State wildlife officials knew very little about the paddlefish population before the program began. Because of thousands of paddlefish that have gone through the center, they now have a good idea of the size of the population, how many are harvested and how many anglers are fishing for them.

As a result, state wildlife officials have imposed regulations in recent years to help conserve and sustain what Oklahoma anglers commonly refer to as spoonbills.

“Because of this program, suddenly we had data on thousands of fish,” said Brandon Brown, paddlefish research coordinator for the Wildlife Department. “We could see real quickly that we had a lot of fish in Grand Lake, probably unprecedented in our lifetime.

“People were catching them and things were good, but because of the data we had, we could see early on that most of those fish were spawned in 1999. We know they were going to start dying from natural mortality when they reached about 15 (years old).

“Even though the fishermen thought it was never going to end, we could look down the road and see that a storm was brewing.”

The Wildlife Department closed Spring Creek to snagging, established catch and release only fishing days, and most importantly, Brown says, now allow anglers to only keep two paddlefish per season to preserve the population.

“We were able to get out in front of that,” Brown said. “We started implementing a series of regulations to spread that harvest out of that big year class over a period of several years until another age class could come up and take its place … It looks like the regulation is doing what we wanted it to do.”

Brown said Oklahoma can make a case for perhaps having the largest population in the country.

“Without a doubt we have one of the best,” he said. “Our population by and large is sustained by natural reproduction.”

Paddlefish are showing up in good numbers in many northeastern Oklahoma waters, not just in and around Grand Lake.

“Fort Gibson has always had paddlefish, but that really has become a strong fishery,” Brown said. “Oologah is a total success story. They were reintroduced there 10 years ago and are naturally reproducing now. They are catching paddlefish from Kaw Lake all the way to Keystone. At Webbers Falls, they showed up below the dam. There are just a lot of opportunities, good fisheries, that weren't that strong 10 or 15 years ago.”

Paddlefish also has become a sport fish for many who a decade ago probably had never heard of a spoonbill. Brown said snagging spoonbills has always been popular with the local anglers around Grand Lake, but more people are traveling to the area to battle “The Oklahoma Marlin.”

Spoonbills brought to the research center during March and April (the only time it is open to coincide with the spawning runs upstream by paddlefish) average between 30 and 60 pounds, Brown said.

“We certainly see some 70s and occasional 80s,” he said.

Fishing guides on Grand Lake were able to catch some paddlefish weighing almost 100 pounds over the winter, Brown said.

Anglers from all 50 states come to Oklahoma to snag spoonbills, Brown said. Many of the anglers travel from the Midwestern states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa, he said.

“I've had four calls today just from guys from Nebraska,” Brown said Wednesday. “They have paddlefish in those states so they are familiar with paddlefish and like to do it, but their regulations are a lot more restrictive. The opportunity is just greater here.”

Brown also thinks the popularity of fishing for paddlefish has been raised by television shows such as "River Monsters," which feature anglers pursuing unusual species.

"Paddlefish is one of these oddball things," he said.

As long as the fishing is good, anglers will keep coming to northeast Oklahoma to chase "The Oklahoma Marlin," a term that was coined by how spoonbills will jump in the water.

Whether the fishing is good or not during the spring spawning runs depends on river flow. Spring rains will raise the rivers and trigger spawning runs upstream, but if the water level returns to normal too soon the paddlefish eggs laid by the females are left "dry-docked," Brown said.

The spawning conditions in 2015 were similar to those in 1999, the year of the last big age class of paddlefish, Brown said.

“We are not going to know how big it is for a couple of years, but most likely it's the best we've seen in a while,” Brown said.

Ed Godfrey

Ed Godfrey was born in Muskogee and raised in Stigler. He has worked at The Oklahoman for 25 years. During that time, he has worked a myriad of beats for The Oklahoman including both the federal and county courthouse in Oklahoma City for more... Read more ›