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A PADDLEFISH DESTINATION: Northeast Oklahoma offers anglers one of the best opportunities in the country for big paddlefish

Kevin Clifton of Tuttle holds a paddlefish that he snagged last weekend near Chouteau Bend above Fort Gibson Lake. The peak of fishing for paddlefish in northeastern Oklahoma is in late March and early April during the spawning runs up the rivers. [PHOTO PROVIDED] 

Kevin Clifton of Tuttle holds a paddlefish that he snagged last weekend near Chouteau Bend above Fort Gibson Lake. The peak of fishing for paddlefish in northeastern Oklahoma is in late March and early April during the spawning runs up the rivers. [PHOTO PROVIDED] 

Snagging paddlefish on Grand Lake and its tributaries has been about average this spring.

Not bad, but nothing spectacular. A good rain would get the spoonbills going and heat up the fishing.

"The weather has been beautiful but we haven't had much rain," said Brandon Brown, supervisor of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservations' Paddlefish Research Center in Miami near Twin Bridges State Park.

"The river is low and the fishing has been just fair. The time is right but we don't expect too big of a change until we get some rain."

We are heading into the peak of the spring paddlefish season in northeastern Oklahoma. During the last week of March and into early April is when the fishing is best as the paddlefish, more commonly known among Oklahoma anglers as spoonbills, begin their spawning runs up the rivers. But it takes a good rain to trigger it.

"It's not just rain that falls in Miami, but more importantly the rain that falls in the upper watershed, in east-central Kansas," Brown said. "When you get good rise in the river, the fishing is going to get good."

Even though the rivers are low, anglers are still hooking into the Oklahoma Marlin. As of Wednesday, 250 spoonbills had been checked in at the center where state wildlife officials clean the fish and bag the meat for anglers in exchange for the eggs from female paddlefish.

The Wildlife Department then uses the eggs to make paddlefish caviar and sells the luxury item to a wholesaler, a program that has received national attention since it first began 11 years ago..

The biggest paddlefish that had been checked in as of Wednesday was a 74-pounder, which is the reason most people venture to northeastern Oklahoma to snag a spoonbill. It's an opportunity to hook into a really big fish.

The average male paddlefish averages from 35 to 40 pounds around Grand Lake, Brown said. Females, from 45 to 50 pounds, he said.

"I consider 50 pounds to be pretty common," Brown said. "To me, a 60-pound fish is pretty good. I think anything over 70 is a big fish."

Grand Lake has become the place to go to catch paddlefish much like Lake Texoma is for striped bass. It's become a fishing destination.

In an average year, between 4,000 and 5,000 anglers will check in fish at the Paddlefish Research Center, which opened in 2008. On a good fishing year, that number will go much higher, Brown said.

Brown said the Wildlife Department receives telephone calls months in advance from anglers across the country who want to plan a spring trip to the area to snag paddlefish.

"They are calling us at Christmas wanting to know what days they should plan their vacation for the following spring," Brown said.

Grand Lake and its paddlefish are a big draw for anglers in the upper Midwest, particularly Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota, Brown said. But the spoonbill fishing brings people from all over the country, he said.

"We've talked to people from Seattle, Washington, from Massachusetts, from all over who came here just to fish for paddlefish," Brown said. "For most people, this is going to be the biggest fish they catch in their life.

"Certainly the biggest freshwater fish. Then you add on top of that, it's such a unique opportunity that doesn't exist very many places. There just aren't very many places you can go and catch a paddlefish. The fishing here is pretty good. One of the best, if not the best, in the U.S."

When biologists started intensely studying Oklahoma's paddlefish population a decade ago, they learned it was much bigger than they realized. They also learned most of the fish were born in the same year, 1999.

Paddlefish don't spawn every year. The huge year-class in 1999 was the bulk of Oklahoma's population. With the popularity of fishing for spoonbills growing, biologists realized if they didn't pass regulations to restrict the harvest, these prehistoric looking fish could disappear like they have in other places.

"They were all born at the same time and they were going to start dying at the same time," Brown said. "We only had a few more years before they were going to start dying of natural mortality.

"We had to spread the harvest out so those fish would get a chance to spawn. There wasn't a year-class immediately behind them. So we had to protect that group of spawning, mature fish and we were able to do that."

Now, Oklahoma anglers can only keep two paddlefish per year (one per day) and the fish must be checked in at wildlifedepartment.com. Mondays and Fridays are catch and release fishing days only. A free paddlefish permit in addition to a state fishing license is required of anglers.

When the regulations were being proposed, Brown said state wildlife officials spoke to every paddlefish angler who came through the center about the need for a more restrictive harvest.

As a result, the anglers have overwhelmingly supported the efforts to protect the population and ensure a future for paddlefish, he said.

"We have been able to manage this population and keep this a good fishery when not every place has been able to do that," Brown said.

Paddlefish across the United States are declining "in range and in numbers," Brown said. "But in Oklahoma we are actually expanding. We have more paddlefish today than we had 15 years ago.

"For the most part, this is done through natural reproduction. Not through stocking. Not through hatcheries. We have paddlefish showing up in places where they didn't used to. That's the success story for us."

PADDLEFISH FACTS

•Fossil records show paddlefish have been swimming in the rivers of the Midwest since before dinosaurs ruled. The populations dwindled to near extinction in some states due to altering of river systems as dams blocked spring spawning runs.

•In Oklahoma, they are primarily found in the Grand, Neosho and Arkansas river systems.

•Most of the public fishing access for spoonbills is around Grand and Fort Gibson lakes and below the Kaw Lake dam.

•Paddlefish are very slow-growing, reaching sexual maturity between six and 10 years.

•The Oklahoma paddlefish record caught on a rod and reel is 125 pounds, 7 ounces. It was snagged from the Arkansas River in 2011. The state record in the unrestricted division is 134 pounds, caught on a trot line in Grand Lake in 1992.

•The average size of paddlefish at Grand Lake is around 45 pounds, where the lake and its tributaries have the largest population of spoonbills in the state. They can grow to more than 6 feet in length.

•Paddlefish have no bones. Their entire skeleton is cartilage, just like a shark.

•They are “filter feeders” and feed on zooplankton by swimming slowly with their mouths open. Their gill arches have filaments on them called gill rakers that sieve the zooplankton organisms from the water.

•Their bills, which contain hundreds of tiny sensory organs, help the fish detect food. It also helps to stabilize them while swimming the swift currents of their river homes.

•Anglers snag paddlefish using a stout surf rod, heavy-duty spinning reel spooled with heavy test line and a large barbless treble hook tied about a foot above a large sinker.

•Paddlefish are a cousin of the sturgeon, which is why their roe, or eggs, is considered an excellent substitute for sturgeon caviar.

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 ›

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