Goin’ Snaggin’. Big paddlefish provide a deep-sea experience

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March 12, 2002.

Goin’ Snaggin’
Big paddlefish provide a deep-sea experience in an Ozarks lake.

By Charlie Farmer, Springfield News-Leader



At midnight Friday, March 15, lakes like Table Rock at Bridgeport, Truman, the Osage River above Lake of the Ozarks, and a well known snagging spot near Osceola will have plenty of company.

Paddlefish snaggers in boats or on banks will celebrate the opening of paddlefish season. Down in the blackness of night, shark-like fish with paddle-shaped snouts are cruising. Some for crustaceans and insect larvae. Others maybe sensing the time for spawning.

The big game sport, whether night or day, is not for the meek or frail. This is as close to ocean fishing as most Missourians will encounter. Those who seek the paddlefish use stout deep-sea rods with wooden handles, sturdy Penn reels that usually subdue sailfish, 140-pound test braided line, big reel capacity and a reliable drag both for 50-pound fish or 50-pound stickups 20 feet down.

In his book “The Fishes of Missouri,” William L. Pflieger describes the paddlefish’s large mouth, tiny eyes, a tail fin that is deeply forked, skin without scales except for a patch on the upper lobe of the tail fin. Gill rakers are numerous and usually long and slender. The fish’s skeleton is composed of cartilage rather than bone. Its coloring ranges from bluish-gray to nearly black on its upper parts, grading to white on the belly.

Paddlefish in Missouri commonly exceed 60 pounds and the largest reported from the Osage River weighed 110 pounds. The paddlefish is primarily a fish of open water rather than of the bottom, swimming apparently aimlessly near the surface or in shallow areas.

According to Pflieger, the paddle-shaped snout is not used to stir up the bottom as might be supposed. Most of the paddlefish spawning occurs in April and May.

The paddlefish was formerly abundant over much of the Mississippi Valley but has undergone a drastic decline since 1900. Overharvest and destruction of habitat have contributed to this decline. In Missouri, only the Mississippi, Missouri and Osage rivers support substantial populations. They are present in Table Rock Lake as a result of stocking. Truman Dam inundated the only known spawning grounds for this population. Stream channelization and drainage of bottomland lakes have eliminated much of the feeding habitat.

Despite the loss of much native habitat for paddlefish in Missouri, there still remains a loyal following of paddlefish snaggers who can’t wait for March 15.

Department of Conservation fisheries biologist Bill Anderson and his friend, Kim Graham, will be there at Bridgeport on Table Rock Lake for the opening of the paddlefish season. Graham, a retired fisheries biologist, is an expert on paddlefish biology. While it seems this duo has the odds for snagging two fish each, there is more to the sport.

Anderson said staying power and body muscle play important roles in paddlefish success. While most forms of sport fishing, like bass and trout, depend on finesse, paddlefish success demands hard work. “Stout rods, heavy lead weights and long casts take their toll,” Anderson said.

The biologist is proud of the Table Rock paddlefish fishery. “The paddlefish population is good at Table Rock Lake in the area where Flat Creek and the James River fork at Marker 15. I expect a huge turnout March 15.”

Before his recent promotion to Columbia, Ron Dent was in charge of paddlefish management as a fisheries regional supervisor stationed at Clinton. In that capacity he sampled the fishery as both biologist and snagger. He enjoys the paddlefish sport.

“I use a stout deep-sea rod for snagging just as most snaggers do,” Dent said. “A sturdy ocean reel is part of the rig. So, too, is 140-pound test braided line. With 60-pound fish, a good drag is important part of landing paddlefish. I use 18- to 16-ounce lead sinkers depending on the depth of the water.”

Depending on the size of the fish, large dip nets or gaffs are used to bring the fish into the boat. Grabbing the tail of fish is a good method to subdue it. Cotton gloves work well when fishing and to hold fish. Large treble hooks can be dangerous in this situation when the fish is splashing around. Pliers are used to extract the hooks.

According to Dent, fish of 50 pounds or more are sometimes tied amidships outside the boat with stout rope. He makes sure the fish cannot roll up over the motor or bow. It’s best to tow the fish in slowly.

With heavy fishing gear needed to snag paddlefish, it’s wise to alternate casts. The danger of large treble hooks and heavy weights could quickly end the day. Dent usually fishes with three in the boat, but with only two people snagging at a time, which gives the third person a chance to rest his or her arms. Some snaggers use pontoon boats with plenty of space to cast.

A jerking motion is given to the baitless hooks so they will penetrate the tough skin of any paddlefish contacted. The method is effective only where large concentrations are present.

Some snaggers use a sink or toilet plunger propped against the stomach, its handle aligned with the rod’s for comfort when pumping the rod, said Fran Skalicky, metro media specialist for the conservation department. As for preseason conditioning, it is doubtful that many snaggers lock into an exercise regimen.

Anderson and Dent said there is a distinction in the danger levels between river snagging and lake snagging. The water currents and stick-ups in the river warrant a skipper with good boat skills. The lakes, on the other hand, don’t pose these same navigational problems.

Paddlefish season runs from March 15 through April 30. The daily limit is two. Minimum length limit is 24 inches.

There are a couple of ways snaggers dress a paddlefish for eating. One is to cut the head off, cut the tail cord off and gut the fish as one piece of meat while discarding the rest. Another method is to fillet the fish in two and trim all the red meat off.

Dent’s favorite is smoking paddlefish. Leave one side of the paddlefish skin-side down for smoking.
 


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