Paddlefish are the last inland big game fish. Often called a “fossil” fish, paddlefish have remained unchanged for over 300 million years. Montana is home to one of the few remaining self-sustaining populations of paddlefish (Polyodon spathula), an ancient smooth skinned fish of impressive proportion. Paddlefish have been taken on the Yellowstone River that weigh-in over 150 pounds. The official Montana record remains 142.5 pounds, caught above Fort Peck, in 1973.
The Montana Government Field Guide states, “Paddlefish stocks in Montana are adequate to support a recreational fishery.” The annual May through early June spawn attracts over 3,000 adventurous anglers from across Montana and the Dakotas: intent on snagging a trophy catch.
On Wednesday, June 5, 2013 the largest fish of the season weighed-in at a whooping 96 pounds. Mike Backes, Region 7 Fisheries Manager, called a halt to the harvest effective Friday night, June 7, 2013. Backes notes, “The quota for the entire system, which includes the Missouri River below Fort Peck Dam, is 1,000 fish a year. Fishing is strong and near the 800 quota at Intake.” Paddlefish accumulate at Intake where an irrigation diversion impedes their homeward journey.
Throughout the past week heavy rains boosted the raging waters of the Yellowstone by 10,000 cubic feet per second. Think about it: that is a lot of water. The powerful rush of water is an irresistible enticement for the long-nosed fish that journey up the Yellowstone River from the icy waters of Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota to spawn. Paddlefish are filter feeders and will not accept lures or baited hooks and must be caught by snagging. During the week, savvy fishermen were averaging 90 paddlefish a day and quickly departing after filling their tag. The catch was especially abundant at the Intake fishing access between Glendive and Sidney, Montana.
Backes noted “82 percent of the 80 fish that were caught last Saturday were females in the 40-pound range. Those fish are from the 1995 year class, which will be the spawners for future generations.” Backes stated he does not want to see those paddlefish taken out of the system before they get a chance to reproduce. “That’s our savings account for this population,” he said. “That all factored in to the quick decision to close it down.”
“It’s a difficult decision to make, but we have to err on the resource side of this,” he added.
Environmentalists applaud Brakes’ decision. Halting the paddlefish harvest was the right thing to do. The paddlefish is a rare species that is fast disappearing. In Montana, the mysterious fish population remains healthy with the intervention of dedicated stewardship. In other parts of the Mississippi Delta, the paddlefish population is fast declining. Paddlefish have a natural lifespan of more than 50 years. The pre-historic looking paddlefish is mostly cartilaginous with virtually no scales. Although not related to the catfish, the giant fresh water fish is often called spoonbill cat or American spoonbill. A close relative of the sturgeon, the majority of species of paddlefish are now extinct. Fossils dating back 60 million years have been recovered in the Missouri River Basin near Fort Peck Reservoir, Montana.
The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks notes “Important paddlefish areas on the Missouri River are the Slippery Ann area just upstream of Fort Peck Reservoir, the “Dredge Cuts” just downstream of Fort Peck Dam, and the Nashua- Wolf Point area.” The State Department of Fish, Game and Wildlife further notes, “The paddlefish has recently been considered for national threatened or endangered status. It appears that for the present time this will not be done. Some local populations, like Montana”, appear to be quite healthy while other populations are in various stages of decline. The greatest damage to paddlefish populations has come from dam building. This has resulted in loss of required flowing water for spawning and impoundment of springtime high flows that encourage successful paddlefish spawning. In some areas illegal commercial taking of paddlefish has also been a significant negative factor.”
By: Marlene Affeld
Montana Fish and Parks
Paddlefish Of The Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers