By Carly Deacon, MWF Program Manager
I had no idea the prehistoric Paddlefish existed or the hype around “Paddle Snagging” was so popular. My head must have been in the sand for the last umpteen years as this sport is an outdoors-man and outdoors-woman’s obsession in North Dakota and Montana. Thousands of people flock to the Missouri and the Yellowstone River to try their luck snagging one of these river whales. It is the hardest style of fishing I have ever experienced but an experience I would gladly make into an annual adventure.
Paddlefish are closely related to Sturgeon in their ancient lineage. There are only two species found in this world. One is near extinction found only in portions of the Yangtze River drainage in China, and the other is native to North America and found in 22 states surrounding the Missouri and Mississippi River basins. The only population of paddlefish that supports this snag fishery is the population that resides within Lake Sakakawea. Mature paddle fish migrate upstream out of Lake Sakakawea to spawn during the spring in the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. They are picky about habitat and have specific spawning preferences that draw them to a combination of high flows, desired water temperatures, and gravel/cobble river bottom substrates. Aside from the Missouri and the Yellowstone, there are few rivers that provide this specific habitat combination, so in many states paddlefish populations have been greatly reduced or even eliminated.
They are the craziest looking fish I have ever seen. Paddles are massive fish with an elongated, flat, paddle shaped rostrum or “snout”, large toothless mouth containing filament-like gills to filter zooplankton, and small beady eyes. The fact that they are filter feeders explains the snagging technique used to catch them. They won’t bite large bait, or any kind of bait for that matter. To harvest a paddle fish you have to yank an unbaited hook along the bottom of the river and hope to snag one conveniently passing at that exact moment. Looking at that big Missouri River, the chances of snagging one felt like the same odds as winning Lotto 649.
Regardless of my dodgy chances, I gave it my all to catch one. We drove from Minot, North Dakota west to a private spot along the Missouri River, not 20 miles from Williston, ND. We camped along the river for 4 days. The place was incredible, peaceful and full of wildlife. It was a beautiful combination of agriculture, tree bluffs, sandy bad-lands and the big Missouri. Catfish were constantly rolling in the river, turkeys, pheasants, and ducks flew over our tent on a daily basis, and the occasional White-tail came out of the bluffs to feed in the fields. It was a nature lover’s playground.
Paddle fishing seasons generally run through the month of May. This year the season opened May 1st and was scheduled to run until the end of May. However, the regulations state that the state Game and Fish Department could announce an early in-season closure if the harvest cap is reached. If this is the case, the state will allow 4 additional days of snag and release past the early closer, but the season will never extend past May 31st. Sunday, Monday and Thursdays in May were designated as snag and release days. Tuesdays, Wednesday, Fridays, and Saturdays in May were designated as mandatory harvest days, in which all paddle fish caught must be kept and tagged immediately. Anglers are allowed one tag each and only 1000 tags were filled in the state of North Dakota this year.
Our group took care of purchasing our needed licenses, supplies and setting up camp on Sunday and Monday, with some occasional stress free fishing amongst some site seeing and relaxation. All paddlefish snaggers must possess a valid North Dakota fishing license along with a tag. Non-resident fishing license in North Dakota runs at about $27US with a non-resident paddlefishing tag costing $25.50US. The regulations are actually relatively strict. You must always have your tag on you while fishing, only the tag holder can cast the line and it is illegal to pass your rod to anyone else if you have a fish on…even if you are not physically strong enough to reel the fish in on your own.
Casting and “snagging” was ridiculously hard. The rod itself was 4 times the size of me, loaded with a big hook and heavy weight. It took a Happy Gilmore two step approach to cast it out far enough to hit the deeper water holes in the river. My friends laughed but you got to do what you got to do! We used a stiff 12 foot rod with a spinning reel, 30lb test line, 5 once weight and between a number 8 and 10 treble hook. Once the line was out, we let the weight drag the hook to the bottom of the river. Once on the bottom, you anchor the end of the rod against your side and jerk the rod sideways aggressively to drag the hook along the river bottom (or as close to it as possible), followed by quick reeling to take up the slack. I am not going to lie or act tough, you take three casts and have to stop for a break. It is tiring…on your back, on your arms, and on your ribs where the rod is resting. A good tip to paddle fishing is come prepared with plenty of extra hooks and weights. Snags happen regularly and often the only solution is to break the line. Also have on hand a landing gaff to haul the fish up the bank and a good pair of pliers to remove the hook from the fish’s tough skin.
Tuesday, on “snag and keep day”, we took it more seriously as it was our one day to snag one of these prehistoric monsters and fill the freezer with what my friend described as delicious fish! We got an early start that morning. My friends had their game faces on making our agenda very clear that day. “We fish the entire day and do not stop until we fill our tags…no eating, no drinking, no having fun”. Ok maybe I’m exaggerating a bit there. Fun was still allowed. It was around 10am when the first rod bent down with a vengeance and my friend screeched “Fish On”. We all hovered around the shore to see his river whale surface. The fight looked hard which made me wonder what I was going to anchor myself too on-shore if I end up catching one of these fish. We pulled the first paddlefish up the steep shore. It was about a 25 pounder with a special piece of jewelry in its lip. It was a beauty, smaller than most paddlefish caught in that area, but a beauty non-the-less!
One hour later a 40 pounder was caught! I started thinking maybe my chances were better than I anticipated! Honestly I casted all day. Right at dusk, on one of my final casts, I pulled in an impressive shiner. Well, not so impressive but better than a goose egg. I think the shiner matched the size of the bruise and rash on my ribs. I was disappointed that I didn’t land one of these amazing creatures, but thrilled to learn the sport and take in 4 days of back country camping on the Missouri River.
On our way back to Minot we stopped at the Missouri and Yellowstone River confluence. Hundreds of people lined the shore, hauling in paddlefish averaging around 80lbs. The record that day was 106lbs. At the confluence I learned about the value of their roe and the role Montana, North Dakota and Oklahoma play in supplying the world with this delicacy. At the confluence folks hauled their trophy fish up to a weigh-in and cleaning station, often run by a non-profit organization called North Star Caviar that cleans the paddlefish for the anglers at no cost in exchange for the row in the female fish. Portions of the annual proceeds from the caviar sales are directed to the Game and Fish Department for paddlefish research, information and enforcement. The rest of the proceeds are granted back to projects and efforts that improve habitat, recreational activities, cultural and historical initiatives, and water access. To put this all in perspective for you, a 40 pound paddle fish can yield 10 pounds of caviar. At approximately $100/lb., this little lady just generated a $1000 profit. Serious money wrapped up in some serious fun!
I was unsuccessful filling a tag this year which means it is absolutely essential that this this trip is booked again for next year. It is a style of fishing that we are not exposed to here in Manitoba, but luckily it is close to home and super affordable. I highly recommend you add Paddle snagging to your bucket list, but will caution you, these river whales make you work hard for the victory!