Delicious table fare awaits anglers traveling to the renowned spoonbill waters of Oklahoma, because with the right preparation techniques and recipes, paddlefish is mighty tasty
The springtime American paddlefish (Polyodon spathula) season is in full swing across northeastern Oklahoma, a spot in the southern Great Plains that is something of a ground zero for tens of thousands of anglers who enjoy pursuing these giant, pre-historic looking, filter feeding fish.
Equipped with a long paddle-shaped rostrum – a physical characteristic that causes some to call the fish a spoonbill – the species is naturally reproducing in several Oklahoma waters including the famed Neosho River and the nearby Arkansas River.
With licensed anglers – who must also have a free Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation paddlefish permit – able to legally tag and retain two paddlefish each year, those who are successful have plenty of fillet meat available for meals.
Adam Cole, a 34-year old Georgia angler who traveled to the Arkansas River recently with his wife Jennifer, his eight-year old son Zaniel, and his three-year old daughter Atleigh, is a paddlefish enthusiast who annually targets the unusual species.
On their visit to the river section between Kaw Lake and Keystone Reservoir, Cole’s son Zaniel landed a 107-pound paddlefish, one of several big spoonbills that the family caught. While all the others were released, the family decided to legally keep and tag Zaniel’s biggest one for the dinner table.
With a number of gallon Ziploc baggies of paddlefish fillet meat making its way back to Georgia, Adam Cole shared his favored methods for turning the steaks and chunks of fish meat into good meals.
The first step is to realize that most all big paddlefish are older fish, and like the tender meat from a yearling white-tailed buck versus the tougher venison from a grizzled old bruiser, a little pre-cooking prep-work never hurts before fixing up a mess of paddlefish.
“To start with, I brine my paddlefish for a couple of days,” said Cole. “It’s got a little bit of a fish taste, so I’ll brine it for a couple of days in a recipe that utilizes brown sugar, salt, water and some other spices. It helps pull out some of that fishy taste.”
Next, he’ll cut away any fat and any dark red meat before choosing between frying or smoking the paddlefish.
“If I decide to fry up a batch, I’ll start by dipping it in buttermilk,” said Cole. “Then I’ll dredge it in regular fish fry batter or cornmeal. Sometimes, I’ll use something like the Tony Chachere’s seasoned batter mix with garlic, lemon, and herbs, or even a beer batter mix that I’ve found online.”
“A lot of the time, however, I’ll just use a basic cornmeal batter with some seasoning added since those thicker batter mixes sometimes seem to hold more grease in my opinion,” he added.
After dipping the fillet chunks in the buttermilk and dredging it through the batter mix, Cole will fry everything up to a golden-brown finish, add some coleslaw, French fries, and hush puppies, and serve everything up piping hot to his family and dinner guests.
“The best way that I have found to eat paddlefish is to cut it up into steaks and chunks and then smoke it,” he said. “Just like I do when I fry it, I’ll put it in a brine and leave it for a couple of days though.”
With each gallon-sized Ziploc bag full of paddlefish filet meat capable of feeding upwards of 10 people in a single meal, Cole gauges how much fish he’ll need to smoke. Then he’ll fire up his smoker, usually with pecan wood, and let the paddlefish meat warm up between refrigerator cold and room temperature.
“Whether it’s beef or fish, I don’t like to throw cold meat on the grill or smoker, so I’ll fire the smoker up and get it going, then throw the meat on it when it’s not quite up to room temperature,” said Cole.
As he stokes the fire, Cole aims for his smoker to get into the 225 to 250-degree range so that he can get the internal temperature of the smoked paddlefish to the 160-degree mark that health experts recommend.
“How long does it take to smoke the paddlefish and achieve that temperature?” said Cole. “Well, that kind of depends. When I started smoking, those who taught me gave me a general rule of thumb of an hour and a half per pound of meat on the smoker.”
Once the paddlefish steaks and/or chunks get to the desired internal temperature of at least 160-degrees for approximately 30 minutes, Cole pulls the meat off the smoker.
“Then I might wrap it in tin foil and put it in my cooler to let it rest for a little while,” he said. “Usually, my paddlefish steaks are about an inch thick and I want to let them cool down a little bit and rest before I eat.”
After the smoked paddlefish steaks rest, he’ll serve immediately with various other supporting dishes that can range from baked potatoes and vegetables to cheese grits and French fries, depending on what sounds good on that particular day.
Keep in mind that there is another table fare possibility when it comes to paddlefish, one that many are fond of even if Cole says he isn’t so much. And that’s the turning of paddlefish eggs into caviar.
(Editor’s Note: According to the 2017-18 Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation’s Fishing Regulations booklet, “No person can possess eggs (attached to the egg membrane) of more than one paddlefish. No person can possess more than 3 pounds of processed paddlefish eggs or fresh paddlefish eggs removed from the membrane. Processed eggs are any eggs taken from a paddlefish that have gone through a process that turns the eggs into caviar or into a caviar-like product. No person can ship into or out of, transport into or out of, have in possession with the intent to so transport, or cause to be removed from this state, raw unprocessed, processed or frozen paddlefish eggs.)
“When I’m cleaning the fish, you’ll sometimes open it up and see all of those eggs,” said Cole. “In essence, they’re full of the primary ingredient of caviar, so you’re looking at quite a bit of money since people pay high dollars for paddlefish eggs. Since I can’t take any beyond state lines, all I’ve ever tasted are the fresh eggs, and they have an earthy taste to them that I don’t really care for. But plenty of others do.”
That includes caviar connoisseurs in overseas markets where paddlefish caviar is a delicacy.
In fact, if a paddlefish brought to the ODWC’s Paddlefish Research Center in Miami, Okla. has eggs, they are carefully removed by biologists and professionally turned into caviar. ODWC then sells the caviar with the revenue from such sales going back to the agency to help fund their paddlefish research and management activities.
For Cole, the best part of visiting the ODWC research center is that in addition to the collection of valuable biological information and data from each live paddlefish brought in, the PRC’s biologists will dress the fish and put the fillets into heat-sealed plastic bags that the angler can pick back up within 24 hours.
After that, it’s time to fire up the fish fryer or the wood smoker for a meal that few anglers have ever experienced.
And that’s an enjoyable meal comprised of the paddlefish, a unique American piscatorial critter that is quite at home in the Great Plains’ prairieland waters found in northern and northeastern Oklahoma.