On an Oklahoma angling trip targeting the state’s renowned paddlefish, an 8-year-old Georgia boy doubled up on prehistoric-looking fish … on the same day!
When many anglers think of Oklahoma’s Arkansas River, they think of bass fishing, such as the B.A.S.S. Central Open tournament stop currently in Muskogee, Okla.
But that’s not the kind of fishing that lured 34-year old Adam Cole and his family to make a cross-country trip in late-March to a section of the Arkansas northwest of Tulsa between Kaw Lake and Keystone Reservoir.
The lure for Adam, his wife Jennifer, son Zaniel, 8, and daughter Atleigh, 3, was the chance to fish for one of Oklahoma’s most celebrated piscatorial critters, the American paddlefish (Polyodon spathula).
By the time the trip to Soonerland was over, Cole was all smiles after watching his wife land a first-day 100-pound paddlefish and his son land one in the 90-pound range. The following day, things were even better as Zaniel landed a family-best 107-pound paddlefish and a rare (for Oklahoma) shovelnose sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus platorynchus).
That the family made its way to Oklahoma for a paddlefish adventure isn’t so surprising since the Sooner State has some of the best paddlefishing opportunities in North America, particularly around the Neosho and Arkansas rivers and in the various reservoirs those two rivers feed.
Those watersheds and a few others around the state annually draw thousands of in-state and out-of-state anglers hoping to do battle with a big spoonbill.
To fish for paddlefish in Oklahoma, anglers must possess a valid fishing license and a free ODWC paddlefish permit. With a daily limit of one, each permit holder can tag and legally retain two paddlefish per license year (Other regulations apply – see the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation’s 2017-18 Fishing Regulations book for details including how to report each fish tagged under the state’s E-Check reporting system.)
With a naturally reproducing population of the fish, paddlefish are expanding their range in state waters. In fact, the ODWC says netting surveys over the past year or two indicate a “remarkable number of smaller paddlefish in state waters, so biologists are expecting a surge in fish numbers in the coming years.”
When anglers catch and retain a big paddlefish, as many as 65 percent of them will be given to the ODWC’s Paddlefish Research Center (PRC) in Miami, Okla. (61091 E. 120 Rd., Miami, OK 74354; (918) 542-9422) for processing of paddlefish filets (returned to anglers in a heat-sealed bag), for the collection of eggs (which is processed into caviar and sold by ODWC to raise funds for its paddlefish management program), and jawbone and data collection by biologists.
With approximately 2,500 fish being annually processed at the PRC in recent years, ODWC indicates more than 22,000 paddlefish have been examined over the past decade. That has helped the Oklahoma City-based agency build a considerable database on paddlefish biology and management strategies in the southern Great Plains.
“We are setting the bar in paddlefish management,” said Brandon Brown, the state’s Paddlefish and Caviar coordinator, in a news release.
All of which helps to lure in local anglers and out-of-staters like Cole and his family for a vacation of fishing fun.
To say Cole likes to snag these behemoth paddlefish – that’s the only way to catch the filter-feeders who specialize in eating zooplankton – is like saying Kevin VanDam likes to bass fish.
In fact, after talking with Cole — who got his start in the pursuit of paddlefish in 2014 while on active duty with the U.S. Air Force in North Dakota — it’s fair to say the civil service worker is somewhat of a KVD kind of angler in the paddlefish game.
He’s good at it (with his own 100-pounder), he’s knowledgeable about the species, and he has an unbridled passion for catching and conserving these spoonbills.
“For me, the size of the fish is one thing that lures me in,” said Cole. “If you’ve never snagged one before, you might get a fish that is probably going to be one of the biggest fish you’ve ever caught. And when you hook one, like with my first one in North Dakota, there’s a lot of adrenaline while you’re standing there trying to get one and then trying to land it.”
Since his paddlefish baptism a few years ago, Cole has immersed himself in the paddlefish angling world, trying to soak up any and everything he can.
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“I’ve done a lot of research through watching videos online, reading articles and books, looking for any kind of literature or information about them so I can educate myself even more,” he said.
Given the size of the hard-fighting fish, the amount of filet meat available, and the prospect of legally retaining a few pounds of the eggs, or caviar, that paddlefish have at certain times of the year, Oklahoma is one of 16 states that allow for the snagging of the fish.
So, it’s little wonder the Cole family found themselves standing on a big Arkansas River sandbar in late-March, tossing a snagging set-up into a deeper hole through which the fish were moving.
For Cole, that set-up consists of an eight-foot or better Meat Hunter rod (manufactured in nearby Tulsa), a Penn Fierce II spinning reel, and 65-pound KastKing braid. To that braid, he’ll tie a 2 to 5-ounce weight at the bottom, followed by a 10/0 single barbless hook positioned some 12 to 18-inches above the weight.
After that, it’s a lot of hard work casting, reeling, and sweeping the set-up back in.
“I cast it out into the spot I’m targeting, let it sink to the bottom depending on the flow, and then reel in the slack,” said Cole. “Once I get the slack reeled in, I tuck the rod under my left arm and reel in with my right hand. With the fishing pole parallel to the ground, I bring it across my body quickly as far as I can, then reel in the slack, and do it again.”
Eventually, lucky anglers will make contact with a big paddlefish.
“If you hit a fish, you had better hold on,” said Cole, noting that sometimes, the 40-pounders fight harder than even the bigger ones do.
On the family’s recent trip to Oklahoma, the first day saw Jennifer wrestle in a 100-pound paddlefish while young Zaniel brought in a 90-pounder; both fish were released.
On the second day, Zaniel hooked up to what his dad thought was a baby paddlefish. As it turned out, it was a pretty good-sized (for the species, anyway) shovelnose sturgeon, a rarity in Oklahoma.
“I had come across the fish a time or two online at the ODWC website,” said Cole. “I put it to the side, didn’t think much more about it.”
Until they were trying to figure out what was at the end of Zaniel’s line, that is.
“We were excited when the fish he caught turned out to be a shovelnose sturgeon,” said Cole. “You have to handle them right because their skin is kind of rough and can cut you. It was really, really neat to see my son catch one of those uncommon fish species.”
The excitement level in the Cole family was about to get ratcheted up even more as Zaniel hooked up with the 107-pound paddlefish mentioned above, one that he asked his dad if they could tag and keep. That’s understandable since the youngster had hooked and landed the fish of a lifetime, a paddlefish not too far below the Sooner State record paddlefish benchmark of 125 pounds, 7 ounces.
With several bags of paddlefish filet meat produced by the catch, there will be a number of great meals enjoyed by the Cole family back in Georgia this spring and summer.
Not to mention lifelong memories of an Oklahoma angling trip that produced not one, but two catches for a young angler of species that some refer to as “prehistoric fishes” that date back to dinosaur times.
“I’m glad I was able to experience this with him,” said Adam. “He’s an active kid, plays baseball, and enjoys fishing too, it was a moment that we’ll never forget.
“We’re definitely blessed in being able to do this,” he added. “I have a real passion for doing this, and for fishing in general, and so far, Zaniel, he likes it too.”
After Zaniel’s spring fishing day in Oklahoma recently, you can certainly understand why.