Rudolph of the Rivers

Rudolph of the Rivers
Jessie Wilkes of Springdale, Arkansas, shows the 105-pound paddlefish he caught in the White River arm of Arkansas' Beaver Lake on March 2. (Photo courtesy of Arkansas Game and Fish Commission)

March 2, 2015. Jessie Wilkes of Springdale, Arkansas and his fishing buddy Richard Wynne were hoping to catch some walleyes as they trolled crankbaits in the White River arm of Beaver Lake in northwestern Arkansas. Suddenly, Wilkes’ rod went down hard. When he picked it up to reel the fish in, he realized immediately he hadn’t hooked a walleye. It was obvious from the way it fought that this fish was much larger than any walleye.

When Wilkes finally got it near to the boat, both men had to assist in wrestling the fish aboard. It was a behemoth—a 105-pound, 5-foot, 5-inch-long paddlefish, a new Arkansas record. The previous state record, a 102 ½-pound paddlefish was caught in Beaver Lake in 2007.

I like to think of the paddlefish as the fish world’s equivalent of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. The first thing you notice about this misfit is its weird nose. Protruding like a built-in dinner spoon between its beady eyes is a snoot as long as a toddler’s arm. This unusual creature reminds me of a whimsical cross between Pinocchio and a shark.

Other curious features enhance its comic-book image. The paddlefish has no bones, just cartilage. Its skin is smooth and scaleless. And while the paddlefish weighs up to 190 pounds, it feeds only on microscopic animals siphoned through a toothless mouth big enough to swallow basketballs. The long nose, or rostrum, works like a highly sensitive antenna that helps the fish find plankton to eat. Even the paddlefish’s nicknames—spoonbill, shovelnose, duckbill and boneless cat—add to its unusual appeal.

I have long wanted to catch a paddlefish on rod and reel, but just a few years ago, I was unsuccessful. Admittedly, I am not the world’s best fisherman, but I like to attribute my failure to hook a spoonbill not to a lack of knowledge of proper fishing tactics, but to a lack of endurance. Let me explain.

Because they are filter feeders, paddlefish won’t intentionally strike bait or lures. The record fish Wilkes caught was accidentally snagged in the side by the crankbait he was trolling. If you want to catch one intentionally on rod and reel, you have to use a method known as “snagging” or “blind jerking.”

Using a heavy rod, reel and line rigged with a large treble hook and sinker, the angler jerks his set through the water hoping to sink the bare hook in a paddlefish’s leathery hide. There’s a long cast, a short delay while the rig sinks, a violent jerk, a quick turning of the reel handle, another jerk and more rapid reeling. Jerk and reel, jerk and reel, until a fish is hooked or the angler is exhausted. My problem was I always became too exhausted to continue before I hooked a fish. Snagging is back-breaking work, and one may jerk a hook through the water hundreds of times before connecting with a paddlefish.

The method works best where large concentrations of paddlefish are present, so most anglers fish in spring when paddlefish congregate below dams during upstream spawning migrations. Arkansas anglers fish primarily below dams on the Arkansas River, particularly during April and May when spoonbills are most plentiful in the tailwaters. But Arkansas paddlefish also are found in the White, Ouachita, Mississippi, St. Francis, Little, Sulphur and Red rivers and their larger tributaries, and in the waters of 21 other states as well.

I don’t intend to tell you exactly where I was when I finally caught my first paddlefish. (In my experience, good fishing holes are best kept secret if you don’t want to find other anglers crowding them.) I will tell you, however, I was snagging below a dam on a big river, and it was on my twentieth cast, or thereabouts, I made a hard jerk and suddenly my pole was nearly yanked from my hands. Struggling to maintain a grip on my tackle, I, too, was almost pulled overboard. The obviously agitated fish pulled me from one end of the front deck to the other in the blink of an eye.

Trying to land a paddlefish in heavy current is like trying to reel in a 5-gallon bucket. The fish’s enormous, gaping mouth creates resistance that makes it difficult for the angler to bring in the fish. Add to that the power of one of these sleek, muscular brutes, and you may find it takes several minutes of cranking and pulling before you gain the upper hand.

Such was the case with this fish. I reeled in line and she took it back. I’d reel in more, and she would make another drag-burning run. Finally, after five minutes that seemed like an hour, I was able to bring the spoonbill close enough so my fishing companions could grab its schnozz and haul it in the boat. At last I had succeeded in catching a paddlefish—a 45-pounder with a bulging belly full of eggs. This was for me the culmination of a long-held dream to catch one of North America’s largest freshwater fish. We shot a few quick photos of the incredible-looking fish and then released her back into the river to go about the business of spawning.

There was a time not too many years ago when we knew very little about paddlefish. But thanks to tagging and radio telemetry studies conducted by Arkansas Game and Fish Commission biologists, our knowledge of the spoonbill’s life history has grown monumentally.

We know now that paddlefish may live as long as 55 years, although the average lifespan is 20 to 30 years. Males don’t reach sexual maturity until they are 7 to 9 years old, and females may be age 10 before they first lay eggs. Paddlefish spawn in flowing waters over a gravel bottom, and strong current is needed to keep silt from smothering the eggs, which hatch after 7 to 10 days. Just-hatched fry are pug-nosed, but by their third week, the characteristic snoot starts growing.

Unfortunately, paddlefish numbers declined in many areas because man modified their big-river homes with dams, channelization and dredging. Unrestricted commercial harvest also created problems. Paddlefish are valued for their eggs, which can be made into valuable high-quality caviar. A black market for the roe led to poaching of the fish in numerous waters throughout their range. And due to a combination of these factors, paddlefish completely disappeared in parts of their range and declined in many others.

Arkansas paddlefish fared better than many other populations. The Game and Fish Commission enacted regulations that ensure commercial harvest doesn’t pose a threat to their continued survival here. Biologists have developed techniques to artificially propagate the species, and hatchery-raised paddlefish have been successfully stocked where populations were formerly absent or depleted. We’re also more aware now of human impacts on paddlefish, and we know that regulated sportfishing does not have a detrimental effect on the remaining populations.

The paddlefish is an ancient species that swam the earth during the time of dinosaurs. It would be unconscionable to allow the demise of so incredible a creature. Fortunately, we’re doing our best to assure that doesn’t happen. The knowledge we’ve gained in recent years should help assure these gentle giants continue to fascinate anglers for many years to come.

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