Dallas In late May, Steven McBride of Yukon, Okla., caught a 114-pound paddlefish from northern Oklahoma's Arkansas River. The fish was in a stretch of river just below Kaw Lake.
When McBride hooked the fish, he thought it was a small one because it swam toward his boat. Eventually, the 54-inch-long throwback to a prehistoric era realized it was in trouble and managed to fight McBride's 40-pound line for 30 minutes, straining the angler's tackle to the breaking point.
In fact, the line did break just as McBride beached his boat. The fisherman managed to grab the broken line and bring the tired fish in, hand over hand.
The weird-looking creature's forebears have been around since the Jurassic Period. They were once plentiful in rivers across what is now the central United States.
Manmade dams interrupted the paddlefish's spawning runs, however, and changed the flow and nature of the rivers. A remnant population exists in Texas, mostly in the Red River.
"We used to have paddlefish in the Neches and Sabine River drainages," said Texas Parks and Wildlife inland fisheries chief Phil Durocher. "We spent 10 years trying to re-establish these fish. We stocked thousands of paddlefish and could never tell that we'd made an impact. The dams changed their habitat."
In Texas, paddlefish are a protected species. Not so in Oklahoma, where studies conducted by fisheries biologist Brent Gordon indicate a growing population. Oklahoma started monitoring paddlefish at Grand Lake in 1979. Officials estimated there were 23,000 of the unusual fish at Grand. By 2003, the Grand Lake population had grown to 65,000.
McBride's Arkansas River catch missed the Oklahoma state record by seven pounds. Aside from the obvious chore of reeling in a big fish, catching a paddlefish is hard work. The plankton feeders cannot be caught on normal lures or bait. They must be snagged with a hook and a heavy sinker.
Despite the hard work, Gordon said Oklahoma paddlefish fishing is gaining popularity, and many of the anglers are coming from other states. A creel survey at Grand Lake indicated that 60 percent of paddlefish fans were nonresidents, mostly from North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska.
The fish they are seeking is most unusual. It has skin similar to that of a catfish. Its shark-like skeleton is made of cartilage rather than bone. The inside of a paddlefish's cavernous mouth has a silky lining that funnels microscopic plankton into its throat.
Its distinctive bill results in nicknames like "spoonbill" or "shovelnose."
The bill contains sensory receptors that pick up a minute electrical charge given off by plankton and enable the fish to find its prey. It feeds by straining huge amounts of water through its mouth and gills, retaining the plankton.
One other thing about paddlefish: The fish's eggs, sometimes called "poor man's caviar," are valuable. In fact, said Gordon, a poor man cannot afford to buy paddlefish eggs, which sell for $200 to $300 a pound, when processed for the market.
The paddlefish's flesh also is good to eat. In fact, Gordon said, most paddlefish anglers whom he has interviewed don't bother to keep the eggs.
Oklahoma may start a paddlefish program similar to those in North Dakota and Montana. If the program is approved, anglers who catch paddlefish will be able to bring their catch to an Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation cleaning station. An ODWC employee will weigh and measure the fish, then fillet the fish and give the angler the meat. ODWC will keep the eggs, which will be sold to fund future paddlefish projects.
"An average female produces about five pounds of eggs," Gordon said. "Paddlefish eggs are a valuable resource. Aside from the cash value, we would be able to measure, weigh and age a lot of fish. That information could prove invaluable in conserving these unique animals."