Mature paddlefish can weigh over 100 pounds and measure six to seven feet in length.
One man’s fish eggs are another man’s caviar. At Lake of the Ozarks and in other Missouri lakes and rivers, a man can catch both in one fish, the humble paddlefish, prized for its game-fish fight, for its taste, and its curious, inexplicable habit of leaping out of the water in the spring. Mature paddlefish can weigh over 100 pounds and measure six to seven feet in length, and in Missouri, the 2019 spring paddlefish season is near. Running March 15 through April 30, the daily limit is two paddlefish with a minimum length of 34 inches measuring from eye to the notch in the tail.
These fish have no bony skeleton relying on cartilage for internal structure. They also have a long nostrum or protrusion making up one third of their body length. This structure aids in location of its main food source: microscopic creatures and larvae, strained from the water as they swim with mouth open. Unlike other fish, paddlefish do not eat bugs and bait fish; thus normal fishing lures do not work.
Snagging is the only method. A short, stiff fishing rod, heavy line of 100lb test, and a couple of large treble hooks with a massive lead sinker is the standard fishing rig for success. The weight pulls the line to the bottom while the fisherman sweeps the rod upward rapidly in hopes of snagging a nearby paddlefish. Fish locators on the boat aid in finding schools of the bottom dwellers.
Native to our rivers with water temperatures between 52 and 60 degrees flowing at the correct speed over rocky, shallow stream beds at just the right depth trigger the paddlefish spawning season. Damming a river to impound water alters the required conditions for normal spawning, reducing the numbers of these fish. The popularity of sport fishing for the paddlefish has also contributed to a declining population.
Greg Stoner, Fisheries management Biologist with MCD, sums up the history of paddlefish challenges to paddlefish as follows: “Over the years, paddlefish in Missouri have faced a number of threats to their survival. During the 1900’s, reservoir construction blocked access to their historic spawning habitats. As a result the fishery rapidly started to decline. In the early 1980’s, MDC biologists learned how to rear paddlefish in a hatchery setting. Without these hatchery produced fish, the paddlefish fishery in Lake of the Ozarks that we enjoy today would be distant memory. More recently, illegal harvest of paddlefish for the black market caviar industry has become a threat to the fishery.”
The roe or eggs of the paddlefish are prized as an extremely tasty caviar. Over fishing Beluga Sturgeon created a market for an alternative caviar source, and Missouri is helping to fill the need. However, fresh water Missouri roe are strictly regulated. It is illegal to remove or possess the eggs of a paddlefish on the waters or along the banks of the river or lake where the fish was harvested. It is not illegal for the fisherman to remove the eggs at home for his own use.
According to federal law contained in the Lacey Act, first enacted in 1900, it is illegal to buy, sell, or transport for resale to another state, the eggs of the Missouri paddlefish. The only Missouri waters where commercial harvest is allowed is the Mississippi River. Costs of the several different required commercial permits are around $1,000 for resident operators and near $7,000 for non-residents. The high cost of legal, commercial roe harvest and the decline of traditional roe sources has created a climate conducive to poaching paddlefish for eggs.
In 2011 and 2012, a combined undercover operation by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and conservation agents from other states netted the largest illegal commercial paddlefish egg operation ever conducted. The case resulted in over 100 individuals being charged with a variety of both state and federal crimes. A phone call alerted the MDC officials that persons in the Warsaw area were acquiring paddlefish and removing the eggs for shipment to other states as well as locations overseas. Because one mature female may contain up to 20 pounds of eggs, black-market paddlefish caviar can bring up to $13 an ounce making the value of one female as much as $4,000 in illicit eggs.
A vigorous hatchery restocking program by MDC has brought the huge fish back in adequate numbers to maintain a very popular sport fishing season in spite of the fact these fish move freely in rivers crossing state borders. A lake’s captive population is easier to manage.
MDC estimates there are more than 16,000 licensed anglers pursuing paddlefish in Missouri every year. The upper reaches of Lake of the Ozarks are prime waters for paddlefish with Warsaw the paddlefish capital of the world for six weeks, when both famous and unknown fishermen visit. The Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern filmed an episode here in March of 2013. The show’s host came here to snag his paddlefish while they were filming episodes in St. Louis.
Beyond the economic impact of so many fishermen converging on a stretch of the upper Osage as well as the lower end of the Niangua arm, the commercial feasibility of paddlefish caviar has launched a local business into international prominence. Located in Osage Beach, Osage Catfisheries, Inc. has been around since the 1950’s when Jim Kahrs founded it. Long known for its hatchery operations with several other species, Osage Catfisheries enjoys a prominent position in fishery science and production. Responding to information in the 1980s about the impending decline of the Beluga Sturgeon in the Caspian Sea due to overfishing and the resulting shortage of caviar on the world market, Kahrs took interest in commercial production of paddlefish caviar. Over two decades, nurturing the idea and the young paddlefish, the Kahrs family created an international market for its caviar under the name L'Osage Caviar Company, Inc.
Owned now by Jim’s sons, Steve and Pete, L’Osage Caviar Company, Inc. markets Missouri paddlefish caviar to Russia and the European markets once dominated by Russian Beluga caviar. L’Osage has created the only paddlefish ranching program in existence by partnering with lake and pond owners to place paddlefish fingerlings into privately owned waters where the owner realizes a profit upon harvesting the eggs after the fish mature, just one more economic benefit from Missouri’s fishing industry. These fish ranches are completely self-sustaining in that no supplemental foods are required. The fish live off existing micro-organisms already in the pond.
L’Osage Caviar, Company, Inc. through its parent company, Osage Catfisheries, Inc. operates the only sustainable alternative to wild caught caviar and is the only fish farm in the nation approved to export its products by the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (C.I.T.E.S.).
Steve Kahrs says, “Our family feels that the commercial impact of paddlefish from a farm raised, sustainable and legal source like Osage Catfisheries, Inc. continues to show great potential in our State. With a low environmental footprint, unlike other farmed caviars, and money flowing into the hands of private lake owners who are in our ranching program, we are happy with our current position in the market. Regarding the recreational aspect of paddlefish, we can all thank the Missouri Department of Conservation and Ameren Missouri for their continued efforts to manage the populations of these magnificent fish in the Osage, Missouri and Mississippi River Basins. What more could an avid or novice angler ask for during snagging season than a 50-plus pound paddlefish on the end of their line?”
The lake’s oldest fish, its biggest fish, its most unique fish--the paddlefish--draws a large and passionate group of fishermen every spring, enriching our local economy. A home-grown industry creates an income stream for local pond owners selling valuable eggs from their own paddlefish ranches and a local company had the vision and expertise to create a world-wide market for paddlefish eggs in a caviar-eating world. That’s the intersection of this great lake region, conscientious management, and recreational dollars.