Paddlefish snagging season begins March 15 at the lake

Tisha Holden

By combining skill, some heavy-duty tackle and a little luck, you have everything needed to challenge the senior residents of the river, the paddlefish.

This exotic-looking fish, also known as the spoonbill, has a long paddle-shaped nose, or rostrum, that accounts for about one-third of its body length. Unlike most fish, these filter feeders use their comb-like gill rakers to sieve crustaceans and insects from the open water. The largest freshwater fish in America cannot be caught by conventional fishing methods; live baits and lures are useless against these formidable foes…they must be snagged. With snagging, there’s no finesse involved. Because paddlefish swim through the water with their mouths open, filtering out their food, traditional baits don’t work. Large treble hooks and a weight attached to a heavy fishing line are yanked through the water with the hope the hook will snag a paddlefish. If you catch a paddlefish in the mouth, it is purely a coincidence. That just happens to be where the hook snagged it.  

The major paddlefish snagging waters include Lake of the Ozarks, Truman Lake and Table Rock Lake. The season for these and most other state waters runs March 15 through April 30. Miller County Conservation Agent Eric Swainston reminds anglers there is no snagging on the Osage River between Bagnell Dam and the Highway 54 bridge. In other words, you must snag the river off the Highway 54 bridge on the Osage River in Miller County. The season for the Mississippi River is March 15 through May 15 with a fall season of Sept. 15 through Dec. 15.

When snagging on one of the major lakes in Missouri -Lake of the Ozarks, Truman and Table Rock lakes - and their tributaries, Swainston said all paddlefish less than 34 inches in length (when measured from the eye to the fork of the tail) must be released unharmed immediately after being caught. On the Osage River below Bagnell Dam and in other Missouri waters, the minimum length limit for paddlefish is 24 inches. There is a daily limit of two paddlefish and a possession limit of four. On Lake of the Ozarks and its tributaries, the Osage River below Highway 54 and Truman Lake and its tributaries, no person shall continue to snag, snare or grab for any species of fish after taking a daily limit of two paddlefish. Once a legal-sized paddlefish is caught, it must be kept by the snagger and included in their daily limit, Swainston said.

 Unless exempt, fishermen snagging for paddlefish must have a current valid fishing permit. This includes the operator of a boat for people who are snagging. Also, the head, tail and skin must remain attached to all fish while on the waters that length limits apply, or until the fish have been checked by an agent of the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC).  

Swainston reminds snaggers to immediately release sublegal paddlefish for future harvests and offers these tips:

·    Use landing nets, not gaffs, which can kill young paddlefish.

·    Wet hands before handling fish and avoid excessive handling.

·    Never put fingers in the gills or eyes.

·    Remove hooks carefully and get undersized fish back into the water as quickly as possible.

Due to the value of their eggs, paddlefish are a constant target for poachers, Swainston said. One female paddlefish may produce more than 500,000 eggs, weighing more than 20 pounds, which leads to a new threat from anglers. Their grayish-black eggs, or roe, are sometimes illegally processed into caviar. Extracted paddlefish eggs may not be possessed while on waters of the state or adjacent banks and may not be transported. Paddlefish eggs may not be bought, sold or offered for sale. Paddlefish, or parts thereof, including eggs may not be used for bait. Sadly, females cannot be identified by external characteristics, so poachers slit open every paddlefish caught, discarding males and females without eggs, leaving them to die from their wounds.

Despite the unconventional fishing methods, their prehistoric origins and rather ugly appearance, paddlefish are quite tasty. Swainston said. He recommended filleting the fish and trimming off any red or gray meat, which is high in fat and can have an unpleasant flavor. The meat can be canned, steamed, smoked, baked, fried or grilled.  When snagging, Swainston reminds anglers to follow guidance from the Center for Disease Control and state or local public health authorities concerning social distancing, overcrowding, disinfection of surfaces and handwashing.