The paddlefish is an ancient, mostly cartilaginous fish with a smooth skin. It is a close relative of sturgeons. Although it is sometimes called a spoonbill or spoonbill cat, it is not closely related to catfish. Most species of paddlefish are now extinct, and fossil paddlefish from 60 million years ago have been found in the Missouri River basin near Fort Peck Reservoir, Montana (AFS website 2003).
Montana is home to one of the few remaining self-sustaining populations of paddlefish, and harbors the largest individual fish as well. Specimens have been taken weighing up to 150 pounds. During the spring and summer months, the large, flat billed paddlefish make their annual spawning run up the two rivers, and hundreds of anxious fishermen converge at the confluence, 10 miles north of Fairview, and attempt to land one of these monsters.
Because they feed on microscopic plankton, a paddlefish won’t take a wriggling worm on a hook; they must be snagged. Using stout salt water rods and heavy, large-spooled reels, paddlefish anglers toss out heavy lines attached to palm-sized treble hooks and huge chunks of lead. Then comes the real work. A series of powerful pulls bring the hooks scraping across the bottom, where hopefully they’ll find their way through the tough skin of the quarry. If its a fight you crave, a 60 pound paddlefish can provide more than most anglers could ever ask for. They are edible as well as exciting to catch, but only the light, inner meat of the fish is palatable, and fishermen must first cut away the dark, outer meat to get to it.
The paddlefish’s only relative inhabits the Yangtze River in China. The paddlefish is protected there, meaning fishing for paddlefish is a unique pastime found in the Mondak area. Until 1962, when an area man was fishing and snagged one, the paddlefish was thought to be extinct. Since then, however, thousands of anglers have trekked to the Confluence to try to snag a big one.
To prevent overharvesting, however, the Montana Dept of Fish, Wildlife, And Parks has limited the number of paddlefish allowed any one fisherman, with limits enforced through a tagging system.