ditional fishing methods useless) and
partly due to the lack of known paddle-fish
Biologists turned to commercial
fishermen to guide them to paddlefish
Maher said, while fishermen usually
keep their secrets closely guarded, com-mercial
anglers realized the future of a
legal paddlefish trade was at stake.
“They opened up their books to us, so
to speak,” Maher said, praising the coop-eration
offered by commercial fishermen.
“At first, I thought we’d be lucky to catch
three fish, let alone 300 each year.”
But paddlefish turned up in surpris-ing,
unexpected areas of the Mississippi
River, quotas were met, and after a few
years of tagging and releasing paddle-fish,
it became clear this ancient fish,
officially known as Polyodon spathula,
has survived the ages quite well.
After tagging hundreds upon hundreds
of paddlefish, biologists were pleased to
learn catching a tagged paddlefish was a
relatively rare occurrence—just 2-to-4
percent of the pad-dlefish
hauled in by
tags, indicating the
appeared to be
fish revealed long-distance
hundreds of river
to Kentucky Lake—
12 / OutdoorIllinois March 2006 March 2006 OutdoorIllinois / 13
It’s a fish that’s survived ice ages
and meteor impacts on Earth,
yet, until recently, nobody could
say for certain if paddlefish had
a future in North America.
The exact numbers will never be
known. But fisheries biologists involved
in a massive, 12-year paddlefish study
across several Midwestern states dis-covered
there actually are more paddle-fish
in North America than most people
anticipated—and their Illinois population
appears to be swimming strong.
“We now know a lot more about their
Story By Joe McFarland
Photos By Adele Hodde
ever attempted in the Mississippi River
system. A fish that’s survived since the
age of dinosaurs, according to fossil evi-dence,
was a relative stranger in terms
of modern documentation. Paddlefish
might be threatened by everything from
pollution to illegal harvest (one ounce of
paddlefish caviar sells for $16 on the
open market today), yet fisheries offi-cials
had insufficient data to assist with
Fossil evidence shows paddlefish lived in ancient Mid-western
waters. A new study reveals how well the “spoonbill”
movements, life history and seasonal
distribution than ever before,” explained
Department of Natural Resources (DNR)
fisheries biologist Rob Maher. “Before,
these fish were a great mystery. Rela-tively
little was known about the status
of paddlefish in Illinois.”
But that changed, beginning in 1992,
when DNR partnered with several other
states and federal agencies to conduct
the most extensive paddlefish study
at different times of the year. Their overall
health appeared to be good, and repro-duction
also appeared to be successful
year after year.
A typical adult paddlefish might
weigh 20 pounds in the Mississippi,
debunking rumors of 200-pounders
commonly hiding below dams. And
while paddlefish in excess of 150
pounds occur in the upper reaches of
paddlefish habitat in Montana, “a 50-
pound paddlefish would be a large one
down here,” Maher said.
Also, life expectancy in our warmer
waters might expire after 20-25 years.
“All signs are of a healthy population,”
the biologist noted, adding that changes
to existing catch restrictions don’t appear
to be imminent. “The status of paddlefish
in the Mississippi is better than we
expected. As it stands right now, they
seem to be doing well on their own.”
Currently, angling prospects for pad-dlefish
is a limited matter of chance.
Snagging is permitted in certain areas of
the Mississippi and Illinois rivers (see
current Illinois Fishing Information book-let
for details). But paddlefish will remain
a rarely seen species in Illinois waters.
Fortunately, thanks to the first large-scale
scientific study of this ancient sur-vivor,
fisheries biologists know the
obscure nature of this species is no
cause for alarm.
“It’s nice to report good news for a
change,” Maher said.
Enter the Mississippi Interstate Coop-erative
Resource Association (MICRA).
The multi-state partnership launched a
collaborative program within the Missis-sippi
River basin to study sturgeon—
another ancient fish—and the bizarre-looking
paddlefish, whose long snout
(properly known as the rostrum) gives it
the nickname spoonbill.
Maher and other DNR fisheries biolo-gists
attempted to catch, tag and
release 300 paddlefish each year in the
Illinois portion of the Mississippi River.
Each fish would carry a tiny, harmless
wire with a code indicating when and
where it was first caught, its weight and
general health. As the study progressed,
biologists could compare catches and
tag information with cooperating agen-cies
in other states within the Mississippi
watershed—wherever the paddlefish
might turn up.
Paddlefish were believed to travel
considerable distances throughout the
year, wherever rivers flowed. As tags
were recovered during the first five years
of the study, proof of long-distance pad-dlefish
movements began trickling in. But
locating paddlefish for the original tag-ging
was not as simple as setting nets
randomly in the Mississippi River.
Unlike many sport fish, such as cat-fish
or bass, paddlefish rarely get caught
by anglers. It’s partly due to their diet of
microscopic plankton (which makes tra-
DNR fisheries biologist Rob Maher (above and far
right) and streams biologist Doug Carney (left)
collect information on the weight and length of a
paddlefish before tagging and releasing the fish
back into the Mississippi River.
The distinctive bill, or rostrum, of a paddlefish
easily identifies this species. Biologists have yet
to determine the function of the rostrum for these
A small wire tag attached to hundreds of paddle-fish
helped biologists determine the population
size and distribution of this ancient fish in Illinois.
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