, Muskogee, OK

December 6, 2013

Paddlefish rules changing

— There are some major changes pending that will affect anglers going after the paddlefish, also known as spoonbill and one of our state’s most odd-looking fish.

 Known for the unusual appearance of their long, bill-like snout and their large size, paddlefish have been the subject of intense study. They can weigh over 100 pounds, live up to 50 years and, in Oklahoma, are found mainly in the Grand Neosho and Arkansas river systems.

Brent Gordon supervises the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife’s Paddlefish Research Center, which opened in 2008 near Miami, Okla. In addition to collecting information on the 22,000 paddlefish they have examined since 2008, the Paddlefish Research Center also provides a service to fishermen. If you bring your paddlefish in, they will fillet it for you. The ODWC harvests the eggs and processes them into caviar. The process leads to a source of funding for the ODWC.

ABC News recently ran a story of Oklahoma’s forage into the world of “caviar dreams”, as the host of the television show, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, used to say. The paddlefish is a relative of the sturgeon, which is the source of beluga caviar, a delicacy that comes from Russia’s Caspian Sea.

Gordon says that buyers from Europe as well as Japan say that the quality of the paddlefish eggs is second to none. Oklahoma paddlefish eggs are even found in New York’s fine restaurants.  

Here’s a heads-up on some of the proposed rule changes:

Anglers are required to obtain a free paddlefish permit before fishing in Oklahoma. The permit can be obtained by going to the ODWC online.

New angling rules are pending that will help conserve Oklahoma’s important populations of paddlefish. The changes include setting an individual annual harvest limit of two fish per angler and requiring that anglers report their paddlefish harvest online using the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation’s e-check system, much like hunters must check in their harvested deer.

The changes were part of a resolution approved by the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission at its December meeting. Last month, the Commission approved emergency rules that allow the Commission to set annual paddlefish harvest limits by resolution. Though the emergency rules are in effect, they must pass through a public comment period and be signed into law by the Governor before becoming permanent.

Checking fish will further expand biologists’ knowledge of paddlefish populations. Current rules that limit anglers to one paddlefish per day and that require them to stop fishing for the day once a fish has been kept will remain in place.

According to Jason Schooley, paddlefish biologist for the Wildlife Department, the rule changes are important for conserving paddlefish in the Grand River system that largely supports the state’s — and some would argue the nation’s — most popular paddlefish fishery.

Paddlefish mature slowly — females must reach 8-10 years of age before they mature and reproduce; males, 6-8 years of age.  And even then, paddlefish are "episodic" reproducers, meaning their populations are marked by good but sporadic years of successful reproduction mixed with less than ideal years.

Schooley says protecting the prominent age class — in this case the 1999 age class — will help sustain the fishery while younger age classes mature. While ODWC continues to monitor recruitment, hopefully future year classes will contribute to continued paddlefish angling in Oklahoma.

Six years of harvest data and four years of angler surveys indicate that most paddlefish anglers (84 percent) harvest fewer than two fish in a year. The remaining 16 percent of anglers disproportionately represent over 40 percent of the total harvest.

Choosing an individual annual harvest limit of two fish was the ideal option to limit the high-harvest anglers (those putting the most strain on the resource) while not restricting most other paddlefish anglers.  

Also, survey results indicated that paddlefish anglers put more value on the opportunity to catch a fish than they do on the ability to harvest a fish. Therefore, the catch-and-release will remain available year-round.

"What we are doing with these rule changes is protecting our paddlefish by proactively adjusting the harvest before we reach a point of over-harvest," Schooley said. "At the same time, we are making these changes while we still have some of these 1999 fish around so they can continue to support the fishery.

“We have enjoyed that year class as a resource, but because they have a definite lifespan, that population is declining naturally. These rules will help us bring in younger age classes while making sure we have plenty of good fishing available in the meantime."

I am in favor of paddlefish conservation for future generations. I’ve done some of this “poor man’s deep sea fishing,” as I term it, and I wouldn’t trade a minute of it.

John Kilgore’s column appears Fridays. Reach him with news or comments at (918) 348-9431 or or