It might not be a triceratops, but spoonbill paddlefish were around when the dinosaurs roamed the Earth. And, in certain parts of the country, you can catch one of the broad-shouldered monsters, like Steven McBride did on May 12, 2007, near Ponca City, Oklahoma, when he caught a 114 pounder.
They get bigger too. In fact, McBride’s catch didn’t eclipse the state record of a 121-pound fish, which was caught in the same tailwaters in 2003. McBride’s catch took a half hour to boat, and partway into the fight his 40-pound test line snapped. He didn’t give up though. He scrambled into the water and brought the fish in the hard way: by hand. “It’s addictive once you hook one,” McBride told state wildlife officials.
This species is unlike most fish that anglers pursue. They feed on microscopic life and are usually caught by snagging instead of dangling a worm on the end of a bobber or working a plastic lure. Those who pursue the finny adversary typically employ surf rods, heavy test line and oversized barbless hooks.
Spoonbill are filter feeders that swim along and use their gill rakers to filter plankton. They open their mouth to feed, and when they are feeding they close it only to swallow.
There’s a spring migration, most often below dams to spawn. Usually several males fertilize the eggs of a single female, and the eggs drift to the bottom and downstream. Within a year, spoonbill paddlefish that survive can be 12 to 14 inches long, and 30-year-old specimens are common. A few have been known to live up to 50 years.
Iowa officials estimate a spawning female can be expected to yield 7,500 eggs for every pound it weighs. Eggs hatch as soon as seven days, and the larvae begin swimming immediately. Most often they are swept downstream into quiet pools. For the first year they often bite at insects and other foods typically thought of as food sources for fish, but after that they turn exclusively to filtering zooplankton with their gill rakers.
On average a female spawns every three years. The male does so, at best, every two years.
The unusual looking bill, or paddled snout, is believed to help reduce drag while swimming with its mouth open. It’s covered with nerve endings and taste buds that also help it locate concentrations of food.
Like the shark, a spoonbill is nearly all cartilage instead of bone. The meat is white and tastes very similar to swordfish when prepared properly.
They also have a smooth skin like a catfish, with no scales or plates. That’s led to the fish having a variety of different nicknames, including spoonbill cat.
Unfortunately, overfishing and even illegal harvesting of the spoonbill’s roe, which is often sold as caviar, has had a negative impact on spoonbill populations in some regions of the country. Consult your game and fish department’s website for more information, limitations and regulations. Alabama, for example, has had a moratorium on possession of spoonbill since November 1988.
In those areas where spoonbill paddlefish are still plentiful, commercial fishing operations harvest nearly 100,000 pounds annually. Most of the regions are in the upper Mississippi River between the Iowa-Minnesota state line and St. Louis.
Oklahoma, like several other states, has an extensive management and tagging program for this prehistoric fish. To learn more, log on to www.wildlifedepartment.com.