The American paddlefish, also known as a spoonbill, is a species that has remained mostly unchanged since the age of the dinosaurs. It is native to at least three Kansas rivers and is a hotly targeted species during the spring for its excellent size and fighting ability, as well as its delicious meat and caviar, though a new Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism regulation recently changed the limits on anglers’ ability to harvest eggs from the species to help cut down on poaching.
Spoonbills are filter feeders, using their large mouths to catch zooplankton similar to the way a whale shark or basking shark feeds. Another similarity paddlefish share with sharks is that they are cartilaginous, meaning they don’t have any bones but instead have a skeletal system made up of cartilage, similar to that found in the human ear.
The long, paddle-like noses for which they are named are called rostrums. They are used to detect the weak electrical fields put off by plankton and other small creatures that the paddlefish feed upon, according to a 2007 scientific report by Lon A. Wilkens and Michael H. Hofmann called “The Paddlefish Rostrum as an Electrosensory Organ: A Novel Adaptation for Plankton Feeding.”
Strangely enough, the world record paddlefish was caught in 2004 at what was little more than a Kansas farm pond in Atchison County by a Riley resident named Clinton Boldridge. The fish weighed 144 pounds and was 54 1/4 inches long. Unlike most paddlefish, which are caught during the season by being snagged with large treble hooks, the monster was hooked in the mouth on carp doughbait.
Nobody knows for sure how the monster fish got in the pond, which isn’t connected at all to any rivers, but it’s likely that somebody threw the fish into the pond after it was caught in the nearby Missouri River or that the fish entered the pond during a flood and was trapped.
Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism guidelines state that paddlefish may be taken in posted areas inside Chetopa and Burlington city parks on the Neosho River; on the Neosho River at Iola, downstream from the dam to the city limits; on the Marais des Cygnes River below Osawatomie Dam, downstream to a posted boundary; on the Marais des Cygnes River on the upstream boundary of the Marais des Cygnes Wildlife Area, downstream to the Kansas-Missouri border; and the Browning Oxbow of the Missouri River (Doniphan County).
There are also several regulations depending on location. Catch and release is allowed in Burlington, Chetopa and Iola, but if a fish is attached to a stringer, it becomes part of the daily creel limit. The minimum length limit for fish snagged in the Missouri River is 24 inches long, and the minimum length for fish snagged on the Marais des Cygnes River is 34 inches.
Because the river systems that contain paddlefish in Kansas are shared with other states, such as Missouri and Oklahoma, this can cause problems with how the fish are monitored and managed across state lines. To make matters worse, even some of the places in the state where paddlefish congregate are inaccessible for Kansas wildlife officials because the river access points to those areas are on private land. The only waters that state officials can access without needing landowner permission are the Kansas, Arkansas and Missouri rivers. This presents problems in trying to document the population.
“They can go a long ways, they’ll go a couple hundred miles no problem,” Ben Neely, KDWPT fisheries biologist, told The Topeka Capital-Journal in 2017. “They look for a place where there’s oxygenated water. The water has to be ripping pretty good, usually big rocks or a firm bedrock, they’ll use those areas to spawn and then they’ll go back down into the lake.”
Fishing is dependent on water temperatures in at least the mid-50s and a heavy current to get the water levels up high enough to make their spawning run upstream in the spring.
“That’s what you look for, you wanna look for the rain,” said local fishing guide R.R. “Catdaddy” Shumway, who will go with customers as far as Miami, Okla., in search of paddlefish. “When it rains like that and the (air) temperature’s pretty well, oh, probably between 60 to 70, 75, 80 degrees, it pushes them spooners up there to get them to drop their eggs. The good thing about it is, April is about the best time I like to go, because you’re getting your April showers a lot of the time.
“I went last year and up there they didn’t have no water, no flow or nothing, it was dead. The Neosho was down real bad, and we had to really work for them and zigzag back and forth. A lot of them bends up there are good, you go up there on them bends and it creates a hole — not a deep hole. Say you’re in 12, 13 foot of water and then all of a sudden you go down to 17 foot and it stays like that around the bend and then it comes back up, that’s where you need to concentrate your treble hooks.”
Kansas anglers also must carry valid Kansas fishing licenses, unless exempted by state law, and paddlefish permits. Permits cost $12.50 for adults and $7.50 for youths and include six carcass tags. They can be purchased in-person from a license vendor, online at http://www.ksoutdoors.com or by calling 1 (800) 918-2877.
It’s also a good idea to call the KDWPT or area bait shops to make sure the conditions are right for spoonbilling before making any travel plans.