The paddlefish population offers a unique challenge for wildlife management officials in Kansas — mainly because a majority of the spoonbill caught in Kansas spend most of their lives in other states.
According to Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism fisheries biologist Ben Neely, the largest populations of paddlefish in Kansas come from the Neosho and Marais des Cygnes rivers. Fish from the Neosho River spend most of the year in Oklahoma’s Grand Lake before swimming upstream into Kansas to spawn in the spring. In the Marais des Cygnes River, the fish are coming in from Missouri’s Truman Reservoir.
“They can go a long ways, they’ll go a couple hundred miles no problem,” Neely said. “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.”
Another problem this unique situation creates is that the KDWPT can’t access the areas the fish inhabit during their time in Kansas because the rivers in Kansas are privately owned. 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.
“So one way that we monitor is we have this tagging system on the paddlefish, and it’s kind of unique among fisheries in that it’s kind of similar to a deer tag or a turkey tag. It’s big-game fishing,” Neely said. “We have the permit that allows harvest of six fish, and when you catch a fish and you keep it, you have to tag it.”
The KDWPT then sends out surveys and uses that data to get an estimate on the number of fish harvested that year, which gives them an idea of what the population looks like and shows what water conditions are like. In Oklahoma, the state’s Paddlefish Research Center offers a better idea of what the spoonbill population is like.
“They collect fish from anglers and they process it, where they cut the meat off and bag it and they give it back to anglers as fileted fish,” Neely said. “In return, Oklahoma gets the information on the fish — the length, the weight, they can figure out how old the fish is back taking a section of its jaw bone — and most importantly, they get the eggs out of it and they sell that as caviar, so they get money that way.”
He said the KDWPT uses that data for fish in the Neosho River. The data shows that a lot of fish were hatched in 1999, and that class of fish is coming up on the end of its lifespan, typically 17-18 years.
“So those fish, if they haven’t been caught or died otherwise, they’re dying of old age at this point,” Neely said. “And that was a concern, that those fish aren’t in the system anymore.
“Fortunately, a bunch of fish hatched within the last couple of years and that one looks like it’s going to support the system for a while. And those are all naturally reproduced fish, so they spawn on their own and they maintain the population on their own. There aren’t many places where they do that.”
Alternatively, the fish coming through the Marais des Cygnes River are stocked annually by Missouri officials at Truman Lake, so its numbers are more consistent.
Kansas stocks paddlefish in John Redmond Reservoir, and those fish will come through the dam to live in the Neosho River and then swim upstream to the dam in Burlington where there is a snag fishery. Those fish are typically smaller because they’re not as old and they’re not gaining as much weight as the fish living in reservoirs in Oklahoma. Neely said the state also has stocked them in Tuttle Creek in Manhattan.
“We lack the habitat,” Neely said. “Our numbers year-round, we have less than other states. We don’t have the consistent stocking program that Missouri does.
“They get a lot of folks that come to Lake of the Ozarks and Truman Reservoir and Tablerock to fish for these things, and we just don’t have that big of water in Kansas. Those are 40,000- or 60,000-acre lakes and Milford’s our biggest at around 16,000.”
He said the state recently collaborated with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife and Conservation on a project to look at spawning habitat availability to try to identify areas where spawning habitat is sufficient and then try to model the state’s bodies of water after those areas by raising or lower water levels.
Neely offered Grand Lake in Oklahoma as an example of a highly productive system. He said paddlefish grow faster in that body of water than almost anywhere else in the world because of the high availability of food.
“It boggles my mind how a fish can get up to 100 pounds and never eat anything that you can see with a naked eye,” Neely said. “It’s just really neat how they can do it.”