How does one go about catching the weirdest-looking fish in South Dakota waters?
To snag a prehistoric paddlefish — which can range up to 160 pounds, has silver sides like a shark, boasts a giant toothless mouth and has an instantly recognizable protruding paddle-shaped nose — you have to, well ... go snag one.
That means gearing up with some strong fishing line, attaching a heavy weight on the end, and then tying a tree-pronged treble hook somewhere just above the weight. Then you walk along the shore of the Missouri River, or float about in a boat, cast the line and begin wildly jerking your rod in a reverse baseball-swing motion until you feel a thud on the end of the line.
This spring, and again in the fall, about 2,000 lucky anglers who won a permit lottery will use, or have already used, just such a method to reel in a few hundred of the behemoth beasts.
How the fish react to being snagged depends on where it is caught, says state Game, Fish & Parks fisheries biologist Jason Sorensen. "In the head, they come in easier," said Sorensen, himself a paddlefish hunter. "But if you hook one in the tail, you've got a big battle on your hands."
Like many states along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, South Dakota has long had a paddlefish season, mostly in two spots along the Missouri: at Lake Francis Case near Chamberlain in May and at Gavins Point Dam near Yankton in October.
When breeding challenges resulted from changes in water flow in the Missouri, the season was closed at Francis Case in the 1980s, Sorensen said. But after decades-long stocking programs designed to save the species began to show success, the May season at Francis Case was re-opened last year (there is also a 30-day archery season for paddlefish below Gavins Point in July.)
The paddlefish seasons are in place, he said, to offer sport anglers who paid for the stocking program through license fees the chance to harvest the unusual fish, which many say are fun to catch, awesome to photograph and reportedly great to eat.
Paddlefish must be snagged because they don't eat traditional baits, Sorensen said. Rather, they are plankton eaters that filter microscopic bugs from the water as they swim.
Paddlefish have few bones and are mostly made up of cartilage with a notochord, which acts like a soft spine that runs through their body. To get at the meat that Sorensen said is "a firm, white meat," anglers must cut through the skin and then scrape away a dark red layer of meat that is fishy-tasting and unappealing.
But after that, they provide a good amount of white meat. "A guy told me the other day he caught a 65-pounder and he got a gallon and a half of meat," he said.
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Angler Chris Hull of Pierre said he spent half a day trying to fill a paddlefish tag at Big Bend Dam at Fort Thompson recently. He finally dug into a 35-pounder that he hauled to shore as others around him had great success.
"Saw a family of four from Hot Springs fill all four of their tags in about an hour," Hull wrote in an email. "What a blast, and a cool experience."
Paddlefish harvest numbers have varied wildly in recent years. State tracking data show a harvest of 415 fish in 1997, a high of 1,011 in 2004 and 562 taken in 2012. This year, the fishing got off to a slow start but took off in the past few weeks when waters warmed, Sorensen said.
Black Hills anglers have long been a part of the paddlefish fraternity, applying in good numbers for permits to fish at Francis Case, Sorensen said. The Rooster outdoors store in Rapid City attests to that with a healthy display of photos of local folks holding paddlefish.
The application deadline to fish any season this year has closed, but Sorensen said anglers interested in pursuing paddlefish should start poking around the GF&P website (gfp.sd.gov) or inquiring at bait shops and outdoors stores in late January when next year's permit lottery kicks off. About 350 permits are offered for Francis Case, and roughly 1,600 for Gavins Point.
And no one, Sorensen said, should be scared away from a rousing, rollicking snag-fest simply because the paddlefish seems strange.
"I think they're one of the coolest fish ever," he said.