Paddelfish Season Opens annually May 15 through June 30 (Closing date is determined by FWP once 1000 fish quota is reached) Harvest days are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays & Saturdays Catch & Release days are Sundays, Mondays & Thursdays. Fishing hours are 6 am until 9 pm per Fish Wildlife and Parks 2016 Regulations Processing hours are 7 am until 9:30 pm during harvest days at the Intake Fishing Access Site Where Paddlefish are found: Paddlefish represent an ancient lineage of fish most closely related to Sturgeons. There are only two species of paddlefish in the world; an extremely endangered species found only in portions of the Yangtze River drainage in China, & a species native to North America found in 22 states throughout the Missouri & Mississippi river basins. The North American species has also recently been introduced into several rivers in Europe & Asia. The North American species has a mostly cartilaginous anatomy, an elongated, flat, paddle-shaped rostrum, smooth skin, small eyes, & a large, toothless (except when very young) mouth. Their overall coloration ranges from light bluish gray to blackish, with a whitish belly. Paddlefish are found in the Yellowstone River & throughout the Missouri River main stem.
The Life-Cycle of Paddlefish: Mature paddlefish migrate upstream out of Lake Sakakawea into the Yellowstone & Missouri rivers to spawn. Most fish make this migration in early spring, but some start the previous fall. They spawn during high runoff in late spring or early summer. Most fish deposit eggs & milt on flooded gravel bars in the lower Yellowstone River, but some fish migrate up the Missouri River & even on into the Milk River. Soon after spawning, adults typically move back down-stream into Lake Sakakawea. How to tell the age of a Paddlefish: The best way to determine the age is to use the lower jaw-bone called a dentary. Dentaries are removed from the majority of harvested fish during annual snagging seasons, then cleaned & cross-sectioned. Annual rings are counted on the cross-sections (much like aging a tree using tree rings). Paddlefish can live to age 60 or older, with females typically living longer than males. Most of the larger fish (more than 50 pounds) are females ranging in age from 15-40 years & averaging about 27 years, while most of the smaller fish (less than 40 pounds) are males from 9-40 years & averaging about 20 years. The presence of a wide range of ages is thought important to the overall health of the population. The size of Paddlefish: The largest paddlefish on record was speared in Lake Okoboji, Iowa in 1916. It was 85 inches & weighed an estimated 198 pounds. More recent official state records are a 144-pound fish snagged in 2004 in Kansas & a 142.5-pound fish snagged in 1973 in Montana. Male vs Female Paddlefish: Male & female paddlefish have evolved different strategies for passing genes on to the next generation. For a female, the larger she grows the more eggs she can develop & the more young paddlefish she can potentially produce. For a male, a larger size is not nearly as advantageous, because even a small male produces millions of sperm, more than enough to fertilize all the eggs from the largest female. Males mature at a younger age than females so that they may reproduce more often. What Paddlefish eat: Paddlefish feed mostly on tiny animals called “Zooplankton”. Very young paddlefish, with help from their small teeth, selectively feed on individual zooplankton. After their first year, paddlefish use filament-like gill rakers to filter zooplankton from the water. Paddlefish also eat aquatic insects & occasionally small fish. Because paddlefish won’t bite large bait, anglers hoping to harvest a paddlefish must participate in snagging. Why Paddlefish are found in our area of the world: The short answer is habitat. The overall habitat quality for paddlefish is generally much better for all life stages in Lake Sakakawea & in the Yellowstone & Missouri rivers. Paddlefish are finicky spawners, requiring a combination of high flows, right water temperature, & a good substrate of clean gravel & cobble. The Yellowstone River is still a free-flowing, naturally fluctuating river that provides adequate spawning habitat for them in most years. In other parts of its range, habitat quality is generally much poorer. Dam construction, dredging, channelization, &/or excessive water withdrawals for irrigation & municipal & industrial use have significantly changed most large rivers in North America. Few rivers today provide the proper combinations of flow, temperature & gravel substrates suitable for paddlefish spawning. In many states, paddlefish populations have been greatly reduced or even eliminated because of lost spawning habitat.