Andy Belobraydic III had never tried paddlefish snagging before March 21, when on a two-day outing at Table Rock Lake the 33-year-old man netted the biggest fish ever caught in the Show-Me State. Belobraydic, from Richwoods, Mo., landed a 140-pound spoonbill that set a new Missouri paddlefish record and provided the kind of boat-towing thrill ride that's usually reserved for saltwater angling. "My pole about got ripped out of my hands," recalls Belobraydic, who at first thought he'd gotten hung on a log. "Then it started peeling out drag, and the next thing I know it was off to the races: The fish was pulling us across the lake." Photo courtesy Missouri Department of Conservation.
Belobraydic and several buddies were fishing the James River arm of Table Rock, a 43,000-acre lake in southwestern Missouri fed by the James, White, and Kings rivers. Though paddlefish are primarily river fish, they do well in lakes, where an absence of current and abundance of food allow them to grow fat. “Out in the river, they constantly have to swim,” says Trish Yasger, fisheries management biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. “When they’re impounded in reservoirs, there’s more food and they’re not constantly fighting those heavy flows, so the reservoir fish tend to get bigger.”
Rising water temperatures and quickening currents from tributaries swollen by snowmelt and rain trigger the spawning urge in these primitive fish each spring. They head upstream, congregating in deep holes in upper lake arms. Because paddlefish are filter feeders that eat microscopic plankton, they can’t be targeted with bait. Instead, anglers use trolling motors to slowly probe these holes—many known as traditional spoonbill hotspots—with a stout rod outfitted with two or three treble hooks, sweeping the rigs through the water column in hopes of snagging a paddlefish that meets the 34-inch minimum length. An aggressive stocking program by the Missouri Department of Conservation bolsters paddlefish numbers annually, and a five-year tagging program introduced this year studies harvest rates during the March 15 to April 30 snagging season. Photo courtesy Missouri Department of Conservation
Fish are routinely released unharmed. “A lot are snagged in the tail or rostrum,” Yasger says, using the biological term for the elongated paddle-like snout, which can account for one-third of an adult spoonbill’s length. “A lot aren’t hooked bad, and they swim off.” On day one of his trip, Belobraydic released one paddlefish that was too small and caught one keeper (this 36-pounder, which measured 35 inches from eye to tail fork). The next day, March 21, his crew snagged until lunch without success, then took a break to fish for crappie. About 3:00 that afternoon they decided to give spoonbills one last try.
“We were trolling past a spot where we kept getting hung up, and my buddy got snagged on a log,” Belobraydic says. Hoping to avoid the same fate, he started reeling in. “All of a sudden my line went straight and my pole about got ripped out of my hands. I said, ‘I think I’m snagged, too,’ and about that time something started peeling off drag. I said, ‘No, no, no, it’s a fish!’” After they freed the line that had been snagged on a log, anchoring the boat in place, the paddlefish took off, towing their boat behind it.
Fifteen minutes into the battle, Belobraydic and his fellow anglers finally got their first look at the fish. “The first time it surfaced, I told my buddies, ‘If she comes up again, make sure you take a picture,’” Belobraydic says, “because I knew if she broke off nobody would believe my story.” After another 15 minutes, during which the fish surfaced and dove twice more, Belobraydic saw his chance—just in the nick of time, as it turned out. Photo courtesy Missouri Department of Conservation
“The third time I brought her to the surface, one of my two treble hooks had broke off,” says Belobraydic, who was using a pair of Eagle Claw 10/0 hooks rigged 2 feet apart on a trotline leader tied to 80-pound test Spider Wire. The hook snagged near the fish’s gills was off; the hook attached by the tail was barely clinging on. “About that time,” Belobraydic says, “we all pretty much said screw it and lunged over the side, grabbed the fish and bear-hugged it into the boat.”
“All three of us are big boys, about 200 apiece,” he says, laughing. “With all three of us lunging over the side, grabbing a 140-pound fish, I’m surprised we didn’t tip over the boat.” The paddlefish weighed 140 pounds, 9 ounces and stretched 56 ¾ inches from eye to tail fork. The girth was 43 ¾ inches and the paddle was 17 ¼ inches long. The previous state-record fish, caught in 2002 at Table Rock Lake, weighed 139 pounds, 4 ounces.
March 2015 was a good month for paddlefish anglers in the White River basin. Three weeks earlier and roughly 30 miles (as the crow flies) upstream from Table Rock, Jessie Wilkes caught an Arkansas state-record paddlefish on a White River impoundment called Beaver Lake. Wilkes told Arkansas Game and Fish Commission officials that he foul-hooked the 105-pound fish while trolling a crankbait for walleye on March 2. His catch eclipsed a state-record 102-pound spoonbill that came from the same lake. Photo courtesy Arkansas Game and Fish Commission
Belobraydic has agreed to donate the head of his paddlefish to the MDC, which will use the jawbone and otoliths to age the fish. Yasger estimates it will turn out to be more than 20 years old, and she notes that paddlefish have been know to live to 50. Belobraydic is hoping that Bass Pro Shops will make a replica of the fish for display in one of its Missouri stores. He has a plan for the rest. “I’m going to get me some good hot oil, some good cold beer and have a fish fry,” he says. “Then I’m gonna sit here and listen to my daughter tell all her friends about her daddy catching the biggest fish in Missouri.” Photo courtesy Missouri Department of Conservation