Paddlefish Heaven in Snag City

Spring is the time for love and fishing, and every year the warm spring rains that swell the banks of Oklahoma's Neosho River stir the romantic desires of an obscure, odd-looking fish most folks have never heard of. But for those who have, the annual paddlefish spawning run is an event unlike any other. It's a chance to rub elbows, swap stories and tangle lines with fellow paddlefish junkies from across the country.Nate Matthews
The paddlefish will never win any beauty contests, thanks mainly to its remarkable snout, an elongated bill that gives rise to its nickname, "spoonbill." But what the paddlefish lacks in elegance it makes up for in sheer size and power. Forty to 50-pounders are common, and some will go over one hundred pounds. Historically, paddlefish inhabited most of the large North American river systems, but populations have disappeared or declined across most of its range. Dams - which prevent their spawning runs - and commercial fishing are the main culprits, although in recent years illegal poaching has taken a toll as well. Paddlefish roe is very similar to sturgeon caviar and is often sold illegally as such.Nate Matthews
If you're a zooplankton, this is your worst nightmare. Paddlefish are the basking sharks of the freshwater world. They feed by swimming around with their cavernous maws wide open, filtering microscopic plankton through their gills. That's why you don't fish for spoonbills. You snag them. And the only time of the year you have much chance of snagging one is when they mass in large numbers during the spawn.Nate Matthews
During the paddlefish run, Riverside City Park in Miami, Oklahoma becomes ground zero for snaggers from all over the country. A steady stream of trucks sporting license plates from Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Montana, Texas, Arkansas and others crowd the parking lot. Eager snaggers drop their tailgates, break out the pickled eggs and lawnchairs, hurriedly rig up their rods and head for the bank of the Neosho River.Nate Matthews
But when the Neosho spilled over its banks this year, choice snagging spots suddenly became hard to come by. With so many anglers concentrated in such a small space, an unofficial yet implicit code of conduct took effect: Take your turn. Snaggers cycled in and out of the few available spots, casting until they hook a fish, break their line or fail to hook a fish.Nate Matthews
Of course, it's not always quite that smooth, and scenes like this are just part of the experience. As the grizzled veterans like to say, "If you're not getting hung up a lot then you're not doing it right."Nate Matthews
Underwater hazards aren't the only thing bank snaggers have to watch out for. Utility lines make overexuberant casters pay dearly for their carelessness.Nate Matthews
A snagger's tacklebox contains three key things: treble hooks (lots of them), lead weights (lots of them) and extra spools of line (lots of them).Nate Matthews
The basic rig for paddlefish snagging consists of an 8/0 or larger barbless treble hook tied a foot or so above a lead weight that can range from as light as four to as heavy as 14 ounces. Bank anglers usually prefer spinning rods in the 10-12 foot range while many boat anglers prefer short stout trolling or snagging rods matched with a large baitcaster. Line weights range from 30- to 80-pound-test mono or braid.Nate Matthews
There are dozens of ways to run the line through the hook, but this is a typical technique.Nate Matthews
"Usually if it don't have whiskers it don't go in my boat," says R.R. "Catdaddy" Shumway (left) as he and a client fillet their paddlefish at the Riverside City Park cleaning station. "But these guys are a lot of fun to catch." Shumway, a Topeka, Kansas guide, specializes in trophy blues and flatheads, but has been making the trip to Miami the past 15 years.Nate Matthews
(from left) Jake Stout, Marvin Stout and Chad Garrett show off three nice Neosho River paddlefish at Miami's Riverside Park.Nate Matthews
The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation Paddlefish Research and Processing Station at Twin Bridges State Park is a place for area anglers to get their paddlefish processed and packaged free of charge and a way for fisheries biologists to collect important data on Oklahoma's paddlefish populations.Nate Matthews
Paddlefish are weighed, measured, and have samples collected from them before being moved on to the processing facility, where the meat is filleted and packaged for anglers and eggs are processed into caviar. The paddlefish eggs collected from the site are processed and sold on the wholesale caviar market. The profit from the egg sales are then sunk back into funding paddlefish research and conservation efforts.Nate Matthews
The eggs from one large sow paddlefish can be worth hundreds of dollars, but don't think you're going to make money off an Oklahoma paddlefish: it's illegal to possess more than five pounds of processed paddlefish eggs and if you plan on taking any eggs across state lines they must be frozen, which renders them useless for caviar. Oklahoma wardens have made a number of high-profile busts of paddlefish poachers in recent years.Nate Matthews
To facilitate the collection of paddlefish, ODWC personnel go up and down the river picking up fish from anyone who wants their fish processed.Nate Matthews
The fish are placed in aerated holding tanks and taken back to the processing center. The anglers can then pick them up at their leisure.Nate Matthews
These paddlefish are tagged and waiting to be taken back for processing.Nate Matthews
"Ruger" had pretty good sea legs. Right after this picture he jumped from his owner's boat into the ODWC boat, took a look around, then jumped back.Nate Matthews
Riverside Park became Riverbottom park this year when the Neosho River flooded right at the peak of the paddlefish run.Nate Matthews
The swift current made boating a little more challenging than normal. Despite only one ramp being open, most boaters found a way to make it onto the river. Most of them were rewarded by quickly hooking up with a paddlefish.Nate Matthews
Here, 13-year-old Robbie Wyrick attempts to haul in a paddlefish almost as long and heavy as he is.Nate Matthews
Although a boat certainly helped, bank anglers were catching there share of fish as well. Here "Jar" Bayless, of Quapaw, Oklahoma, gets some help from a fellow snagger as he brings in a paddlefish.Nate Matthews
It's not really fair being forced to run up and down the river all day picking up other people's fish, so between pick-ups, wildlife department members John Stahl (left) and Roger Kildow manage to catch a few spoonbills themselves. Hoisting a writhing, slippery, 40-pound fish into the boat without a gaff (which are prohibited) is an art that can only be achieved through practice.Nate Matthews
It took two days and roughly 27 treble hooks, 14 pounds of lead weights, 900 yards of broken line, two tanks of gas and an infinite amount of patience, but John and Roger finally got this photographer his very first Oklahoma paddlefish. As I was waiting to receive my fillets back from the processing center, I struck up a conversation with Mark Perry, a first-time snagger from Bellevue, Nebraska. "I wish I'd have never caught that fish," said Perry wistfully. "I'm hooked now. I've gotta come back next year."Nate Matthews