JEFFERSON CITY-The future is bright for Missouri paddlefish enthusiasts, thanks to a lucky alignment of the stars and an assist from beyond the grave.
Thousands of anglers who head out for the opening of paddlefish snagging season on Sunday will find a superabundance of young fish swimming in waters from Lake Table Rock to the Missouri River. The story of how those waters got four times as many paddlefish as expected began last year at the Missouri Department of Conservation's Blind Pony Hatchery near Sweet Springs.
Every year, hatchery personnel at Blind Pony place several hundred thousand tiny paddlefish "fry" in fertilized rearing ponds, where they feed on microscopic zooplankton and commercially produced fish feed. Several months later, they harvest juvenile paddlefish measuring 8 to 16 inches and stock them in reservoirs and rivers, where they grow to maturity.
In a typical year, approximately 15 to 20 percent of paddlefish fry survive to stocking size. When harvest time arrived in 2008, fisheries personnel harvested 260,000-plus paddlefish, which represented a 40-percent survival rate on stocked fry. This is the most paddlefish ever produced in one year at Blind Pony Hatchery.
Asked what caused this population boom, Conservation Department Fisheries Field Operation Chief Bill Anderson said, "We know exactly what happened. The stars lined up right."
Pressed for details, Anderson admitted that a complex mix of factors, including water temperature, weather and influences beyond hatchery personnel's control determine the number of fish produced each year.
Whatever the cause, the 2008 paddlefish crop was a record-breaker. You might think this situation was a hatchery manager's dream come true, and it was...sort of. On the other hand, it also was a problem.
Missouri belongs to the Mississippi Interstate Cooperative Resource Association (MICRA), a partnership of state and federal agencies that are trying to assess paddlefish stocks and movement in the Mississippi River basin. To aid this effort, participating states have agreed not to stock any paddlefish without first tagging them to establish when where they were released. Each paddlefish released in Missouri has a 1.5mm wire tag implanted at the tip of its spoon-shaped rostrum. Each tag is uniquely numbered and can be used to identify individual fish or batches of fish.
Blind Pony Hatchery was prepared to tag the requested 65,000 fish and then some. In all, it had more than 150,000 tags on hand. Never in their wildest dreams had anyone expected to be caught more than 100,000 tags short.
Rather than going back on its tagging agreement and releasing 100,000 without tags, fisheries personnel launched a national search for more tags. But they could only find a few hundred tags here and a few thousand there. Things looked hopeless.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Fish Biologist Joanne Grady coordinated the national paddlefish tagging program for MICRA. Consequently, she was at the center of the frantic search for tags. She was particularly frustrated by the fact that she had several dozen spools of wire - more than enough to finish the job - that were useless because no one knew whether other tags with the same identifying numbers had been used previously. If they had, it would lead to confusion between different stockings.
The spools were a legacy from the late Kim Graham, the pioneering biologist who was instrumental in developing Missouri's paddlefish rearing and management program. Graham was admired and beloved among the cadre of younger fisheries biologists whom he mentored, including Grady.
"I was sitting in my office late at night looking at this pile of what must be thirty spools of old Missouri coded wire tag found in Kim's stuff many years ago," said Grady. "There were no records to tell me where it came from or when they used it. I thought that those answers had gone to the grave with Kim, and I said aloud to myself and to Kim that I needed his help to solve the problem."
The next morning, a hand-written note from Graham turned up in files he had left with Conservation Department Fisheries Management Biologist Craig Gemming. The note included batch code numbers for the spools of wire that Grady had. It was as if Saint Kim, Patron Saint of Paddlefish, had reached from the beyond to get his beloved fish out of troubled waters.
That wasn't the end of the challenge, however. It took dozens of Conservation Department workers and volunteers more than 2,500 staff hours to implant tags in more than a quarter of a million fish. Exhausted, but relieved to have pulled it off, fisheries crews sent 88,000 paddlefish to Lake of the Ozarks, 69,000 to the Missouri River, 56,000 to Truman Lake, 20,000 to Table Rock Lake and 1,000 to the Black River. An additional 30,000 went to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, which released the fish into Beaver Lake and the lower White River.
All the Missouri waters got at least twice the normal annual stocking. Anderson said this relieved Blind Pony Hatchery of the need to raise paddlefish this year. The timing is excellent, since the hatchery's rearing ponds are being renovated. Not having to raise paddlefish relieves what otherwise would be a capacity crunch for other fish-stocking needs.
Fisheries Management Biologist Trish Yasger says last year's double stocking won't affect this year's paddlefish action. It takes stocked paddlefish about 8 years to grow to 34 inches. A 34-inch paddlefish weighs about 30 pounds. These paddlefish will start showing up as legal catches around 2016. Male paddlefish begin making spawning runs at 6-7 years. Females take about 8 years to become sexually mature.
Paddlefish snagging season runs from March 15 through April 30. Table Rock Lake, Lake Ozark and Truman Lake and their tributaries have a 34‑inch length limit, measured from the eye to the fork of the tail.
The minimum length for the rest of the state is 24 inches. This includes the Osage River below Bagnell Dam.
Yasger said water temperatures are cool as the season opener approached, and she expects a slow start to the season.
"I would expect water temperatures to drop with the cool front coming in ahead of March 15," she said. "Anglers will catch some local fish on opening day as well as fish that begin their spawning run early. As water temperatures increase, snaggers should start to see more fish, especially larger females, moving upstream. Generally speaking, snagging tends to be better earlier at Table Rock, which is farther south and warms up a little earlier.
Yasger reminded anglers that anyone operating a boat for snaggers must possess a valid fishing permit. On Lake of the Ozarks and its tributaries, the Osage River below Highway 54 and Truman Lake and its tributaries you have to stop snagging, snaring or grabbing for any species after taking a daily limit of two paddlefish.
She also urged snaggers who use gaffs to land fish to first carefully consider whether a fish is legal. Some anglers tell her they see some small dead paddlefish that have been severely gaffed.
"Before using a gaff, please look at your fish to see if it is large enough to keep, and when in doubt please try to avoid using a gaff to keep from seriously injuring a sublegal fish," she said. "Every fish that dies before reaching legal size is one less fish for you to catch in the future."