This warm winter has everyone ready for some fishing! Soon the first thunderstorms of the year will barrel down our neck of the woods. In Oklahoma, it means the start of tornado season. It also means those spring storms are bringing much needed rainfall. It is crucial to the sucessful reproduction of many riverine species. One of my personal favorites is the American Paddlefish (Polyodon spathula). I'm going to share with you guys some of the tools I utilize that allow me to consistently catch big paddlefish from my kayak.
When I first started looking to snag a paddlefish from my kayak, there was very little information out there. No one was targeting them from a yak, at least not to my knowlege. I first started digging into snagging one for www.kayakwars.com. KW at the time was a new freshwater tournament and paddlefish were worth a ton of points. Well... it was the points that drew me in and the fact that several people told me I couldn't catch one from a kayak. Since the moment I decided to go catch one, I have spent many hours on Oklahoma's rivers researching and keeping my eyes peeled for paddlefish.
If you want to pursue this prehistoric species you need to look closely at four areas.
1.Research/Networking-this will save you time when you do get on the water and help you make educated decisions.
2.Equipment-using the right gear will make or break your trip
3. Tactics- braided vs. meandoring and the associated techniques and tricks
4. Fighting the fish-big fish small boat
Find out the laws in your state regarding paddlefish and the legal methods to catch them. In Oklahoma: you need a fishing license, a paddlefish permit, and barbless hooks just to start with. Each state has different rules and regulations. Many states don't even allow snagging. Most of this information is Oklahoma specific, but the ideas and concepts should be similar in other states.
I could type up several pages about paddlefish biology and reproduction using the knowledge I acquired as an intern for the ODWC at the Paddlefish Reasearch Center. The PRC is a facility located by twin bridges state park on the Neosho river in Oklahoma. It is where ODWC Biologists intensively study the paddlefish population on grand lake. If you would like to learn more about paddlefish biology, their habits, or ways anglers help the PRC contact ODWC Paddlefish Biologist Jason Schooley or get some great information here. http://www.wildlifedepartment.com/fishing/paddlefish.htm
These guys also fish (alot) so they know when the fish run on Neosho river like clockwork.
These are bare-bone basics: Paddlefish eat plankton, get gianormous, and run up the river to spawn during the spring.
You'll need to watch your local rainfall to determine when and where to go. Depending on the soil type you'll need so much rainfall to get runoff. Runoff creates rising water conditions and increased flow. In Oklahoma, I use www.mesonet.org and watch the 24 hour rainfall and I use the usgs flow gages to track river conditions. Make sure to record your flow conditions and other pertinent information when you have a sucessful trip so you can repeat your results.
Contacts & Networking:
Jason Schooley/PRC staff, Rusty Prichard, Jacob Scott, Chris Hargis, and Tony Hughes taught me just about everything I know about paddlefish and how to catch them.
Jason Schooley seemed to think that the kayakers wouldn't call the PRC when I told him that I was writing this, here is the RPC's number: (918)542-9422 Jason knows great details like the exact cfs required for paddlefish to pour out of Grand Lake, how far they can travel in a day, and why snagging and releasing them actually doesn't do a lot of damage to the fish.
Rusty Prichard is a guide on grand lake and the neosho river. If you aren't friends with him on facebook, you should be. He throws up shots of his clients almost daily and lots of great content full of information. Rusty taught me his primary trolling technique, and I modified it to adjust for the weight and momentum of the kayak. I'll come back to that in section 3.
Chris Hargis works for the OWRB in the streams biomonitoring program (he spends his summers monitoring stream fish populations and stream health). He taught me how to find any stream gage in the state. Chris also has a vast knowledge of the states streams and rivers. He has probably walked more miles than are on your cars tachometer. Give him a shout at 4055308800 and ask for him.
Jacob Scott is a good ol' boy from Tulsa. In the daylight, he works at Lowrance and at night he drives a party bus. Jacob takes anything you do on the water and makes it that much more fun. I once fished a tough tournament near him, everyone was starting to get down. Then here comes Jacob cranking up the music and jamming out. I went on to win that tournament off of Jacobs momentum. He knows Lowrance like the back of his hand, hit him up if you need help with what a spoonbill looks like on your electronics.
Tony Hughes is a veteran fisherman and, at one time, was a guide in Oklahoma. Anytime Tony has given me information or a lead, it has panned out to perfection. He's got great stories (and pics) of the huge fish he caught in Oklahoma before I was even born. He loaned me a snagging rod when I caught my first paddlefish completely out of the kayak in March of 2011.
Pictured below is the little guy that was my first indication that catching a paddlefish could be done from a kayak.
You need to be visible during a snagging trip and a visicarbon pro, or something similar, should do the trick. You'll be in close quarters with powerboats just about anywhere you go, so being highly visible is key.
You'll need a flawless anchor trolley system. I use a yakattack sidewinder, but I have had trouble locking down the best snap system for this purpose. If anyone has a great quick release system I would love to hear it. Not being able to quickly release from the anchor is one of the leading causes I have seen for losing a fish, that paired with not keeping your line tight.
No dough? One of the great things about snagging is that it can be very low cost, all you really need is a hook, weight, a descent rod/reel combo, and the time to find the fish. No 6 rods needed here, or fancy lures.
With the exception of my first paddlefish, I have hooked all of mine with a cheap walmart setup.
A Med/Hvy 10ft 2 piece casting rod with a fast action tip. Its a Model CF-106 Catmaster. Paired with an Alpha Reel with 30# monofilament. I like to keep my line lighter, you don't need 80# braid when fighting a paddlefish from the yak, the yak acts as a great drag system. This rig is only rated up to 30 pound test and has somehow survived 4 years with me hauling in giant paddlefish. I think it cost me $40 when I was still in colege. I prefer a 7/0 barbless hook and the weight depends on how deep the fish are in the water column. To learn how to tie on the hook and weight visit youtube (or ask Jacob/Rusty) : Here is a good start. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h09QZ-6RRtg
3. Techniques and Tactics
My technique for snagging varies based on the river type. There are two main types that paddlefish inhabit in Okie land. A braided river is typically not very channelized, very shallow, sandy, and usually occurs in an area with more slope. A meandoring river is typically deeper, channelized, can be comprised of rock sediment or sand, and usually occur in areas without much slope like the neosho river above grand lake.
On braided river channels, I mentally prepare myself to have a boom or bust trip. I would either find an area deep enough to hold paddlefish or cover a lot of miles trying. Now that I have learned how to time the flow events using usgs flow gages, I save myself a lot of wasted time on the water. In a braided river system, the deep holes may only be 4-6 feet deep depending on water conditions, so pay attention. The deep holes also move each year, so one you fish this year may likely be gone next year.
Once I find a deep area, I will pull to one side and set up my quick release anchor system and cast perpendicular to stream flow. You cast across perpendicular to flow, aim your rod tip at your hook, jerk the rod all the way past you, reel up all your slack line, until your rod eyes are pointed back at the hook and repeat until you hit a fish or your hook is back close to the boat. Make sure you are prepared to release from your anchor for a sliegh ride!
On a meandoring river, I will fire up my lowrance and look for obstructions to the migration of paddlefish upstream. When I find a deep hole or an obstruction I will cross back and forth watching my electronics looking for paddlefish. If I find a few in a certain area, I will note how deep they are and where they are located in the channel. If I'm in a paddling kayak I will find a safe place to anchor up nearby and begin trying to cast across the channel at the depth I noted the fish at. If I am in a pedal drive kayak, I may take off trolling. In a kayak you don't have as much momentum as when in a powerboat (at least in my expereince), so you have to jerk while trolling. It looks kind of funny and I had a group of anglers crack up as they passed me. They stopped laughing pretty quick when I hooked up right as they passed by. You cast out a ways behind you and try to troll/jerk at the same depth as the fish. After each jerk I will adjust my rudder accordingly so that I can stay on course.
When should I go? When it rains, there is flow, and the water temp is anywhere from 55-65. The longer these conditions have been in place, the further from the lake I venture. I always get asked for "The Spot", and the truth is that there is no magic bullet spot. Even the spots from the year before have moved and the length of time the fish have had to run upriver plays a big role in where they are.
4. Fighting the fish
You've been jerking several oz of weight and a 10 ft rod for what seems like an eternity. Your arms are burning, you haven't hooked a fish all day. Your about to call it because you are dog tired. Suddenly, you snap your rod back and feel the rod bow like you just hooked right into the biggest tree in the river. Then your rod is nearly torn out of your hands as a monster paddlefish begins to rip drag upstream. This may be my favorite part of the whole experience, when you first hook the fish and get a monster of a run.
So what do you do? How do you land this beast from your plastic fishing device?
The name of the game is keeping steady pressure on your line. If you let even a little slack in the line the barbless hook will slip right out of the paddlefish's scaleless hide. Ask Robert Field, it took him a few fish (7) to bring it all together.
At the beginning of the fight, sometimes all you can do is hold on to the rod. Try to use your rudder or mirage drive to keep them out of log jams and off the rocks. The fish may make several huge runs or it could wait until it is close to the yak before it decides to make its run. Always keep your rod tip at the front or back of the boat. In a kayak that is your best bet to keep the fish from getting leverage on you. In Roberts video, I think you can actually here me telling my wife that when the big paddlefish gets leverage on her close to the kayak. My voice got a little shaky because she is the last person I want going in for a swim. You can expect long runs early in the fight and occasionally you get a fantastic aerial display. You may end up fighting in deep water, or look like the Texas Tech bell ringer trying to make up line as the fish races back to you in the shallows. Once you fight the fish to the yak, the fish may lay over and play opposum. Don't fall for it, as soon as you reach down to grab the fish it will bust out another great run. I really try to wear the fish out before I bring it to the yak. I'll even loosen the drag when it looks like its almost done, just in case it still has some gas.
After this secondary run, you can start trying to land the fish. I prefer to grab the rostrum and/or lower jaw and remove the hook, so you don't end up wearing it. You can pull them in from the tail, but thier gills will flare and make a parachute. So pulling them in by the rostrum is your best bet. It is incredibly important to balance your weight and the weight of the fish as you begin to haul it in. If your buddy is nearby, have them grab on to the opposite side of the yak to help keep you balanced. Then pull the fish into the yak, take that deep celebratory breath, and quickly snap a few photos.
If you aren't keeping the fish, get the photos as quickly as possible and begin to revive the fish. Hold the fish by the rostrum and tow it along side you if you are in your hobie. Wait until the fish begins to fight your hand and release it. If you release the fish too early it could get beaten up on the bottom of the river bed by the current. If you want to see some anchoring and casting in action, check out Robert Fields video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABfCgSWEbKw
Remeber to act responsibly with this resouce. Paddlefish are boom or bust spawners, so it is important that we make sure not to overharvest them. Many states no longer allow snagging and its our responsibility as sportsman to make sure they are around for future genterations. Tight lines, and good luck snagging your first Redneck Marlin!