It's the most wonderful time of May; Paddlefish season is here!! Paddlefish snagging with a valid tag is legal from May 1 through May 21. The open area includes the Yellowstone River in North Dakota, and the Missouri River west of the US Highway 85 bridge to the Montana border, excluding that portion from the pipeline crossing (river mile 1,577) downstream to the upper end of the Lewis and Clark WMA (river mile 1,565).
Paddlefish snagging is legal only from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. (Central Time) during each day of the paddlefish snagging season. Select days are set aside for harvest and release only.
A paddlefish snagger must obtain and possess a valid paddlefish tag and a valid fishing license that may be required. The tag is not transferable to another individual, any paddlefish tag locked shut before attachment, altered, or modified, shall be voided and not replaced.
Paddlefish represent an ancient lineage of fish most closely related to sturgeons. There have been fossils of extinct paddlefish from 60 million years ago found in the Missouri River basin near Fort Peck Reservoir. With an elongated, flat, paddle-shaped rostrum, smooth skin, small eyes, and a large, toothless (except when very young) mouth, these fishy beings are not here to win the fish beauty award. Their overall coloration ranges from light bluish-gray to blackish, with a whitish belly. They are usually found in the Yellowstone River and throughout the Missouri River mainstem. The population residing within Lake Sakakawea and upstream in the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers (known as the Yellowstone-Sakakawea stock) is the only stock in North Dakota currently supporting a snag fishery. Another smaller stock in North Dakota inhabits Lake Oahe and the Missouri River below Garrison Dam.
Mature paddlefish migrate upstream from Lake Sakakawea into the Yellowstone and 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 and milt on flooded gravel bars in the lower Yellowstone River; however, some fish migrate up the Missouri River and even into the Milk River in Montana. Soon after spawning, adults typically move back downstream into Lake Sakakawea.
Incubation time varies depending upon water temperature; eggs hatch in about seven days in 60°F water. After hatching, young (larval) fish drift downstream, eventually reaching the headwaters of Lake Sakakawea, where they spend their first few months. Except for spawning migrations, paddlefish remain within Lake Sakakawea. Paddlefish typically mature at about age 9 or 10 for males and age 16 to 18 for females. Males spawn every year or every other year, while females usually spawn every second or third year.
You won't need bait to snag a paddlefish, but saltwater gear! Rods with a spinning reel are at least 10 feet long and 200 yards of 30-pound line. Equip the line with at least a 5-ounce weight and a large (8/0 or 10/0) shanked treble hook, usually placed about 10 inches above the weight. Anglers line the riverbank, casting over and over into the fast-running current, hoping to snag a passing paddlefish. Some catch their fish in the first few casts, but the average effort requires about 15 hours spread over 3 ½ days.
Most anglers in our area bring their freshly caught paddlefish to the North Star Caviar cleaning station located at the Confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, where the fish are