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Paddlefish a big catch for anglers

| Sunday, May 17, 2009

There was nothing subtle about Jim and Dave Bayne's most recent fishing trip to Missouri.

For years, Jim's son-in-law, Danny Matthews of Trenton, Mo., had been after the brothers to join him in going after paddlefish. Last month, over Easter weekend, they finally agreed to give it a try.

They got a hint of just what they were in for before they made it to the water.

"I took my saltwater rod down with me and the first thing my nephew told me was, 'That will never work. Put it back in the trunk,'" said Dave, of Plum Boro.

"The rods you have to use are like telephone poles. They don't bend."

It's no wonder. Paddlefish -- the distinctive spoon-billed fish with the long nose, or rostrum -- can grow to more than six-feet long and weigh in excess of 100 pounds. The Missouri state record is a 139-pound, 4-ounce fish.

Fish half that size -- or as big as Pennsylvania's state record musky, the heaviest game fish ever caught here -- are not uncommon, according to Trish Yasger, a freshwater fisheries biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

"We are continuing to seeing more fish in the 50- to 60-pound range, as well as a few large female being harvested," she said in a report on the season earlier this spring.

Catching fish that big means using the stoutest tackle. Paddlefish are filter feeders that eat on plankton, so they won't hit a convention bait or lure. Instead, anglers snag them with giant treble hooks attached to 135-pound test line a few feet above 20-ounce sinkers.

Anglers fish in teams. One drives the boat, watching a fish finder for signs of paddlefish. When a group of 30 or 40 fish -- called a pod -- is spotted, he pilots the boat over the fish while the anglers on board pump their rods up and down in an attempt to snag one.

Getting into a fish means getting into a fight.

"It stops the boat, I'll tell you," said Jim Bayne, of New Kensington. "The first time I hooked one, I wasn't sure I didn't have a snag, to be honest.

"When you get one on, the other people have to reel their lines in, and they're out 150 yards. And the fish just pull like a freight train. You're trying to bring them in frontward, sideways, tail first, however you hooked them. It's incredible."

In Missouri, paddlefish have to be 34 inches long from the eye to the notch in their tail to be keepers. The Baynes caught four legal fish in a weekend, the biggest nearly 60 inches and 45 pounds.

"But we saw fish probably twice as heavy caught," Jim Bayne said.

Ironically, paddlefish -- just like the ones they drove 17 hours to catch -- exist in the rivers around Pittsburgh, too.

Paddlefish are native to the Ohio River watershed, and existed there until 1919, when pollution made it impossible for them to survive.

They returned in 1991, when the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission stocked 2,195 Missouri River paddlefish in the Allegheny and Ohio rivers. The agency has stocked fish every year since, with the total now exceeding 140,000.

The goal of the program has been, first, simply to restore the fish to their native habitat, and second, to perhaps set the stage for a paddlefish season here, said Rick Lorson, the commission's area 8 fisheries manager in Somerset. It would likely be a limited season, operated much like the state's elk hunt, which requires hunters to enter a lottery and hope to be drawn for a tag.

"We would hope to get to that point," Lorson said. "Whether we will get there or not, I don't know. But that would be nice."Right now, though, Pennsylvania's paddlefish program remains a work in progress.

New York has also been reintroducing paddlefish, so it is known to exist "all along the length of the Allegheny," Lorson said, from Kinzua Dam to Pittsburgh. They've also been found in the Ohio, Monongahela, Youghiogheny, Beaer and Conemaugh rivers, and Loyalhanna Creek and Tionesta Creek.

But they don't seem to exist in any of those places in big numbers. Researchers from California (Pa.) surveyed the Allegheny and Ohio in 2005 and 2006 to look for paddlefish. They found a handful, representing various age classes, suggesting that at least some are surviving and breeding.

"But I think we found less than we thought we would," said Dave Argent, chairman of the biology department at California who headed up the study.

"For the Fish and Boat Commission to have stocked 130,000 over 10 years or so by the time we got there, and for us to only recover six or seven, we thought our numbers should have been higher."

A lack of habitat might be one limiting factor, he said. Paddlefish prefer waters with cobbled, gravely backwaters for spawning. Pittsburgh's rivers "are pretty much impounded" and no longer offer much of that, Argent said.

Walleyes -- which thrive in the Three Rivers -- are a prime predator of young paddlefish, too, he added.

If those challenges can be overcome, however, and Pennsylvania can have a paddlefish season, the Bayne's experience in Missouri -- home to a 45-day season -- suggests it would be popular. There, paddlefish are a big draw, they said.

"There were a ton of people out," Dave Bayne said of the weekend they fished. "It was like the first day of trout season. There were boats everywhere. "And we saw license plates from all over the place. It's obviously a big tourist draw." And a fun one, too. That's why Jim and Dave are already planning another trip next spring. "We got burnt," Dave said. "Now we can't wait to go back."

Additional Information:

Plenty to eat

Catching a monster paddlefish means having a lot of fish to eat. Unlike, say, trout, though, paddlefish flesh is not flaky. It is more similar to scallops in texture. Fish are generally steaked, too, so you end up with larger, meatier chunks. It can be cooked in a variety of ways, but the key to preparing it is trim away all of the fat and reddish meat until just the white flesh remains. That should then be soaked overnight in water or even milk. When that's done, it can be battered and fried, grilled or smoked. It's very good when done properly.

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