The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation's Paddlefish Research Center in the northeast part of the state has already processed at least 300 fish for anglers this spring.
When it comes to unusual, it doesn't get much stranger than the paddlefish. The paddlefish takes its common and scientific names from its distinctive snout, which is elongated and flattened into a "paddle" shape. One of Oklahoma's largest fish, the paddlefish feeds on tiny zooplankton (microscopic insects) and, like a shark, has a completely cartilaginous skeletal system.
The paddlefish was alive when dinosaurs were rumbling around in the late Cretaceous Period. Paddlefish are one of the most unique fish in Oklahoma. They can grow over 100 pounds and live up to 50 years. Paddlefish range throughout the U.S from Montana to Louisiana. In Oklahoma, they are found mainly in the Grand, Neosho and Arkansas River systems.
Paddlefish are caught by snagging, usually beginning sometime in March and ending in late April, during the fish's early spring spawning run. The prehistoric fish can be caught by snagging with a stout surf rod, heavy test line, and a large, barbless treble hook. Historically, paddlefish were not a highly sought after species. They were mainly caught by local anglers who fished from the banks and cleaned their fish on the spot, taking the meat and leaving the carcasses in the river or trash cans at state parks.
During the past decade, paddlefish have been increasingly in the spotlight, both as a favorite thrill for sport anglers and a target for poachers seeking to sell their eggs as caviar on the black market.
In February 2008, the Wildlife Department opened the Paddlefish Research Center at Twin Bridges State Park near Miami, Okla. The center collects important biological data, processes paddlefish fillets for anglers and salvages paddlefish eggs.
Since 2008 more than 20,000 fish have been brought to the paddlefish research center by anglers, where their fish are professionally cleaned and packaged. Workers at the center collect eggs from female fish to sell as caviar. Workers collect details on the condition of the eggs, weight, fat percentage and other data that tells biologists about the health of the fish. Once data is collected, the eggs are processed and sold as caviar. These funds are being used to fund continued paddlefish research and improve angler access. Oklahoma paddlefish caviar is dispersed throughout Europe and Asia after the critical biological data is recorded from each fish.
Most importantly, the Wildlife Department is able to gather large quantities of useful data for managing paddlefish in Oklahoma. Certain types of biological data can only be collected once a paddlefish is dead. Prior to the opening of the Paddlefish Research Center, the Department had only collected information from 240 fish since the late 1970s. The center makes it possible to collect data from thousands of fish that are already being harvested by anglers. In just a few months, biologists found themselves years ahead of where they had been in terms of researching and managing the species.
Biologists are able to get the scientific information they need for management, anglers get the meat from their fish, and the salvaged eggs are sold to pay for continued management of the resource. It is a win-win for the anglers and for the resource.
Some examples of projects funded through caviar sales:
Sonic tracking of paddlefish populations in Grand Lake and the Spring River.
Genetic diversity analysis research project with Oklahoma State University.
Purchase of boats and other equipment to assist law enforcement patrolling paddlefish waters.
Improvement of fishing access at Miami Park on the Neosho River, the low water dam at Lake Hudson and planned improvements at Twin Bridges State Park at Grand Lake.
The center is open during prime paddlefish snagging months (approximately March 1 - April 30), and anglers can bring their catch to the center for cleaning and processing. Additionally, anglers such as those fishing at Miami's Riverview City Park also can call the center to come pick up their paddlefish for processing. Anglers who take advantage of the service will take home meat from their own fish that has been safely cleaned and packaged.
The paddlefish research center is seasonally staffed by employees trained in proper handling and processing of fish products.
Paddlefish anglers are required to obtain a free paddlefish permit before fishing for paddlefish in Oklahoma. Last year around 70,000 anglers obtained the permit with a specific number that must be attached to all paddlefish that are caught and kept. The permit system provides clearer information about paddlefish anglers and helps better manage paddlefish populations. The permit is annual, and the permit number can be used on every paddlefish tagged during that period. Permits can be obtained online at wildlifedepartment.com.