Closing the paddlefish take season in 2020 because of the pandemic – a limited catch and release season was offered – was one of the few outdoors cancellations I recall over the past year. The safety of snaggers, caviar processors and data collection staff was a major concern, said Greg Power, fisheries chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

“Paddlefish snaggers concentrate in large numbers in a small area and often participate in snagging while shoulder-to-shoulder,” Power said. “There is no realistic way to maintain proper separation.”

So, it’s with that backdrop of all the cancellations, delays and rescheduling over the past year the 2021 paddlefish snagging season is another reason to smile in 2021.

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Saturday, May 1, marks the start of North Dakota's 2021 paddlefish snagging season. If history is any indication, over the course of three weeks, a few thousand people will buy a special tag and trek to the shoreline of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers for a chance to reel in the state's largest fish.

If you’re not familiar with paddlefish, they commonly weigh well over 50 pounds, and the current state record tops the scale at 130 pounds. They are as big as they are unique, and hooking one is not a sure thing, as roughly only one in three people who buy a tag actually get to put it on a paddlefish.

While North Dakota’s 2021 paddlefish snagging season opens May 1, it’s scheduled to continue through May 21. However, depending on the overall harvest, an early in-season closure may occur with a 24-hour notice issued by the state Game and Fish Department.

Legal snagging hours are from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Snaggers can only purchase one tag per year.

Snagging is legal in all areas of the Yellowstone River in North Dakota, and in the area of the Missouri River lying west of the U.S. 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 Wildlife Management Area (river mile 1,565).

If the season closes early because the harvest cap is reached, an extended snag-and-release-only period will be allowed for up to four days immediately following the early closure, but not to extend beyond May 21. Only a limited area at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers is open to this extended season snagging opportunity.

Mandatory harvest of all snagged paddlefish is required on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. On these days, all paddlefish caught must be kept and tagged immediately. All paddlefish snagged and tagged must be removed from the river by 7 p.m. of each snagging day.

Snag-and-release of all paddlefish is required on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays. Participants during snag-and-release-only days need to have in their possession a current season, unused paddlefish snagging tag. Use or possession of gaffs is prohibited on snag-and-release-only days.

All paddlefish snaggers must possess a paddlefish tag in addition to a valid fishing license. Cost of a paddlefish tag is $10 for residents and $25.50 for nonresidents. Lost or destroyed tags will not be replaced.

A list of vendors selling paddlefish tags is available on the North Dakota Game and Fish Department website at gf.nd.gov.

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Leier is an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Reach him at dleier@nd.gov.

Doug Leier
Doug Leier