DOUG LEIER: Paddlefish one of area's treasures

Given North Dakota's geographic location, sort of on the fault line between east and west, and north and south, it's easy to understand the state's diversity of fish and wildlife species.

Given North Dakota's geographic location, sort of on the fault line between east and west, and north and south, it's easy to understand the state's diversity of fish and wildlife species.

Few states can claim such a variety of critters in terms of roosters, bucks, ducks and pike. In fact, after a short conversation, most will agree it's the array of species and the opportunities they provide that help make our outdoors priceless.

One of those unique species is the paddlefish, an ancient resident of the Mississippi-Missouri River drainage that provides a limited snagging season. While paddlefish snagging will never rival walleye fishing in overall popularity, the Missouri-Yellowstone river confluence on the first weekend in May probably has the highest concentration of anglers assembled anywhere in the state.

Paddlefish once thrived in large, free-flowing rivers such as the Missouri and Mississippi, but modern dams and irregular flows have disrupted paddlefish movements in much of their historic range. A natural, gradual rise and fall of river water levels is considered an important component of good paddlefish spawning habitat, scientists say.

Rising flows in spring in unrestrained rivers such as the Yellowstone in northwest North Dakota trigger upstream spawning migrations in these fish.


As you can imagine, these unique fish are closely monitored, and fisheries biologists have gained some interesting data from using paddlefish jaw samples to determine their age. The samples have growth rings that biologists can count under a microscope, much like rings on a tree trunk. The oldest fish aged from this population was 61 years old.

While the upper Missouri-Yellowstone river area is where paddlefish snagging takes place, Game and Fish Department biologists in recent years have investigated these fish in the Missouri between Garrison Dam and Bismarck. "The oldest paddlefish we sampled was 50 years old," said Paul Bailey, Department district fisheries supervisor.

One-third of the fish were 30 years or older, and the youngest was 4. "It's no secret that paddlefish have persisted in the Garrison reach for years," Bailey said.

The working knowledge gained in the past 15 years about the Sakakawea-Yellowstone stock -- fish that reside within Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers -- far exceeds what's known about paddlefish in the Garrison reach. Recruitment to the Garrison reach population, whether natural reproduction or downstream drift, is extremely limited, Bailey said.

This is a concern because the population could easily decline over time. "We definitely have an aging paddlefish population," he said, which requires fisheries managers to closely monitor each year's snagging season to reduce long term negative impacts.

North Dakota's paddlefish snagging season in the upper Missouri-Yellowstone rivers opens May 1 and is scheduled to continue through May 31. But depending on the overall harvest, an early in-season closure may occur with a 36-hour notice issued by the state Game and Fish Department.

This potential early closure is necessary to ensure that the Missouri-Yellowstone paddlefish population is not overharvested. North Dakota and Montana each have a harvest quota of 1,000 fish.

If the season closes early because the harvest quota is reached, an extended snag-and-release-only period is allowed for seven days immediately after the early closure, but not to extend beyond May 31. Only snaggers with a current season, unused paddlefish tag are eligible to participate.


All paddlefish snaggers must possess a valid fishing license and certificate in addition to their paddlefish tag, and snaggers are limited to one paddlefish tag per year.

There is no open season for paddlefish in the stretch of the Missouri River from Garrison Dam to Lake Oahe.

More information on paddlefish regulations is available on the Game and Fish website at

Leier is a biologist with the Game and Fish Department. Reach him at . Read his blog at

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