Anglers flock to northwest N.D. to snag a paddlefish

CARTWRIGHT, N.D. -- Northwest North Dakota has more people and traffic than it did a decade ago when Dennis and Brenda Ahlfs began traveling from Minnesota for paddlefish season.

Bill Harmon
Bill Harmon of Chamberlain, S.D., snagged this 127-pound, 9-ounce paddlefish May 7 on Lake Francis Case to break the old record of 120 pounds, 12 ounces that had stood since April 1979. (Submitted photo)

CARTWRIGHT, N.D. - Northwest North Dakota has more people and traffic than it did a decade ago when Dennis and Brenda Ahlfs began traveling from Minnesota for paddlefish season.

But the oil boom hasn’t deterred them from visiting the region each year to try to snag the ancient fish.

“The fishing hasn’t changed,” said Dennis Ahlfs of Detroit Lakes.

The annual paddlefish season continues in the Williston area until May 31 or until 1,000 fish are harvested.

Last year, the state sold more than 4,000 paddlefish tags, up from a typical season of 3,000 to 3,500 tags, said Fred Ryckman, supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s Northwest Fisheries District.


“It has become more and more concentrated in terms of the number of snaggers per day,” Ryckman said. “There’s a lot of intense competition for the really good spots.”

About 30 percent of the tags sold last season were for nonresidents, a figure that has been increasing each year as new residents move to northwest North Dakota, Ryckman said.

People continue to travel from out of the area for paddlefishing, with a typical fisherman traveling 200 miles one way, Ryckman said.

Dennis and Brenda Ahlfs spent two weekends this spring camping at Sundheim Park in McKenzie County until they each snagged a paddlefish.

“It’s addicting,” Brenda Ahlfs said.

‘Just awesome’

Shane Johnson of Grand Forks has missed only two paddlefish seasons since 1993. Johnson said he now encounters more people along the Yellowstone River, but that didn’t stop his group of six guys from enjoying a weekend of camping and fishing.

“It’s just awesome,” Johnson said. “Where else are you going to catch a 100-pound fish in freshwater?”


LaVern Gross of Bismarck said the camaraderie of participating in paddlefish season is what has brought him back to northwest North Dakota every year since 1995.

A few years ago, Gross said there were more people taking up camping spots in the oil region than there were people fishing. But this year, he and his sons had no difficulty finding a place to camp for the weekend.

Marty Shaide, whose family runs a food stand during paddlefish season, said the influx of new residents has made some spots more crowded, but locals are still able to enjoy the season.

“If you’re from around here, you can always find a quiet space by the river,” Shaide said.

This paddlefish season has been successful for snaggers, with a higher number of female fish harvested that weigh 70 pounds or more, Ryckman said.

North Star Caviar, a nonprofit company that cleans the fish free of charge in exchange for the paddlefish eggs, reported cleaning a fish this season that weighed 123 pounds.

How late this season goes will depend on how many snaggers show up, Ryckman said. He estimates that 650 to 700 paddlefish have been harvested this season in North Dakota. 

New S.D. paddlefish record


South Dakota has a new paddlefish record.

Bill Harmon was snagging paddlefish May 7 when he hooked a 127-pound, 9-ounce paddlefish that shattered a 35-year-old record.

Harmon, of Chamberlain, S.D., drew a permit for the Lake Francis Case paddlefish snagging season. His fish surpassed the old record of 120 pounds, 12 ounces set in April 1979 in the Fort Randall tailwaters.

South Dakota initiated annual paddlefish stocking efforts in the early 1990s, and the effort has resulted in quality numbers of the fish in Lake Francis Case.

“One of the original goals of the paddlefish stocking program was to initiate a sport fishery for this species,” said Jason Sorensen, South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks fisheries biologist. “Paddlefish are a long-lived species, and the Lake Francis Case population has some very old fish. There is potential for anglers to harvest large paddlefish, and Bills’ recent catch is proof of that.”

Paddlefish are among the largest and longest- lived species of freshwater fish, and some biologists believe the odd fish can live 50 years or more. They feed primarily on zooplankton by swimming with their mouths open and filtering zooplankton out of the water with their gill rakers. Since paddlefish do not feed on bait fish and invertebrates, conventional fishing methods prove useless to anglers pursuing paddlefish. Anglers typically snag for paddlefish using heavy-duty equipment and heavy fishing lines.

North Dakota’s record paddlefish weighed 130 pounds and was snagged in May 2010 at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers.


Jeff Boudreaux shows off a paddlefish
Jeff Boudreaux of Grand Forks, N.D., shows off a paddlefish he caught Friday, May 9, 2014, at Sundheim Park in McKenzie County, N.D. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

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