Paddlefish rebound in Missouri, bringing fisherman to the region

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SWEET SPRINGS - As temperatures rise in Central Missouri, so do fishermen's aspirations of landing their trophy catch. Missouri's lakes and rivers are teaming with fish and other wildlife once again. One particular fish, the paddlefish, whose population was struggling, is now on the rise. 

The paddlefish spawns at the beginning of spring every year. Due to human involvement in their native habitats in the form of locks and dams, their numbers have declined in recent years after spawning routes have been blocked in reservoirs. The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) collects these prehistoric fish and breeds them to restore their numbers to a stable level. 

Blind Pony Hatchery Manager Nathan Storts said the fish MDC collects have a much greater chance of survival under the hatchery's care than they would in the wild.

"By keeping them in a controlled environment, we are able to monitor them and restock lakes and rivers across the state for fisherman to enjoy," Storts said.

The eggs spawned at Blind Pony are incubated for 10 days until all the eggs hatch. The young fish, called "fry," are then released into one of the hatchery's holding ponds, where they grow and mature. In October, the fish are large enough to be released into the wild in spots across Missouri.

Storts says the paddlefish's closely-monitored life at the hatchery is critical to the species survival.

"With the decline of their spawning habitat, there's just no way they could keep up," Storts said. "People love to catch paddlefish. Without our help, they would decline pretty rapidly." 

Popular lakes for this sport include Table Rock Lake, Black River and the Lake of the Ozarks. The way a paddlefish is caught is unlike traditional fishing methods. A large hook is dragged across the floor of the body of water until it snags a paddlefish. 

Adam Wolf, owner of Tombstone Tackleshop in Columbia, said his store has been busier this year than ever before. 

"They always say that Oklahoma is the snagging capital of the world, but it's not," Wolf said. "Lake of the Ozarks is. The lake has unbelievable populations that are a huge draw for fisherman across the country."

Due to their recovering population, paddlefish season is much shorter than other fish species. Wolf says the short window of opportunity for fisherman is also a factor to the sport's success. 

"The excitement builds up all year," Wolf said. "I think if you could do it year-round, it wouldn't be as big. But when you wait all year to do it, and you just have a month and a half, it creates excitement."

The paddlefish season begins March 15 and runs through April 30.