My husband, Led, always tries to get me to go hunting and fishing with him. So this year when he suggested we go snagging for paddlefish, I was hesitant at first.
It’s because paddlefishing involves getting up early and waiting in the cold on the bank of the Missouri River with no guarantee of snagging one of these huge swimmers.
Every Oct. 1, anglers flock to the spillway below Gavins Point Dam near Yankton during the opening day of snagging season for paddlefish.
Paddlefish are filter feeders; they feed only on microscopic plants and animals. These gentle giants can weigh up to 160 pounds and grow 7 feet long (including the bill).
On opening day of the season, we prepared ourselves to face a monster of a fish. Our day began at 3:45 a.m. We dressed in several layers and headed to Norfolk to pick up our fishing companions for the day: Led’s two brothers, Dean and Vann Henery. The three of them have been fishing together since they were knee high. Over the years, there have been two additions to the group, myself and Dean’s fiancée, Jade Hetzler. The five of us loaded up at 5 a.m. and headed north.
None of us are what you’d call seasoned veterans when it comes to paddlefish snagging. Led has snagged three seasons in Nebraska and once in Missouri for a total of seven fish. Two years ago, Dean made his paddlefishing debut, but this was a first-time experience for Vann and Jade. I decided to tag along to record some family memories.
We made it to Yankton around 6 a.m., found some unoccupied shoreline and got our gear set up. The weather was cold with a fine mist, and the forecast called for more of the same. The only sound came from the slapping of the waves and the hum of boats and countless voices from the anglers lining the shore.
At 7 a.m. — when the season officially started — anglers began casting their lines into the water. Snagging is a unique type of fishing; the poles used are heavy duty and many are more than 10 feet long. The 3-ounce weights are at least twice the size of normal ones, and they are tied on below the hook.
The goal is to drop the weight to the bottom after you cast and then yank the pole in a sweeping motion in an attempt to snag into a fish.
The mist didn’t let up until around 8:30 a.m., but by then we were already wet and cold and the only thing we’d brought to shore were two small drum and a carp — not the coveted paddlefish we were after.
Just down the bank from us, a group of anglers pulled up a massive flathead catfish, the biggest any of us had ever seen. But still no paddlefish.
Around 11 a.m., we saw our first glimpse of what we had come for. Dean reeled in an underslot fish. To keep a paddlefish, it has to be less than 35 inches or more than 45 inches from the eye to the fork of the tail. The fish in the “slot” are ideal for breeding purposes and must be released back into the Missouri River.
Despite being on the small size, it gave the other three a glimmer of hope. After a few more hours of catching nothing but carp and tree branches, Vann hit paydirt. His first paddlefish was even smaller than the first, but his streak of luck continued. About 15 minutes after releasing it, he snagged into another fish. This one was far bigger than the others, however, when they got it to shore, it didn’t measure up. This paddlefish fell within the slot and, unfortunately, had to be released, too.
After talking with others, it seemed that it was a slow opening day for many. High waters contributed to the snagging difficulty, leaving many hopeful anglers empty-handed.
We may have lost a lot of tackle and caught a few dozen carp, but we made a lot of memories as a family. Who knows — maybe next year I’ll even apply for a tag.