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Paddlefish Make A Comeback in Oklahoma
by Craig Spring, US Fish and Wildlife Service
Craig_Springer at fws_gov
Oklahoma anglers are likely to beam if you ask them how paddlefish are doing. They have good reason to smile.
Thanks to the efforts of the Oklahoma Fishery Resources Office, Tishomingo NFH in Oklahoma, Uvalde NFH in Texas and Neosho NFH in Missouri, paddlefish are on their way back. Service personnel are working hard to expand the range of this ancient big-river fish.
This prehistoric behemoth was once widely distributed throughout the big rivers of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins. From Ohio to Montana and Minnesota to the Gulf Coast, paddlefish made annual migrations every spring to their spawning grounds.
Then dams got in the way and water development projects altered river flow and water temperature. Commercial harvest for roe was excessive, as well, and in the end, survival just got too tough. In Oklahoma, paddlefish dwindled to just two self-sustaining populations by 1975.
But the tough keep going. In 1992, Bob Pitman, project leader at the Oklahoma Fishery Resources Office organized paddlefish restoration efforts with the cooperation of state fisheries agencies in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas. Once a paddlefish broodstock was certified disease-free by the Service's Pinetop Fish Health Center in Arizona, production began in earnest at Tishomingo NFH. Now offspring make their way into Oklahoma waters every autumn.
Biologists stocked nearly 80,000 paddlefish in the upper Arkansas and Verdigris rivers over a five-year period. Those efforts are now bearing fruit. What were twelve-inchers a few years ago now weigh over 75 pounds and measure five feet long. In the next ten years anglers can expect these new residents to reach 100 pounds.
Stocked paddlefish are nearing maturity and they appear to be making spawning migrations. However, Oklahoma fisheries biologists have yet to find real evidence of successful spawning--young paddlefish--but are confident they will appear in survey nets soon.
On the Red River, the natural boundary between Oklahoma and Texas, Oklahoma Fishery Resources Office personnel work with biologists from both states to improve the paddlefish population. Next spring they plan to gather gravid adults from the Red River below Lake Texoma and spawn them at Tishomingo NFH. By autumn the progeny should be large enough to survive most Lake Texoma predators. With many miles of free flowing river above Lake Texoma, the Red and Washita rivers may soon harbor the next restored paddlefish population.
"Fossil records show that paddlefish have been swimming rivers of the Midwest since before dinosaurs ruled. We're working hard to see that paddlefish don't go by the way of dinosaurs," says Nancy Kaufman, Southwest Regional Director.
According to Pitman, the future looks good for paddlefish. "Our plan is to stock fish in each system for six years then wait for signs of reproduction. Seeing the big, mature fish that we stocked a few years ago returning to the creel is very promising."
This prehistoric prize can give anglers all they can handle. These newly established populations offer fishing opportunity and more is on the way. Pitman and his cooperators plan to expand stocking into two other Oklahoma rivers in 1999.