Paddlefish Changes in North Dakota

February 4, 2009 by  

By Doug Leier

Sorry ladies, Gullickson is taken.

Sorry ladies, Gullickson is taken.

North Dakota’s wildlife and fisheries resources provide some interesting opportunities, such as sage grouse and prairie chicken hunting, and the chance to snag a paddlefish.

These species, because of their limited and isolated populations, require cautious management. However, taking a few sage grouse, prairie chickens or bighorn sheep will not hurt the overall population as long as regulations or participation are set up to limit harvest.

In North Dakota, paddlefish are found exclusively within the Missouri River System. They are the state’s largest fish, often growing longer than 5 feet and occasionally topping 100 pounds.

Paddlefish live on a diet of mostly algae and plankton and therefore are not readily caught on hook and line. They can, however, be caught with hooks dragged through the river where they are congregating.

Most North Dakota paddlefish live upstream of Garrison Dam in Lake Sakakawea. In spring, mature paddlefish, typically age 10 or older, migrate upstream on a spawning run out of the reservoir and into the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers. Many of these fish continue upstream into Montana.

While Montana allowed paddlefish snagging starting in the 1960s, North Dakota’s first established paddlefish season was in 1976. The daily and possession limit was two fish and the season ran from early May to mid-November. Over the course of the last 30 years, fisheries managers have put more constraints on snagging with the approach of maintaining opportunity for individuals while reducing pressure on the paddlefish resource.

Low flows in the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers the past few years makes snagging easier because fish are more concentrated. In addition, snagging pressure is becoming more focused toward earlier in the season, which opens May 1, because people are aware of the potential for early closure. Both North Dakota and Montana have established season harvest quotas of 1,000 fish, and snaggers want to make sure they get their opportunity before the quota is reached.

The paddlefish season is short, dont wait

The paddlefish season is short, don't wait

Because of the quota and increased early snagging pressure, a fair number of people who bought special paddlefish tags missed out because the season closed early when the quota of 1,000 fish was reached well before the 31-day season would have ended otherwise.

Last May, the paddlefish season was open only 13 days before 1,000 paddlefish were caught. In 2005 it lasted just 14 days, and in 2004 it was 28 days.

To try to increase opportunity while maintaining harvest, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department this year is adding an option of snag-and-release-only fishing for up to a week after the quota is reached, or until May 31, whichever comes first. The potential for up to seven days of snag-and-release is a way to allow continued participation by people who bought a paddlefish tag and either didn’t catch a fish, or didn’t even have a chance to go before the quota was reached.

Past studies have shown that mortality is minimal for paddlefish that are snagged and released. In recent years, Game and Fish has allowed snagging and releasing on a couple of weekdays during the open season.

This departure practice, however, is not quite the same as catch-and-release of other fish. On Mondays and Tuesdays, all paddlefish caught must be released. On the other five days, all paddlefish caught must be kept. There are no days when anglers can choose whether to keep or release a paddlefish, and people who tag a paddlefish cannot continue to fish on release-only days.

Release-only or keep-only days prevent a practice called high-grading, or continual releasing of fish until a big enough one is caught. This spreads out harvest over a wide range of sizes and ages, rather than concentrating harvest on the largest fish, which are mostly mature females.

It’s likely that the paddlefish harvest quota from the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers in North Dakota will remain at about 1,000 in the near term. As with most new regulations, the additional snag-and-release days are not set in stone for the long term.

Game and Fish biologists will continue to evaluate the paddlefish season and make adjustments that either maintain or increase recreation as long as the paddlefish resource is not compromised.


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