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Anglers Cruise Missouri's Osage River In Pursuit Of An Ancient Fish

Julie Denesha
Omar Jawdat uses an angler's gaff hook to help bring a paddlefish onto the boat during a recent fishing trip on the Osage River.

The American paddlefish is native to the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The species has been around since the Cretaceous period, some 65 million years. Each spring anglers launch their boats on the Osage River in mid Missouri in pursuit of these big river fish.

A layer of fog still lingers over the surface of the Osage River as Omar Jawdat launches his boat into the Osage River with a couple of friends in tow.

It's an early April morning and the sun is just peeking over the trees to the east. Jawdat can barely contain his anticipation.

"Beautiful morning, isn't it?," he says. "So quiet, so nice. And we're going to have a fun day.”

Jawdat, a neurologist at the University of Kansas Medical Center, is an Iraqi immigrant who’s embraced many Midwestern traditions. He likes to spend time away from work outside -- usually hunting and fishing. Today he’s fishing for paddlefish.

Julie Denesha
Jawdat drags his weighted line across the bottom of the river in a series of jerking motions. Because paddlefish eat plankton, fishermen can't lure them with regular bait. Instead, they snag them on weighted lines with treble hooks.

The American paddlefish is native to the Mississippi River and its tributaries. These big river fish can grow as long as seven feet and weigh up to 150 pounds. Currently, the American paddlefish is classified as a species of concern in several states within its historical range.

The only other species of paddlefish in the world is the Chinese paddlefish and it was recently declared extinct. The last one was spotted on the Yangtze River in 2003. The primary reasons for the species' decline are similar to those of its American cousin -- overfishing, the construction of dams, and destruction of habitat.

Missouri paddlefish do not naturally reproduce because their natural breeding grounds were flooded by the construction of dams. So for the past five decades, the Missouri Department of Conservation established an aggressive breeding program to keep a healthy population of paddlefish in area rivers.

Julie Denesha
Fellow fisherman James Worley holds up a juvenile paddlefish before releasing it back in the river.

“They're prehistoric," says fisheries biologist Trish Yasger, who works for the state conservation department. "They can live fifty or more years. They've been swimming around since the time of the dinosaurs and they're still here. So it's a very ancient fish”

In his boat, Jawdat assembles his equipment. "This fishing rod is really sturdy," he says, "but also has some flexibility so it can tolerate this very big fish.”

Paddlefish have skeletons made of cartilage -- not bone -- just like sharks. They feed by swimming with their mouths open to catch microscopic plants and animals. They have smooth skin, a long nose and a wide mouth. Because they eat plankton, fishermen can’t lure them with regular bait. They snag them on weighted lines with treble hooks.

“When you snag it, it gives an initial fight," Jawdat says. "But it's not the fight that you would expect from such a big fish. And sometimes it swims towards you. You think you lost it. So you got to keep reeling."

Julie Denesha
Fisheries Biologist Trish Yasger works for the Missouri Department of Conservation in Sedalia, Missouri.

In Missouri, paddlefish can only be taken from the rivers during the annual season that runs from March 15th to April 30th.

“They make spawning runs in the spring of the year and they're triggered by environmental conditions," Yasger says.

"The daylight starts to get longer, there's an increase in water temperature and there's an increase in flow. They will run up the tributaries looking for spawning grounds. They're primarily running up the Osage to the Warsaw area. And that's when the anglers can target them.”

In recent years, the paddlefish have attracted poachers. The spawning fish carry eggs similar to European caviar and the eggs can command high prices. As a result, there are a lot of rules for fishermen. Rules and seasons vary in the region. Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri each have different requirements for snaggers to help maintain long-term management of the species.

Julie Denesha
Three paddlefish rest in the bottom of the boat. Paddlefish are measured from the eye to the fork of the tail. To legally keep a paddlefish in Missouri, it must be 34 inches long.

The paddlefish are a draw for anglers from other states, and Yasger sees increased traffic on the Osage River when they are in season.

Last year, COVID-19 lockdowns hit right at the start of the paddlefish season, but that didn't dampen enthusiasm for fishing. Throughout the pandemic, the state conservation department kept facilities and boats ramps open for the public to use.

“I think fishing has boomed, a lot of people want to get outside and enjoy themselves," Yasger says. "So it's kind of nice that people are coming back to some of these simpler things and getting out with their families more.”

Back on the Osage, Jawdat agrees.

“Just being in nature," Jawdat says. "It's so refreshing. "

It also helpsthat he and his friends land four paddlefish that are big enough to keep. Paddlefish has a firm, shrimp-like texture. It can be grilled, fried and smoked. Some cooks like to boil chunks in water with seafood spices and serve it with cocktail sauce.

"And now we'll just clean the fish and cook some good meals out of it,” Jawdat said.

Julie Denesha is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Kansas City. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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