The growing popularity of catching paddlefish has led to a new fishing regulation to protect one of Oklahoma's most unique species.
The Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission in December passed an emergency rule that allows anglers only to keep two paddlefish for the entire year in 2014. Anglers can continue to catch and release as many paddlefish as they want.
Only 16 percent of Oklahoma's paddlefish anglers were keeping two or more fish during a year, according to six years of data analysis by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
Still, state wildlife officials wanted to start protecting the population from potential over-harvest, said Jason Schooley, paddlefish biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
“We haven't experienced a population crash, but we have been watching it decline,” Schooley said. “Our goals are to limit harvest but not limit fishing opportunities. We want people to continue to enjoy the resource.”
Grand Lake is the state's blue-ribbon fishery for paddlefish, commonly called spoonbills by Oklahoma anglers.
The peak of fishing activity is from mid-March to mid-April when the fish are making spawning runs in the Neosho and Spring rivers.
During January and February on Grand Lake, the fish are less active and anglers catch them by trolling for them on the upper end of the reservoir where the fish congregate.
Last month, Bradley Valdois of Carl Junction, Mo., caught and released a 106-pound spoonbill while fishing on Grand Lake with guide Rusty Pritchard.
The lake record is 110 pounds, caught by Heather Fink of Grove in 2008, who also was fishing with Pritchard.
Ironically, the increasing popularity of snagging for spoonbills is largely due to the Wildlife Department's caviar sales.
In 2008, the agency opened a paddlefish processing station on Grand Lake. Each spring, paddlefish anglers can take their catch to the station at Twin Bridges State Park, where state wildlife officials will clean the fish and package the meat for free in exchange for the eggs.
The Wildlife Department makes caviar from the eggs and sells the product to a wholesaler.
The money earned by the agency is used for paddlefish management and research. In six years of the program, the Wildlife Department has earned more than $11 million from caviar sales.
Spoonbill caviar is considered by many as second only to caviar made from beluga sturgeon. The caviar program has received much media attention over the years.
“More people know about paddlefish now than pretty much ever before in Oklahoma,” Schooley said. “There is more attention on the resource, more hooks in the water, more pressure on the fishery. That's OK as long as the fishery can withstand it.”
The new regulation will be re-evaluated next year, Schooley said. Anglers also have to report any paddlefish they keep on the Wildlife Department's website.