JACKSON — Researchers with the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) are surprised at how far paddlefish they’ve tagged traveled as part of a research project. Two of the tagged paddlefish swam more than 500 miles down the Mississippi River to the northern portion of Louisiana before being caught and called in. Researchers hope anglers will continue to look for tags when they catch paddlefish and report them.
Paddlefish are large fish with lengths up to seven feet and weight known to surpass 160 pounds. They are most known for their long snouts which can take up more than 1/3 of the fish’s total length.
“Paddlefish are known to be strong swimmers and though their long spawning runs each spring have been well observed, we’ve been surprised at where some of our Missouri paddlefish have been caught,” said Nick Kramer, a graduate student in charge of sampling Mississippi River Paddlefish.
In 2014, MDC and Southeast Missouri State University began a 5-year study to evaluate the paddlefish population in the Mississippi River. In the first two years of the project, the focus is on getting as many fish tagged as possible. When the tagged fish are then caught by commercial or recreational anglers their tags are reported. This helps scientists gain an idea of how many tagged fish are being caught and harvested each year. The project will provide information that helps MDC make management decisions for Missouri’s paddlefish. An added perk of this information is being able to track the fish movements between tagging and recapture.
Students and MDC resource scientists have tagged around 500 paddlefish throughout the Mississippi River and have had 30 of those tags called in. Nine of those fish were found swimming up the Ohio River and its tributaries, four below Smithland Dam on the Ohio River, and one each below Kentucky and Barkley Dams.
“Some of these fish movements are just extraordinary. For instance, one of the fish that swam up the Ohio River swam up to Kentucky Dam and actually managed to utilize the lock chamber to enter Kentucky Lake before being caught nearly 10 miles above the dam,” Kramer said.
Kramer and his colleagues expected to see some movement from the tagged fish. However, the results in the first two years have been eye opening.
One of the first reported tags was originally tagged near Trail of Tears State Park in Cape Girardeau County and was called in nearly 300 miles away just south of Memphis, Tenn.
“I thought that was pretty far, but then other reports came in with four other fish swimming past that location,” he said.
Two of the fish entered Arkansas with one being caught on the Arkansas River near Pendleton, and the other swimming up the White River and further up the Cache River before being caught and released by a commercial fisherman just south of Interstate 40.
“When that call came in, I thought he meant the Cache River in Illinois, but when he said Arkansas, I think I was speechless for a minute,” Kramer said. “That fish traveled over 500 miles, with more than 120 of that being in smaller tributary systems. I never expected movement like that.”
Since then, two other paddlefish have surpassed that mark swimming more than 500 miles down the Mississippi River to the northern portion of Louisiana before being caught.
While this movement information is not crucial to the outcome of the study, it is important in understanding the exploitation levels of these prehistoric fish.
“Many paddlefish tagged in Missouri’s rivers are not staying within our state’s limits,” says Kramer. “This is a reminder that we must consider harvest that occurs outside of our borders when determining the sustainability of Missouri’s paddlefish for the future.”
Kramer also said the long distances are exciting for anglers that anticipate catching these fish, which could also be coming from other states. Anglers who reel in a tagged paddlefish should call the number on the tag, or contact their local MDC office.
For more information on Missouri paddlefish, go online to mdc.mo.gov.