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Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Updated: May 13, 12:06 PM ET
Fishing for chainsaws!

By Keith Sutton
Special to ESPN Outdoors.com

CHOTEAU, Okla. — On Oklahoma's Grand River just east of Tulsa is a place the locals call Choteau Bend. If you launch a boat at the ramp here and motor upstream, you'll soon encounter an old lowhead dam that impedes any further progress.
Water boils as it spills over the structure, creating a dangerous-looking maelstrom of whirlpools and waves. Were you to accidentally fall in, there's a distinct possibility you would die.

This latter thought flashed through my mind when a big Grand River paddlefish decided she didn't particularly like the hook I had just buried in her side. She reacted furiously and instantaneously.

I was standing on the front deck of James Therrell's bass boat when this happened, and in an instant, the she-devil yanked my big butt from the bow of the boat to the console. At 235 pounds, I am not accustomed to being treated in this manner by animals with fins, and I did not respond well to the incident.

"Jumping Jehosophat!" I screamed, or something to that effect. "That son-of-a-gun (paraphrased) darn near yanked me out of the boat!"

For some reason beyond my comprehension, James and my son Josh found the entire situation strangely funny, and when they stopped rolling on the floor of the boat and laughing uproariously, they decided to further exacerbate the situation by coaching me on the proper way to land a paddlefish that is bound and determined to carry you away to Davy Jones' Locker.

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"Hang on, Pop," Josh shouted. Like I wasn't doing my best already. My feet were splayed wide, I had a death grip on my rod and, had it been possible, my toes would have popped through the ends of my boots and buried themselves like tree roots in the deck of the boat.

"Bring him in close so I can grab him," James hollered. Like I wasn't trying to do that, too. But the more I reeled, the madder this fish got. I seriously doubted I had enough oomph to bring the river demon out of its swirling hell-hole.

If you want to know what it felt like as I was reeling in that paddlefish, do this. Go to a river. Carry a big rod and reel spooled with 100-pound-test line. Tie the line to the bail of a 5-gallon bucket to which you've added 5 pounds of lead sinkers. Then throw the bucket as far from shore as you can, let it sink and start cranking.

A paddlefish, you see, has a mouth something like that bucket. It swims through the water with this gigantic maw gaping open, and as it does, gallons of water are siphoned through. The water passes over comb-like structures called gill rakers, which filter little animals called plankton from the water.

These microscopic critters apparently are high in calories because, even though you can barely see them with the naked eye, they enable paddlefish to pack on the pounds. An average Grand River paddlefish, for example, eats nothing but plankton and runs in the neighborhood of 30 to 40 pounds. Specimens exceeding 70 aren't unheard of.

The Oklahoma record weighed 112 pounds. The world-record paddlefish caught in Kansas in 2004 weighed a whopping 144 pounds. It was 6 feet, 2 inches long with a 45-1/4-inch girth.

The paddlefish I was struggling to land was just your run-of-the-mill 45-pounder. But with that enormous mouth creating resistance in the heavy current, and the muscular fish doing an imitation of a harpooned whale, it required all the energy I could muster to bring the spoonbill close enough for James to grab.

When finally I had it alongside the boat, it lunged, bringing its long snoot out of the water. And when it did, James seized the appendage like a handle and quickly pulled the fish over the gunwale. A handy thing, that snoot.

Now laying before us was one of the most amazing fish I have ever laid eyes on. The smooth scaleless skin and elongated nose left no doubt how it got the common nickname "spoonbill catfish." But the paddlefish, or shovelnose as it also is called, is unrelated to the whiskered cats. Its only relative, the endangered Chinese paddlefish, lives a world away in China's Yangtze River.

The fish's Pinocchio nose was covered with clusters of tiny black spots. These specialized cells, called electroreceptors, detect tiny electrical charges emitted by the plankton on which the fish feeds. By swinging this living antenna back and forth in the water, the paddlefish can zero in on clouds of plankton even in the muddy waters where it often lives.

Another interesting characteristic is the paddlefish's lack of bones. The body is supported by a framework of cartilage similar to that in sharks, a fact that led to another common nickname — "boneless cat."

Unfortunately, paddlefish have been decimated in many portions of their former range. The species disappeared entirely in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina, the Great Lakes and all Canadian waters, and is considered endangered, threatened or a species of special concern in half the 22 states where it currently resides. Pollution, damming of rivers and unrestricted commercial fishing all contributed to the species' decline.

Despite these threats, however, paddlefish have fared pretty well in some portions of their range. And their continued well-being seems assured thanks to fisheries agencies that are working hard to conserve these incredible fish. Wherever fishing for the species is allowed, strict regulations now are in place to prevent overharvest. Biologists also have developed techniques to artificially propagate the species, and hatchery-raised paddlefish are stocked to maintain fisheries and reestablish populations where they formerly were absent or depleted.

Oklahoma's Grand/Neosho river system is considered one of the best places in the country to catch paddlefish. Several others rivers offer good fishing in the Sooner State as well, and anglers also can try for the species in various waters in Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Tennessee. The best fishing is in dam tailwaters in spring where paddlefish congregate during upstream spawning runs.

Because they feed only on plankton, paddlefish rarely are caught using baits or lures, and then only by accident. Snagging, also called snatching or blind-jerking, is the tactic of choice, and I can say from experience, this ain't no sport for wimps. The angler casts a huge weighted treble hook as far as possible and then snatches it through the water with hard jerks. Cast. Reel. Snatch. Reel. Snatch. Reel. Snatch. Reel. Snatch. Again. Cast. Reel. Snatch. Reel. Snatch. Reel. Snatch. Reel. Snatch.

The angler works the water with blind hope. He cannot see that which he hopes to catch. His quarry cannot be enticed with bait. But on a good day, if Lady Luck shines upon him, and his rod doesn't break, and his reel doesn't burn up, if a big paddlefish doesn't spool him off, if the water is just so, and the paddlefish are there, and if all else goes well, maybe, just maybe, he'll have a few paddlefish to show for his labor at the end of the day. Then again, maybe not.

You need indestructible tackle for snagging spoonbills — a long, heavy rod, stout reel and heavy abrasion-resistant line. While fishing with James Therrell, a self-taught expert at the sport, we used Quantum spinning outfits: a 10-foot, mOcean medium-heavy saltwater rod paired with a Cabo CSP60PTS reel spooled with 80-pound braid. This tackle performed flawlessly during our morning of fishing, and we darn sure put it to the test.

James had invited Josh and I to fish with him, so he sat back and watched while we took turns snagging from the front deck. Josh went first and snagged the first paddlefish of the day—a nice 35-pounder—on his second jerk. My first fish took much longer to hook, and I thought my back would break before I finally connected. Getting it in the boat was no piece of cake either. The combination of fast current and the fish's raw power and gaping mouth put my stamina to the test, but I, too, managed to land a 30-pound-plus spoonbill.

During the four hours we fished, we caught nine paddlefish ranging in size from 25 to 45 pounds. (James has caught some here exceeding 60 pounds.) We might have caught more had Josh and I not collapsed from exhaustion. I can't remember a time when I was catching fish this size and decided to say, "I quit." But the labor intensive work of snagging proved too much for my old bones.

Despite the pains that racked my body for a week thereafter, I have to say I enjoyed this fishing trip more than any in years. If you haven't tried fishing for paddlefish, and you think you're tough enough for the challenge, I suggest you give it a whirl, too. Few freshwater fishing sports are as demanding, exhilarating and fun.

When I returned home and showed my wife Theresa a photo of James holding one of the big paddlefish we caught, she said, "It looks like he's holding a chainsaw."

That description is appropriate. Despite their unusual appearance, paddlefish are power machines that can cut even the toughest anglers down to size. Catching them is a challenge that's never forgotten.

Keith Sutton is the author of "Out There Fishing," a collection of adventure fishing stories previously published on ESPN Outdoors. To purchase an autographed copy, visit www.catfishsutton.com.