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Paddlefish of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers


3,000 Excited Anglers



What makes 3,000 excited anglers flock to a short section of Yellowstone River shoreline and beat the water to a froth by flailing it with heavier-than-usual fishing gear?


During late May and June a special breed of angler travels to a rocky stretch of the river near Glendive at the Intake Diversion Dam. It's here where they rig up their saltwater fishing gear and churn the coffee-colored water for the senior citizen of the Yellowstone - the paddlefish. Paddlefish are also caught in lesser numbers at the mouths of the Tongue and Powder Rivers and the Forsyth Diversion Cam. Currently, the largest non-intake fishery is downstream from the Intake Diversion Dam. Important paddlefishing areas on the Missouri River are the Slippery Ann area just upstream of Fort Peck Reservoir, the "Dredge Cuts" just downstream of Fort Peck Dam, and the Nashua- Wolf Point area.


Although the paddlefish is a relatively recent addition to Montana's list of game fish (added in 1963), it survived from an ancient and primitive group. Remarkably adapted to its environment, the paddlefish is a classic example of millions of years of ecological fine turning. In fact, paddlefish may be the oldest big game animal surviving in North America.

Fossil remains reveal the paddlers have lived in Montana for millions of years. In 1938, a research group from the University of Michigan collected the skeleton of a large duck-billed dinosaur in McCone County. As the bones of the 65 million-year-old dinosaur were being cleaned, parts of the skeletons of a sturgeon and a paddlefish were found. It was theorized that when the dinosaur died its carcass fell into a body of water. Possibly the two fish, in search of food or shelter, swam into the rib cage, died and were buried there. This paddlefish skeleton is the world's oldest record of paddlefish.

Today, paddlefish live in two parts of the world; the Mississippi River drainage of North America and Yangtze River drainage in China. The Chinese paddlefish (Psephurus) reaches lengths of up to 20 feet, possesses a more conically shaped paddle and differs in its food habits from its North American relative.

Hernando DeSoto, a 16th century explorer and the first white man to cross the Mississippi River, was the first to note the existence of the paddlefish. DeSoto" log describes the "pelefish" as having no scales with the upper jaw resembling a "pele" or "spatula." Thomas Jefferson mentioned the paddlefish when he listed fishes of the Mississippi River. An August 26, 1864, excerpt from the diary of James B, Atkinson, a soldier on the Scully Expedition, states, "Some of the soldiers shot fish in the river, bagging some spoon fish six feet long." The Indian fighters were on the march from Fort Union - near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers - to Fort Rice, North Dakota.

Although presence of paddlefish had been documented in the Yellowstone River in the early 1900s, interest increased in 1962 when a Glendive resident snagged a weird looking fish. Its identity puzzled local anglers. It was thought to be a freak catch, but within a week, more than 60 additional paddlefish were snagged. The "rediscovery" of the paddlefish set in motion a chain of events which resulted in:

  • The initiation of a study in 1963 by the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to answer specific questions about paddlefish movements, life history and harvest data.
  • The emergence of the paddlefish as a popular species which was added to the game fish list in 1963.
  • The realization that Montana's paddlefish population is probably still healthy, but that the species, overall, in many other areas of the Mississippi drainage is rapidly declining.



In comparison with other North American fish, the paddler is a most unique fish. Paddlefish skin is tough, smooth and scaleless, except for the upper lobe of the tail, where a trace of primitive diamond-shaped scales are found. Its skeleton is mostly cartilaginous and it has a notochord (fore runner of the spinal vertebrae). Jaws of young paddlefish are finely toothed but the teeth are lost by adulthood. The most striking anatomical feature of the fish is an elongated paddle-shaped snout. This rigid protuberance, up to two feet in length, was once believed to function in digging up bottom organisms for food and to scoop out deep, secure resting holes in the bottoms of muddy rivers. Current thoughts are that the paddle serves as a specialized "antenna" in which there are thousands of tiny, embedded sensory receptors that enable the fish to detect and react to water currents as well as the varied topography of large river beds. The paddle may also serve as a stabilizer, to keeping the fish level in the water as it swims with the mouth open.

Below the spatula is a large mouth which when opened looks like the opening on a yawning hippo. Usually, it's open, since a paddlefish feeds by sucking in vast amounts of water enriched with plankton (microscopic plants and animals which are seldom larger than the period at the end of this sentence). The plankton are then filtered through an intricate, comb-like arrangement of gill rakers which serves the paddlefish as baleen does whales.

Paddlefish are among the largest freshwater fish: The largest on record was speared in Lake Okoboji, Iowa in 1916. It weighted over 198 pounds. The Montana State record, over 142 pounds, was caught in 1973 from the Missouri River. No official Yellowstone River records is kept,b ut an occasional fish may slightly exceed 100 pounds.

Life Cycle

Paddlefish caught in the Yellowstone River are sexually mature males and females. They have migrated up the Yellowstone River from Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota for spawning. Paddlefish require flowing water and clean gravel for successful egg incubation. They are finicky spawners requiring high or rising river flows. The sticky eggs adhere to river gravel and hatch in about a week. The young fish immediately drift downstream into the reservoir, where they remain until reaching sexual maturity at an average of age 10 (males) and age 15 (females). Paddlefish can live up to 40 years. Fish in more southerly areas reach sexual maturity at much younger ages.

  • Spawning Interval- Yellowstone River paddlefish spawn at intervals of 3-5 years for females and 2-3 years for males.
  • Aging- Thin sections of the lower jaw bone are used for aging. Annual concentric rings are laid down similar to tree rings.
  • Size of sexes- Adult females average much larger than males. At intake, females average about 55 pounds and males about 25 pounds.
  • Distribution- Although the abundance of paddlefish had decreased in some areas since the early 1900s, the species is still present in 22 states. Seventeen states have sport fisheries.
  • Harvest at Intake- most years from 2000-4000 paddlefish are taken by anglers at the intake Fishing Access Site.

Management and Research

The overall goal of paddlefish research and management in Montana is a basic understanding of the needs and dynamics of the population. using this information the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks will be able to protect critical spawning areas and other habitat, and design fishing regulations to prevent overharvest and prevent damage to the population from illegal commercial activities.

For over 20 years the DFW&P has monitored the angler harvest of paddlefish at the Intake Fishing Access Site. Information collected has included average size of males and females, fish age, number of snaggers, angler success rate, number of fish caught and percentage of the adult population caught by snaggers. Results of this work suggest that paddlefish are not being over harvested and that the numbers of paddlefish seem fairly stable. More recent work has included locating spawning areas and determining success of Yellowstone River paddle fish spawning.

Since 1991 the Department has contracted with a University fisheries scientist experienced in paddlefish research. His work is focused on developing a better understanding of the population. He is emphasizing development of methods to find out if the population is stable, expanding or declining and finding ways to predict the size of the adult population in the future. This work will be important to the long term preservation of paddlefish in Montana.

National Status of Paddlefish

The paddlefish has recently been considered for national threatened or endangered status. It appears that for the present time this will not be done. Some local populations, like Montana", appear to be quite healthy while other populations are in various stages of decline. The greatest damage to paddlefish populations has come from dam building. This has resulted in loss of required flowing water for spawning and impoundment of springtime high flows that encourage successful paddlefish spawning. In some areas illegal commercial taking of paddlefish has also been a significant negative factor.