ST. HELENA, Neb. | The Missouri River was sliding silently past the St. Helena boat ramp in the pre-dawn darkness which was holding tough under a full overcast cloud cover.
Steve Grube, Hartington, Neb., and I had met Marlyn Wiebelhaus, Wynot, Neb., at the ramp and now we waited as a light rain wrapped its moisture around us. It was a strange feeling, this rain. It was something we had not seen much of this past summer.
Grube possessed a paddlefish snagging tag which would allow him just one of these prehistoric fishes which swam in our waters 50 million years before the dinosaurs.
Both South Dakota and Nebraska issue limited numbers of snagging tags each year for the Missouri River from Gavin's Point dam to the mouth of the Big Sioux.
This was opening day of the season and Marlyn had elected to bypass the throngs which would be gathering below the dam and try our luck downstream.
We were surprised we were the only boat on the ramp, and as the day got brighter and the rain appeared to subside, we decided to launch.
After a short run upstream, Marlyn pulled in behind a big sandbar and the first thing we saw was a paddlefish rolling on the surface.
"They are here," he said. "Let's get started."
Marlyn handed Steve a 12-foot rod designed for catfishing. On it was a large Penn casting reel spooled with 40-pound dacron braided line. He had a 2/0 treble hook tied onto the line about four feet above a 4-ounce bank sinker.
The law in both states allows only one hook per line and the gap must be no greater than one-half inch. This will prevent serious damage to the fish so they may be released back into the river.
Our approach would be to make a long cast, let the sinker sink to the bottom and Marlyn would begin to troll slowly across current while Steve swept the rod back again and again in an effort to snag a fish.
As I expected, it didn't take long. We had seen several paddlefish roll on the surface and now we had one on the end of the line.
The question was, how big is it?
The law requires all fish measuring between 35 and 45 inches from the fork of the tail to the eye to be released. That slot limit insures that the majority of spawning size fish will be protected.
Most of the fish you snag will measure less than 35 inches and this one was no exception. It measured 34 inches which was definitely a keeper but its body was quite skinny so we released it to find a better one.
Before the dams were built on the Missouri, the river was filled with paddlefish, many of them huge. They still grow quite large here. Nebraska's record weighs 107-pounds, 12-ounces and was snagged below Gavins Point dam a couple of years ago. South Dakota's record is 120-pounds, 12-ounces and was snagged below Fort Randall Dam.
Interestingly, paddlefish existed in West Lake Okoboji at the turn of the last century. History records they were commonly taken there and a photo of three fish, each over 6 feet long with the largest weighing 185 pounds, was taken during the winter of 1915-16. Before long, however, they disappeared from those waters.
Paddlefish are zooplankton feeders. They open their large mouths and swim capturing the tiny plankton on filaments on their gill arches. Their paddle, known as a rostrum, helps the fish feed by acting as a stabilizer. As the fish moves through the water with its mouth open, the paddle creates a lift like the wing of an airplane and keeps the fish from diving to the bottom.
It is also believed that the paddle is used somehow to detect the presence of zooplankton in the water.
Paddlefish may live to be over 50 years.
We landed two more paddlefish which were under the slot limit in this hole and then moved downstream to find another hole behind a sandbar.
We watched a pair of bald eagles fly across a grove of trees which were turning a brilliant yellow lit up by the now shining sun. And with the sun came wind, but not enough to disturb our adventure.
We also observed a pair of eagle nests in cottonwood trees about 150 yards apart on the Nebraska side of the river.
It was early afternoon when Steve set the hook into a 34-inch fish which had a deep, fat body. This would be a good one for the pan, and he decided to keep it.
Paddlefish are quite good eating. Like a shark, which their body shape suggests, they have no bones. Fish this size are best filleted and just under the skin you will find red meat which must be removed completely from the fillet. I don't know what this stuff is, but it will ruin the flavor of the fillet. I like to cut the fillets into small cubes, coat it with bread crumbs, corn meal or a prepared coating and deep fat fry them.
But it is hard to fix paddlefish wrong.