FORT THOMPSON -- Jim Cadwell heaved the 59-pound paddlefish onto the fish-cleaning table Tuesday morning below Big Bend Dam and paused with fillet knife in hand.
Cleaning a fish the size of a small hog is no small bit of knife work. And Cadwell wanted to do it right, just like in the old days.
“You know, it’s been a while since I’ve cleaned one of these,” the 57-year-old from Chamberlain said as he examined the smooth, shark-like body of the big-bellied fish. “Let’s see if I remember how.”
You can forget a lot over three decades. And that is how long it had been, prior to Tuesday morning, since the snagging of paddlefish had been allowed in the Big Bend Dam tailrace, where Cadwell spent so much time in his youth.
A paddlefish population that dwindled to worrisome lows has been rebuilt over the last 30 years by restocking programs. And the state Game, Fish & Parks Commission re-opened the area to paddlefish snagging Tuesday for a month-long season with a limited tag system.
Cadwell got one of the tags. And he was there with his 16-year-old son, Josh, and fishing buddy Wydel Shields of Pukwana hoping to haul in something big.
They caught three paddlefish, releasing the smaller two and keeping a 59-pounder that Cadwell thought, prior to actual weighing, might have been closer to 70.
“It felt bigger when it was on,” he said with a grin.
Cadwell said he couldn’t recall how many paddlers he caught or helped land back in the 1970s, but he does remember two over 70 pounds. He also remembers helping weigh one in at a local grocery store where he worked. That one weighed 116 pounds and was then a state record.
Those were the best of times for paddlefish snagging on Lake Francis Case, a Missouri River reservoir that stretches from Big Bend Dam at Fort Thompson to Fort Randall Dam at Pickstown. But they weren’t to last.
The Missouri River dams that turned central South Dakota into a walleye-angler’s mecca were not so kind to paddlefish. The prehistoric plankton feeders suffered because the dams blocked traditional upstream spawning migrations that could cover hundreds of miles.
The dams also led to siltation on spawning beds in some areas and changed the flows and temperature dynamics in ways paddlefish couldn’t tolerate.
By the early 1980s, paddlefish snagging on Francis Case, including the popular Big Bend tailrace, was prohibited. Only a limited snagging season below Gavins Point Dam near Pickstown continued on in South Dakota.
The opening of a 31-day, permit-only paddlefish season on Francis Case is a tribute to Game, Fish & Parks Department restocking work on that reservoir, retired GF&P fisheries biologist and program manager Dennis Unkenholz of Pierre said.
“That’s really a success story,” said Unkenholz. “When you figure we had to shut that snag fishery in that reservoir down because we were just running out of paddlefish, it’s really fun to see where we are now.”
Tuesday, anglers like Cadwell were below Big Bend, on shore or in boats, using stout rods and reels to fling big treble hooks and heavy weighs into the swirling water. Because paddlefish are plankton eaters, they don’t take baits. So catching them means snagging them, using muscular retrieves that alternate between quick reeling and sharp jerks of the rod.
When a rod stops short midway through a jerk, bends and begins to dance, it means a paddlefish is on. And the fight can be a battle.
That happened five times by 2 p.m. Tuesday to Craig and Kim Paulson of Freeman, who had caught five paddlefish between them, ranging from about 18 to 30 pounds each. They released all the fish, preferring to save their tags – just one per angler for the season – for larger fish.
The Paulsons were lucky enough to draw two of the 350 one-paddlefish permits issued by Game, Fish & Parks through a drawing that had more than 2,000 applicants. The Crow Creek and Lower Brule tribes also issued 25 permits each
Experienced paddlefish snaggers, the Paulson fish below Gavins Point whenever they are lucky enough to draw permits there. When their luck extended to the Francis Case drawing, they decided they had to come out for opening day.
“It’s just a hoot. I couldn’t believe we got tags,” Craig said.
“I’m even missing my son’s track meet today,” Kim said. “And I don’t do that. We just had to be here.”
The Paulsons like to eat paddlefish. But they had a goal bigger than just fillets in mind for this season.
“I’m shooting for 100 pounds,” said Craig, whose biggest previous paddler weighed 67 pounds.
“And I’m after a 50,” Kim added.
A 100-pound paddlefish would be up near the state record of 120 pounds, 12 ounces caught back in 1979. It’s a lot to snag but not beyond reasonable possibility in the next month on Francis Case.
Jason Sorensen, a fisheries biologist with GF&P in Chamberlain, said netting crews working on Francis Case have handled paddlefish that weighed 140 to 150 pounds.
“There are some really big ones out there,” Sorensen said. “There was a lot of hype around this season. Everybody is pretty sure the record is going to fall. I guess we’ll see.”
Sorensen was checking fish as they came in Tuesday to get information on size and age and condition of the paddlers. He also stood by as Cadwell worked his knife and renewed his acquaintance with the insides of a big paddlefish.
“You have to trim all the red meat off, because it’s really fishy,” Cadwell said. “But then it’s really good eating.”
Cadwell also saved a hefty stream of dark paddlefish eggs to eat.
“Look at that,” he said, putting the eggs in a plastic bag. “They say it’s better than the caviar you buy.”
Sorensen advised him that Internet sites offered instructions on how to process the eggs into caviar. Cadwell said he would check it out. But first, he had some personal cleaning up to do.
“It’s messy,” he said. “I might need some new shoes.”
Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or firstname.lastname@example.org