Posted on April 15th, 2011
Snagging for paddlefish, also known as spoonbill, is a sport for only dedicated, robust anglers who can wield heavy tackle and wage battles with huge fish. However, from March 15 through April 30 each year, the upper James River Arm of Table Rock Lake-just a short drive from Branson-is packed with boats filled with hopeful snaggers.
Paddlefish is a truly unique and fascinating species that some liken to a shark in appearance. With small beady eyes and no scales, a large mouth and a paddle snout about a third the length of the body, the boneless fish is truly unique. Able to live for more than 50 years, some grow to monstrous size. The Missouri state record was caught right here in 2002 on the James River Arm and weighed in at 139 lbs 4 oz. (A fish caught in Iowa holds the U.S. record and weighted 198 lbs!) With a 34-inch length limit (eye to fork of tail), it takes a hefty fish to qualify as a keeper. It’s not uncommon, though, for fish to be taken that are five ft long and top 50 lbs or more.
Why is snagging required? The fish don’t bite but rather eat by swimming with their mouths open to strain zooplankton from the water. The tiny organisms are then filtered by filaments on gill arches. As water temperatures rise to 50-55 degrees and spring rains raise water levels, the fish begin moving from Table Rock Lake to migrate upstream to spawn. This is when snaggers come with stout long rods, 6-7 even 9 ft long, and saltwater reels with 100-lb test line equipped with weights and large treble hooks. It’s hard work as many prefer to “rip” the hooks along the bottom in search of the slow-moving fish rather than just dragging hooks behind the boat. Fights with a large snagged paddlefish can prove dramatic before they’re finally hauled to the boat, as the big fish are exceptionally strong and also like to jump.
Most of the local snagging takes place within 3 miles of Flat Creek near Point 15. If the water is higher, boats can go even further up the James. Some Branson visitors enjoy watching the action taking place on the narrow river, and there are public access points at Cape Fair and Bridgeport.
If you plan to snag, be sure to check Missouri’s fishing regulations and permit requirements (mdc.mo.gov). The person driving the boat also must have a fishing license as well as the person doing the snagging. Due to illegal harvesting because paddlefish eggs are popular in the rich caviar market, populations are declining and conservation agents keep an especially close watch during the spawning season. Anglers are encouraged to obey size and limit regulations carefully, and use only large nets on undersized fish before quickly releasing them back into the water.
Thanks to caring anglers and the Missouri Conservation Commission, which introduced fingerlings into Table Rock Lake in 1972 and continues to restock annually, snagging paddlefish is another sporting tradition that’s thriving in Ozark Mountain Country .
By L.D. Rawson