Posted by: 1000fish | October 23, 2019

Paddle Tales – A Retrospective

Dateline: April 15, 2019 – Paducah, Kentucky

Is one day of excellent fishing enough to make up for three days of miserable fishing? Of course it is. If I could hit .250 consistently, I’d have played a lot more baseball.

My average on paddlefish is well below .250, and perhaps even lower that Dave Hogan’s career mark. (Dave used to get thank you cards from Mario Mendoza after every season.) I have been trying – and failing – for Paddlefish, off and on, for 33 years. Looking at those first few attempts in 1986, all the way to now, April of 2019, a lot has changed, mainly my hair.

This is not finesse fishing. The paddlefish is a plankton feeder, and hence won’t hit a normal lure or bait. The typical approach is to snag them, which involves casting a weight and treble hooks on big saltwater setup, and ripping these through the water until your arm falls off. Once in a while, you hit a stump and battle it tooth and nail for a few moments until someone quietly tells you it’s a stump.

My first time after Paddlefish, I was a grad student in Columbus, Ohio. I had caught all of 34 species and hadn’t sniffed a world record, but I had lots of hair. (On my head.) I went out armed with a fishing report from the Columbus Dispatch and an 8-12# class Ugly Stick, which I considered my heavy rod. I wore the Red Ball waders that were purchased with my very first tax refund. Oh, how I miss tax refunds. I cast and I cast, but only hooked one thing – a two pound freshwater drum, which I was convinced had to be a paddlefish, until I saw it was a two pound drum.

The drum. I tried to serve it for dinner. We ended up at Denny’s.

With a two-pound fish giving me quite a fight, I did the math and realized that my heavy rod wasn’t so heavy.

That’s the very rod I used to chase paddlefish. Is that me with actual abs? Marta asked where I have been hiding them.

I gave it another try or two over the next few years, but I never even saw a paddlefish, and to be honest, the project didn’t have my full attention, because I was single. Still, that was over 30 years ago, and hopefully, I learned a thing or two in the decades since.

After Ohio, the creature slipped my mind for a few years. I moved to California in 1990, and I never seemed to be back in the midwest at the right time and with the right connections. The paddlefish stayed in magazines and on my bucket list, and then, in 2009, by which time I had stopped being a grad student and somehow become a corporate executive, I got sent to Iowa for a business trip and figured out there were paddlefish nearby. I had learned a lot more about fishing in the interim, and most importantly, I wasn’t single, so Marta wanted me out of the house whenever a bathroom didn’t need painting. My magnificent hair had begun migrating from my head to my back and ears. I had over 800 species at that stage, and had started my world record quest. But I hadn’t owned a blow dryer in at least 20 years.

Despite what they tell you in “The Music Man,” Iowa is a perfectly nice place to visit. Part of the game is that you need to be there when the fish are, and the fish move according to rain and water temperature and similar dark magic, and I didn’t end up getting one. (As memorialized in “Creel of Dreams.”) I did catch some nice fish while I was there, but the checklist remained unchecked.

A beast of an Iowa silver carp. I had high hopes that this was going to be a paddlefish, but it wasn’t.

Five years later, as I was approaching the IGFA lifetime achievement award, I ended up in Texas with Martini and Kyle. Before I had a chance to let Kirk Kirkland yell at me about smallmouth buffalo or spotted gar, we saw a few paddles. I didn’t get one, and Kirk made sure that I understood this was a personal failure. I was well over 1400 species at this stage, so one would think I was a competent fisherman, but fishing, like hockey, has a way of humbling participants. I missed and I missed, and my hair wasn’t getting any better.

I then moved into the Poplar Bluff phase of my life. This small town in southeastern Missouri, “the gateway to the Ozarks,” has plenty of paddlefish at the right time of year, and with the help of ace local guide Tyler Goodale, I finally managed to hook one. Actually, two. But it ended better for them than me, and by this stage, I was taking it pretty personally. I had the right gear – a travel surf rod and Shimano Stella 8000 that cost more than my first car – and I still messed it up. What was it going to take? And during the five years I have been going there, my hair has pretty much abandoned my scalp. Baseball caps have gone from outdoor wear to all-occasion.

This spring, I decided, against all species-hunting math logic, to devote a trip solely to catching paddlefish. One of the great centers of this universe is Southwestern Missouri/Northeastern Oklahoma, and after a bunch of research, I found guide Tracy Frenzel on Table Rock Lake and booked a day with him in the height of the paddlefish run. It had to work.

United Airlines, however, tried to rain on my parade. Because United sells tickets for 9 zillion flights a day from San Francisco, and does not have enough gates to support these flights, things often go wrong. My St. Louis flight was badly delayed, and I took a flyer, pun intended, on changing to a Chicago flight connecting to Springfield, with a quick drive to Branson. It worked, but just barely. I met Tracy in town the next morning – I may be the only person who has stayed in Branson and not seen a show, but as awesome as Neil Sedaka might be, there were fish to catch. Remember, I caught a fish in Paris before I saw the inside of the Louvre.

Guide Tracy Frenzel. You can reach him on Fishingbranson.com or at 417-699-2277.

We headed off into a crisp spring morning, and I must say the whole area is beautiful.

Table Rock scenery.

We set up shop, rigging my popping rod with a big lead and some intimidating trebles, and setting up his rods with a mix of casting leads and Dipsy-diver trolling disks. I helped Tracy put out a Dipsy rod, and after I set it in the holder but before I could pick up my rod, it absolutely slammed down. We’re talking 60 pound-class saltwater stuff bent over double, screaming 80 pound braid off the drag. I wrestled it out of the holder and started reeling, and as the boat slowed, I started gaining line. Whatever it was, it was not a two pound drum, and I played it as delicately as I could because I was terrified that I would lose it. I had been trying to catch a spoonbill for 33 years, and I was closer than I ever had been. But things can go terribly wrong when your goal is so close you can taste it – just ask Cousin Chuck about his junior prom. The fight went on for 10 more hard-pulling minutes, and then the fish surfaced, paddle first. This is when I really started sweating, but Tracy handled it calmly and professionally, and moments later, he netted my first paddlefish. It weighed just under 40 pounds.

Finally.

I didn’t know Tracy that well, so I kept my clothing on, but it was still time to celebrate. Having never seen a spoonbill up close, I took a few minutes to marvel at the creature, as improbable as it is ancient. (Like sharks, rays, and sturgeon, paddlefish have a cartilaginous skeleton.)

The bill is speckled with electro-receptors that detect plankton.

The maw – they gulp in plankton-filled water, then strain out lunch in the gill rakers you see here.

The pattern of rosettes is unique in each fish.

We set up another pass, and just a few minutes later, I hooked into another fish. This one was a reel screamer – it took a much longer initial run and stayed tighter to the bottom than the first fish. When we landed it, we could see why. It was over 60 pounds.

I was ecstatic, and we weren’t done.

We drifted the lake for another couple of hours, and got two more – a full limit – before we called it a morning.

One of the others – around 50 pounds. I reeled in just under 200 pounds of fish before 11am. If you find yourself in the area in springtime, I can’t recommend Tracy highly enough.

I was beside myself with joy – a 33 year quest had come to successful end. And all it had cost was endless air miles, lots of sore shoulders, constant failure, and my hair.

Before anyone goes all PETA on me, these things are very good to eat and were on the grill that evening.

The fishing day wasn’t over. (Five words that Marta hates.) The Paddle was the 1855th species on my list, but I had my eyes on 1856 as well. Old friends Ben and Patrick had steered me toward a stream not too far away that held a population of Ozark darters. It was just warm enough for wet wading, and I rushed over to a small Missouri town and set to it.

I never get tired of wading creeks like this.

The darters were everywhere, but as often happens, they wouldn’t bite. It took an hour or two to get one, but once I landed that one, the rest all seemed to get going. I caught about 10 more, just for the fun of it.

The Ozark darter.

To give you some idea of how massive it is.

I was up two species for the day, a good haul by my standards, but it was getting late, and I needed to drive across most of the state to Van Buren. I knew there was a big storm coming the next afternoon, and I was hoping to get in a few hours in the Current River, chasing the dreaded black redhorse before it started pouring.

A country road heading across the state.

The next day, I awoke to ominous clouds and a cold wind. Time would be limited. I had a few darters in mind, but the moment I got down to the river, I saw a pod of black redhorse just a few feet off shore and I wasted the rest of the day being ignored by them.

I did catch a gorgeous stoneroller in spawning colors, but this was scant consolation for not getting a redhorse again. Black redhorse swim by and laugh at you. It’s obnoxious.

Stonerollers are slippery.

When the rain arrived, it was biblical – the weather stations were warning about floods, so I headed into Poplar Bluff. Some of the big roads were already awash by the time I checked into the Holiday Inn, and I grumbled at the fact that I had been here four times and had heavy rain all four times. I got a decent meal and some sleep, hoping that ace guide Tyler Goodale could pull off some sort of miracle in the morning.

The storm that had come through was exactly what I had come to expect every time I come to Poplar Bluff. It blew out EVERYTHING, and the shots at exotic springtime darters were out the window. But I was in Poplar Bluff, and that means that old friend Tyler Goodale is on the case. (As immortalized in “The Thing in Ben’s Leg“) Tyler was not going to let a torrential downpour ruin things, and he had one idea, albeit a longshot. We would go to Kentucky, a few hours away, and try for skipjack herring, a relatively common river fish that had thus far eluded me.

The drive was grim – dark skies and pouring rain most of the way – but Tyler’s enthusiasm (and three Red Bulls) kept me focused. He bemoaned the weather, knowing that if conditions were better, we could get all kinds of stuff. When we got to the dam, I was impressed by the sheer scale of the thing, more impressed by Tyler’s knowledge of every nook and cranny at every water level, but less impressed by the freezing rain. When we got to the water, people above and below us both caught skipjack, so I was relatively confident. The Fish Gods sensed this and punished me. Every jig I cast got bashed by a white bass. Every spinner I threw got hit by a silver carp. And I’m talking chased down and hit – by silver carp. This is not how they used to act when they first came here. I was witnessing evolution, and of all the places, I was witnessing it in Kentucky.

Tyler battles a silver carp on four-pound line.

Oh yes he did.

Hours passed, and I still had no skipjack, even though I saw several dozen caught. I was frustrated and cold, but determined not to leave. I finally tried a medium-sized sabiki, and to no one’s surprise, the white bass loved it. I caught about a dozen of them before I got a bigger hit that broke the rig off – likely a silver carp. But I tied on another one, and on the first cast, I got a hard bite and saw a silvery, slender fish jump out of the water. I held my breath and reeled. Tyler saw it was a skipjack before I did, and he moved in quickly with the net. Against all common sense, I had knocked off a species.

Mild hypothermia is no concern when it comes to fishing.

The triumphant anglers. Tyler’s thumb may have been frozen in that position.

Encouraged, I started casting again right away, but no more skipjack would hit for me. Just as I was with the Twaite shad in Wales, I am likely the only person to catch exactly one skipjack in a day.

The drive home from Kentucky was gorgeous. The storm was moving past, and long, yellow rays of sunshine cut under the cloud bank and lit up the countryside. I had to be happy with the new species, but yes, I always do wonder if I will EVER get to Poplar Bluff when water levels are reasonable.

The next morning, we gave the Wappapello spillway an honest effort, but the water was roaring out so fast it was like fishing in a blender. We gave up and poked around a few smaller streams, looking for black redhorse, which has now become just as vile as a dogtooth tuna or a spearfish. We saw a few, I spent hours casting to them, and, of course, they wouldn’t bite. But that’s the game. As I packed up to drive to St. Louis and fly home, I wasn’t thinking about the redhorse. I was smiling about those paddlefish, and how much time had passed since my first try at them, and how much I had learned in those 33 years, and also how much I had likely forgotten. The redhorse would have its time.

Steve

 

 

 


Responses

  1. When I went to Paris I went to the Louvre first, and then went fishing. Is that why I didn’t catch anything, because my priorities were completely wrong?

    • Ye, your priorities were completely wrong. 🙂

      Steve


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