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Chasing The Paddlefish

By David Graham - Dec 14, 2022

There are few fish in North America - and likely the planet - more intriguing than the North American Paddlefish.

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There is something uniquely special about survivors... when others on the mantle fall, you wonder more deeply about those still standing. Anglers should take note of the characteristics these species have, and how they might solve the puzzles presented by such tried and tested survivor fish. The paddlefish shares this 'mantle space' with other prehistoric native fish species like our sturgeon, gar, and bowfin... with fossil records dating back hundreds of millions of years. The paddlefish seems to stand in a class of its own when it comes to real oddball species though.

Among the largest freshwater fish in North America - paddlefish can grow over 150 pounds... but they do so all the while eating micro sized organisms! The paddlefish's survival mechanism may be its most obvious tool - their highly sensitive 'paddle' shaped rostrum.

The rostrum is an electro-sensory organ used by the paddlefish to detect planktonic prey items. Paddlefish will follow these pulse signatures through the water column with their massive mouth agape - sifting food items with a series of gill rakers composed of extensive comb-like filaments.

This habit means its virtually impossible to catch these fish in the mouth by conventional means.. and cases of deliberate 'strikes' or consumption of lures by paddlefish are often subject to debate - although not out of the realm of possibility.

Catching The Paddlefish


Justin Hinkeldey (@_fishingaddiction_) - a very well versed young angler from Wisconsin, has managed to capture some very impressive paddlefish. Hinkeldey, who is no stranger to large freshwater fish, first encountered this unique freshwater oddity while targeting Asian carp roughly three years ago. That chance encounter has since sent him across four states in search of a specimen exceeding 80 pounds.

"Paddlefish, in my opinion, are the most unique fish in freshwater. They are also prehistoric. I think people should want to catch them due to their amazing physical features that you don't find on any other freshwater fish and because they are very strong with very good stamina. I enjoy catching these amazing fish because of those exact reasons." - Justin Hinkeldey
Justin Hinkeldey holds a monster paddlefish

asian carp fishing
Justin Hinkeldey caught his first paddlefish by accident while targeting Asian carp

Where do you catch them?


Any angler keen on the pursuit of this long tenured North American native should first check local regulations. The North American paddlefish is listed as a 'vulnerable' species and is regulated and protected in many states. Ensure, before anything else, their pursuit is within any legal parameters set forth by State regulations.

Hinkeldey, who has pursued paddlefish in Illinois, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Missouri, favors rivers over lakes for this species. In river systems, key in on eddy pools outside of main current lines - these areas provide the ideal rest and feeding zones for paddlefish.

"Usually I find paddlefish the most near dams where it is pumping out water. You want to look for slow moving eddies. This is typically where multiple paddlefish will sit to eat the microscopic plankton coming down the current. Usually these areas are easiest for paddlefish to keep up with the current and to remain in one spot. Some areas don't allow you to fish very close to the dam but you can find these eddies in many places along the river the dam is dumping into" - Justin Hinkeldey

Paddlefish are commonly found below dams - where they are attracted by the combination of ideal water temperature, increased water flow, and disturbed substrate. The churning and increased flow of water provided by dams will push the planktonic food sources that paddlefish feed on out of hiding.

Justin primarily targets these fish from shore - thereby eliminating the option to use sonar systems or other electronics that may benefit him in finding the fish. Instead - the pursuit is a constant grind of moving and making countless casts to multiple areas in the river.

"It can be a grind constantly casting and moving to multiple different spots on the river to find those slow moving eddies until you find the right area that they are sitting. Some people believe it doesn't take much to catch them. But to catch a giant takes a lot of hard work. " -Justin Hinkeldey

How Do You Catch Them?


Because paddlefish are feeding overwhelmingly on microorganisms - the most efficient way to encounter this species by hook and line is by 'snagging'. While the most popular method is hardly more than a bare weighted treble hook - anglers like Justin favor a more conventional 'lure'.

"I typically use a weighted swimbait with a barbless hook. No barb makes unhooking easy and doesn't cause any damage if the fish is hooked in the body. I say "if" because the swimbait also gives you a great opportunity to hook one in the mouth by the current swinging your swimbait into one's mouth as it is filter feeding. It also limits accidentally snagging a different species of fish. I personally feel it gives targeting them more sport. I have also heard of great success hooking them in the mouth on fly tackle which is something I have not yet tried." - Justin Hinkeldey

More typical snagging rigs might consist of weights from 6 to 10 ounces tied on the line about 2 feet above (or hanging below) a 10/0 treble hook. Anglers will make countless casts - retrieving the hooks with a series of long sweeping jerks in hopes the hooks will find their way into a fish.

Grand Lake in Oklahoma is notorious for giant paddlefish or 'spoonbills' as they are locally known. In larger lakes, some anglers will use electronics to zone in on deep ledges, channels, and drop offs - and actually troll snagging setups over these deeper areas that hold paddlefish.

Rods, Reels, Line


Typically - an eight foot snagging rod and either conventional baitcasters or a size 60 to 80 spinning reel are a standard go-to. Braided line from 60 to 100lb will allow for longer casts and a tight, zero stretch connection at the hookset. Still, size 4000-5000 spinning reels can get the job done. Hinkeldey prefers lighter gear.

"I like to use as light of gear as possible due to the constant casting to catch these fish. Typically I use an 8 foot heavy rod (I love the Penn battalions) with the lightest 4000-5000 reel I can find. Diawa has many great options for light weight reels that can handle these fish. I use 50-60 lb braid typically paired with a 50-60 lb mono/flouro leader for abrasion resistance depending how many rocks there are in the area." - Justin Hinkeldey

When To Find Them?


Because the most common way of catching a paddlefish is by snagging, the most popular time to pursue them is during Spring spawn runs. Spawning groups afford anglers the best opportunity to find concentrations of fish where odds of hooking up are greatest. Once again though, regulations need to be checked to ensure the timing of the trip coincides with 'snagging seasons' if such regulations are in place.

During the winter, - find deep channels and drop offs in lakes and rivers. As spring approaches, these fish will be found holding in deeper holes closest to the spawning grounds.

The pursuit of this species is a unique challenge... fraught with uncertainty - where success leans heavily on chance and luck. The nature of the pursuit requires a level of endurance and optimism that many may not be comfortable with... where heavy gear may have to be slung hundreds of times while covering ground and moving constantly if there is any hope to get lucky enough to hook up!


A huge thanks to my buddy Justin Hinkeldey. Justin is a very well versed... well rounded... and well accomplished multi-species angler who pulls some really awesome fish. Find him on Instagram at @_fishingaddiction__

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