Paddlefish Snagging, Part I

Imagine for a moment hooking into an eighty pound prehistoric beast while shore fishing. It's hard to believe for someone who has not been paddlfish snagging or "paddlefishing" as I like to say. It is however a reality and it is something that North Dakotans have available to them right in their own back yard.

Growing up in Williston, I had the opportunity to participate in this great sport only minutes from my home. It is something I've made a ritual of each and every year, and something I will again do this year. In Part I of Paddlefish Snagging I will focus not so much on great paddlefishing stories, but rather, more on the history of the paddlefish as well as some tips, techniques and equipment used to catch these prehistoric creatures. Part II, with a little luck, will be a great story on how I landed the biggest fish of our group.

The paddlefish has long been a creature we've known little about. With each passing year our knowledge about the fish increases and I think we realize how lucky we are to have the opportunity to snag these beautiful creatures.

The paddlefish or (Polyodon Spathula) is the oldest surviving animal species in North America dating back more than 300 million years. They live in the Missouri and lower Yellowstone Rivers. With exception to the spawning season, paddlefish will seek out low current areas such as side channels and backwaters. When spawning season or springtime hits, they make their annual journey up stream when the run-off from the mountains increases the rivers water levels. This of course is what allows us the opportunity to snag these beasts.

The paddlefish has only one surviving relative that swims in the rivers of China and can reach lengths of up to twenty feet. The North American paddlefish we are familiar with can reach weights of up to two hundred pounds. They are similar to a shark in the manner that they are scaleless and have a skeleton composed completely of cartilage.

The paddlefish is a filter feeder with a diet composed solely of zooplankton. They feed by swimming through the river with their mouth open and filtering large amounts of water through their gill rakers. Recent studies have shown the paddlefish uses electrosensory receptors located on their rostrum or snout to seek out mass concentrations of zooplankton to feed on. O.K., enough education, lets talk fishing.

For those of you who are not familiar with paddlefish snagging, it is a rather simple process. It doesn't require vast amounts of equipment or even a boat for that matter. You simply cast your weight and treble hook across the channel of the river and reel it back in. Of course it's a little more complicated than that, but you get the idea. The simplicity of this sport is what makes it so enjoyable. It doesn't require hours or days of prescouting or high dollar equipment. It is a sport that almost everybody can do. You may even be able to call yourself an expert after a couple of outings.


It is easily possible for one to get fully equipped for under $200. Try to remember the last hunting or fishing activity you took up that only cost you $200 and didn't evolve each and every year with new equipment or gear that you just had to have. There are only six required pieces of equipment you'll need for paddle snagging.

  • Rod
  • Reel
  • Line
  • Hooks
  • Weights
  • Gaff

A decent rod and reel package will run you about $80 - $100. The length of the rod used can vary anywhere from ten to fifteen feet. My personal preference is either a twelve or thirteen foot rod. I like this length only because it seems to fit me well and doesn't wear me out as quickly as a fourteen or fifteen foot pole. The advantage of a longer pole obviously is its casting distance as well as the length of jerk you get when retreiving the line. I will go over this more later when I talk about techniques.

For line, I recommend using 30 pound monofiliment combined with 8/0 or 10/0 treble hooks and a 5 ounce weight. You or someone in your group will need a gaff to assist in landing the fish. Your gaff doesn't have to be anything fancy. I personally use a 10 foot piece of electrical pipe with a 10/0 hook welded on the end. It seems to get the job done.

Tieing up for paddlefishing isn't the most scientific of sorts, but none the less if you havn't done it before can be a little confusing. It is a little hard to explain whithout pictures, but the idea is to tie up your treble hook leaving anywhere from 1 - 2 feet of line below it to tie on your weight. It is designed to keep the weight at the end for casting and retreiving purposes. I understand for beginers this may sound confusing. I reccomend stopping in at Scenic Sports if you are headed up to the Williston area, or simply ask the guy next to you on shore how to do it. Once you've tied up one or two, you'll feel like an expert.

Tips and Techniques...

The techniques of paddlefish snagging are simple. For starters, you are limited to fishing from shore since it is illegal to use a boat to cast for paddlefish. During the spawning season or springtime, the majority of your paddlefish will be caught or found in the main channels of the river. I recommend choosing a site on shore where the channel is relatively close to the bank. This shortens the distance one has to cast, and makes it easier to land the fish once you have snagged one.

As far as there being a technique to casting and retreiving...well, that's debateable. If you were to ask a fellow paddlefish snagging friend of mine, he would tell you its all in the retrieve. Although not proven, there may be some truth to that. For the most part, it is pure luck.

The basic technique is to cast your line so that it lands on the opposite side of the channel from where you're standing. Let the weight sink for just a minute, and then start retreiving it by jerking the pole across your body and then reeling up the slack and repeating until you get close to shore or run out of channel. Depending on how wide the channel is, you will usually get in five to ten jerks before you have to cast again. I personally recommend using two guys to a pole. Paddlefish snagging is not a leisure sport, it is physically demanding and will wear you out. It works good to cast until you're tired and then hand the pole off to your buddy. In the end, paddlefish snagging comes down to a lot of luck. I have had years where I casted three times and hooked a fish. I have also had years where I casted for three days and never hooked one. Either way, I have always had fun. I encourage anybody who has not experienced this sport to do so. You will not regret it.

Remember to have fun, protect our nature's wonders, and relish any opportunity you get to escaped into the outdoors.

Editor's Note: Be on the lookout for Part II of Paddlefish Snagging after Josh returns from his 2004 paddlefishing trip to Williston, North Dakota. Good luck Josh and we will all be looking forward to your return story.