Last year, 273 paddlefish were caught on opening day. This year just 39 fish were taken on the first day because of the high-water conditions. The largest was 89 pounds.
The river’s average flow for May 15 is 17,000 cubic feet per second. This year, the figure was 47,400 cubic feet per second, mainly because of a very snowy winter.
As of Friday, the number of paddlefish caught was 275; the biggest so far weighed 99 pounds. The river flow had swelled even more, to 56,000 cubic feet per second.
When a fish is hooked, a cry goes up: “Fish on!” People look to see who has a deeply bent rod. It can take five or ten minutes of intense, high-tension reeling to bring in the heavy fish. Once it slides onto the gravelly bank, the hooks are removed.
“It was a fight,” said an excited 15-year-old, Matthew Klima of Belgrade, Mont., who cradled a 46-pound fish he had just caught. “It felt like a log — I thought, ‘I’m snagged.’ Then it just took off.”
Paddlefish are one-of-a-kind, in the same family as sturgeon. They are silvery gray with tiny eyes, extremely large gills and a toothless mouth. They are filter feeders with large comb-like “gill-rakers” in their gaping mouths that filter zooplankton, their main food, from the water.
Their signature feature is the unusual flat paddle, or rostrum, that extends from the snout and can be half as long as the fish. It’s part of a unique, highly sensitive electro-sensing system that, in concert with tens of thousands of tiny sensors on its head, functions like sonar to detect zooplankton. Sharks and platypus have similar systems for locating food.