North Dakota paddlefishing season starts May 1

Austin Nielsen, of Tioga, carries a 65-pound paddlefish he caught near the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers. This year’s paddlefish season kicks off Wednesday, May 1.

The paddlefishing river is running lower and slower than last year, thanks to an early spring thaw. That actually bodes well for those hoping to reel in an ocean-sized lunker when the season starts in North Dakota on May 1.

Aaron Slominski is a fish biologist for North Dakota Department of Game and Fish.

“Last year, a lot of water came down the Missouri River from the Milk River, which had record snowfall,” he said. “This year, we had a much earlier thaw. We’re about a month ahead of where we are usually.”

These are the kind of conditions Slominski says generally lead to bigger and better catches by anglers.

Slominski has been out to survey the paddlefishing waters ahead of the annual harvest season. The harvest helps the fishery study paddlefish populations. Slominski has placed jaw tags in a number of the fish ahead of the harvest. It’s all part of the process of studying the fish population.

What Slominski saw while he was out on the waters is encouraging for future numbers.

For many years, the population has mainly been sustained by 1995 males, but now, there’s a new class coming along. The class of 2011 are reaching sexual maturity, Slominski said, and appear to be present in substantial sizes and numbers. That means a fresh supply of ocean-size lunkers on the way.

Here are few more things to know about the paddlefishing season:

1. The paddlefishing season starts May 1 and runs through May 21. However, if the harvest cap of 1,000 is reached before then, the season wll shut down with a 24-hour notice from the state Game and Fish Department. Last year was one of the only years to run the full 21-day season. If the season closes early, there will be an extended four-day snag and release period for four days up to but not beyond May 21.

2. All snaggers must possess a paddlefishing tag in addition to a valid fishing license. The cost is $10 for residents and $25.50 for nonresidents. Tags may be purchased from In Williston, tags may be purchased from Sportsman’s Warehouse and Scenic Sports. In Watford City, they are available from J Sports Sporting Goods and Big Boy’s Toys. In Dickinson, they are available from Rosie’s Food and Gas, Runnings Farm and Fleet. They are also available from the Bismarck Game and Fish Office. In addition to the tag, anglers will want saltwater gear. Rods at least 10 feet long, and a spinning reel with at least 200 yards of 30-pound line are recommended. The line should be equipped with at least a 5-ounce weight, and a large 8/0 or 10/0 shanked treble hook. Place it about 10 inches above the weight. No bait is used. Anglers cast into the fast-running current to try and snag one of the fish. A kind of average effort to catch a paddlefish would be 15 hours, spread over three and one-half days.

3. Snagging is legal in all areas of the Yellowstone River in North Dakota and in the area of the Missouri River lying west of the U.S. Highway 85 bridge tot he Montana border, excluding that portion from the pipeline crossing (river mile 1,577) downstream tot he upper end of the Lewis and Clark Wildlife Management Area (river mile 1,565). Snagging hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, but snag and release is required on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays. All other days are mandatory catch and keep. All paddlefish snagged and tagged must be removed from the river by 7 p.m. each snagging day. Any fish left at the Confluence cleaning caviar operation after 8 p.m. the day they were snagged will be considered abandoned, and the snagger is subject to a fine.

4. Most anglers take their fish to the cleaning station at the Confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers, where they are cleaned free of charge, in exchange for the donation of the fish roe. Northstar Caviar then processes the roe into a premium caviar that is sold on the open market. Proceeds from that provides funding for grants that sustain wildlife habitat and enhance communities in the region.

5. Montana has changed the way they do paddlefishing season. They issue tags for the Upper Missouri River season May through June 15. Applications for that were due March 29. Those who didn’t win a tag in that lottery were issued snag and release licenses for the season. Other anglers who didn’t want to participate in the drawing may purchase a snag and release license from a FWP office or online beginning April 9. In addition to that, anglers participating in the snag and release fishery must possess a valid conservation license and fishing license.

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