After a year’s hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic anglers were ready Saturday to cast their lines into the water and take their chances on an unusual fishing adventure.
Saturday, May 1, was the start of the annual paddlefishing season, an ocean-sized freshwater fish found in only two places in the world: one in China and one in North America, right here in the MonDak.
This is a fleeting opportunity most years. That’s because the harvest is limited to the first 1,000 or so fish, after which the season may end, sometimes quite early.
This year conditions are ripe for an earlier than usual early end. Not only is the water shallow, but with the year’s hiatus the population may be higher than usual. So, if you want to participate in this annual event, get a tag and plan to go early.
Game and Fish uses the catch from its annual paddlefishing season to keep tabs on the population and health of this prehistoric fish. The event itself attracts anglers from near and far, many of whom say they are hooked on the experience of catching such a large fish in such a beautiful setting as the Confluence of the Yellowstone and the Missouri River. It’s also where Lewis and Clark themselves once camped, before the West was won.
Legal snagging hours for paddlefish are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Central time daily. Anglers will need a valid fishing permit in addition to their paddlefishing tag, which is $10 for residents and $25 for non-residents.
Anglers will also want special gear. Larger, ocean-sized fishing poles, large treble hooks for snagging, and heavier than usual weights to cast out far.
“It’s 5 percent skill and 95 percent luck and persistence,” Shane Anderson told the Williston Herald. He is manager of Scenic Sports, which had sold more than 300 resident tags and at least 40 non-resident tags by Friday afternoon. Sportsman’s Warehouse, meanwhile, had sold around 100 tags to residents and about the same number of non-resident tags.
The paddlefishing season is set to go through May 21, but, depending on the overall harvest, the season can close early with a 24-hour notice, once the harvest limit is reached. In that event, an extended snag-and-release only period will be allowed for up to seven days immediately following the early closure, but not extending beyond May 21, for the hours of 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. CT in a limited area of the Confluence, down to the pipeline crossing at river mile 1,577.
A current-season, unused paddlefish snagging tag is still required to participate in the extension. Anglers also may not possess gaffs on snag and release days.
Sabrina Ramey, with the Williston Convention and Visitors Bureau, said they have everything in place for another successful season. They will be offering a shuttle service to pick up and transport fish on ice to their cleaning station at the Confluence, where anglers may get their fish processed for eventual consumption. This is free in exchange for the fish roe, which the CVB, will sell on the global caviar market, to support the services being offered at the Confluence each year.
In some years, when demand and prices are good enough, these sales may even support grants to support improved habitat and other things like outdoor recreation.
The CVB’s cleaning station is open on all mandatory catch and keep days through the season’s end. This year, mandatory harvest is required on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. On these days, all paddlefish caught must be kept and tagged immediately, and they should be removed from the river by 7 p.m. each snagging day.
The cleaning station is free. The processors will measure and weigh the fish, as well as take a jawbone sample for North Dakota’s Game and Fish biologists.
Snag and release days, meanwhile, are Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays. Those anglers still need to have in their possession a current season, unused paddlefish snagging tag to participate.
“What is most important to us is bringing people into the area,” Ramey said. “For us it’s a worthwhile venture because of that.”