Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Paddlefish
Nature Bulletin No 213-A   January 15, 1966
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

One of the largest, strangest and most primitive of all the freshwater fishes in this country is the Paddlefish, or Spoonbill Catfish, found only, with a few exceptions, in the Mississippi valley. It is not a catfish, although it has a smooth skin with no scales except a few on the tail. It has a skeleton of cartilage or gristle -- no bones except a network of thin splints over the head and snout -- and in other ways is more like a sturgeon than any of our American fishes but lacks the bony plates or bucklers (two rows on each side and one row on the back) that characterize the sturgeon. Its only close relative is found in the large rivers of China, and the two form a link between the sharks and our modern bony fishes.

In the Mississippi River and its larger tributaries, the paddlefish commonly reaches a length of 4 or 5 feet, with a weight from 30 to 50 pounds, and specimens weighing 150 pounds have been caught. It is peculiar for its long tapering bill which widens at the end like a canoe paddle and makes up a third or more of its total length. The body is chunky, with large fins and forked tail. The mouth is immense and shark-like, although it has no teeth when adult, and the very large gills have an elaborate straining apparatus for separating out the food that is drawn in with enormous quantities of water. No one knows what the peculiar snout is for, unless it is a sort of "short-range radar" for detecting the soft-bodied aquatic insect larvae and the tiny animal and plant life upon which the paddlefish chiefly feeds. As it swims slowly along, usually near the bottom, the huge mouth hangs open and the head and paddle swing alternately right and left in a wide arc. When a wad of food has collected on the thousands of long slender filaments attached to the gills, he gulps it down.

Because of its peculiar feeding habits, the paddlefish is rarely taken on hook-and-line. In some states, like Missouri, where "gigging" or spearing fish is permitted in certain streams, many are so taken in the shallower waters. In this method, one man usually sits in the stern of a boat, paddling slowly while another man stands poised at the bow, scanning the depths of the water and ready to hurl the gig. The gig consists of a three-pronged or single-pronged spear on the end of a long slender pole, each prong being sharp and barbed.

Most paddlefish, however, are caught in seines or nets operated by commercial fishermen. In 1942, in four large reservoirs of the Tennessee Valley Authority, in Alabama, more than 700,000 pounds of spoonbills were caught. The flesh is white, firm, and has a delicate flavor resembling some of the larger catfish. It is sometimes smoked like sturgeon. In some markets, the smaller fish are sold without the head, fins or tail as "boneless catfish". The paddlefish is highly prized, however, for its eggs or roe. These, pickled in brine, are sold at high prices as caviar.

The spoonbill was first described in 1673 by Father Marquette, who had never seen or heard of anything like it. For a hundred years or more, men have sought for its newly-hatched young but they have only been found twice: in May, 1932, and May, 1944, on large sandbars in the Mississippi River above the mouth of the Ohio. Perhaps they were overlooked because they look like young sturgeon; having no bill-- just a blunt rounded snout.

Among other fishes, the Spoonbills are considered very snooty.

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