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.
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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Update: June 2012