Once close to endangered, fish now abundant and on the move

PRATT -- Paddlefish season in Kansas runs March 15 through May 15, but not many fish have been caught because of low flow in the Neosho and Marais des Cygnes rivers. Paddlefish are big river fish, and their movement, especially during the spring spawning runs, depends on high river flows.

In the early 1990s, the paddlefish was considered a candidate for the endangered species list. In response, states within the Mississippi River drainage formed a group -- the Mississippi Interstate Cooperative Resources Association (MICRA) -- to help conserve natural resources within the Mississippi Basin. Kansas is a part of this organization.

The first project undertaken by that group was a study of paddlefish. Throughout the basin, biologists in individual states started tagging paddlefish with small magnetic coded wire tags. These tags are inserted into the end of the paddle (rostrum), and although they are too small for anglers to see, they can be detected by magnetic-sensing wands similar to those used by security guards at airports. As part of that study, all paddlefish raised by hatcheries are tagged before release.

The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks (KDWP) started tagging hatchery-raised paddlefish in 1994 and to date has released more than 32,000 young paddlefish. Tag returns for about 200 of these fish have been reported by the MICRA study. Most of the recaptured fish have come from paddlefish KDWP stocked in Tuttle Creek Reservoir in 1994 and 1995. These fish have been recaptured as close as Rocky Ford dam below Tuttle Creek and as far away as Gavins Point Dam on the Missouri River in South Dakota, where 149 of the tags were recovered. This is a distance of approximately 520 miles. Eight fish have been captured in the Missouri River in Iowa, and one in the Mississippi River in Missouri.

Paddlefish tagged by other states have traveled even greater distances. In November 2000, KDWP biologists caught a paddlefish in the Milford Dam spillway that was tagged in Lake Francis Case, S.D., in 1991. That fish traveled downstream through two Missouri River dams (Fort Randall and Gavins Point) and upstream over Bowersock Dam at Lawrence to reach Milford. This is approximately 590 miles. Recently, a paddlefish was caught in the Mississippi River in Mississippi that was tagged on the Ohio River in Kentucky, approximately 740 miles away.

These findings suggest that before dams were built, paddlefish may have traveled throughout the Mississippi Drainage.