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The American Paddlefish is unique in several ways; it has a long paddle-like appendage that helps it find food, and it eats only zooplankton, which means it has to be snagged since it doesn’t go after bait.

DL couple go after unusual river fish

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News Detroit Lakes,Minnesota 56501
Detroit Lakes Online
DL couple go after unusual river fish
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

Going after paddlefish is a lot different than going after a walleye, but once you drag one of those prehistoric monsters onto shore, you’re hooked.


Just ask Dennis and Brenda Ahlfs of Detroit Lakes, who have been traveling to Montana and North Dakota in search of paddlefish for eight or nine years.

“We’ve gone every year since we’ve started,” said Brenda. “We even went twice two years, just to get our fish,” added Dennis.

The American paddlefish is an odd duck: In rare cases it can grow to well over 100 pounds and live up to 60 years, although the average size and life expectancy are more like five feet long and eight to 15 years old.

To catch one, you have to use serious saltwater fishing equipment: The Ahlfs’ use 10- or 12-foot rods with 5-ounce weights.

“You take up the slack and whip it,” Brenda said. “You can cast a long way with that 5-ounce weight, 75 or 100 yards.”

A spinning reel with at least 200 yards of 30 pound line is recommended. (Dennis recently switched to 80-pound monofilament line). A large shanked treble hook is usually placed about 10 inches above the weight.

There’s no bait on that hook, because the paddlefish isn’t a biter.

Related to the sturgeon, the American paddlefish is ancient (its earliest relatives date to 75 million years ago) and it’s unusual even within its own family of fish in that it lives entirely on zooplankton.

That means you have to cast blindly into one of those big rivers, the Yellowstone or the  Missouri, and hope you snag one.

“You’re just looking at the river and hoping you luck out,” Dennis said. “Once in a while you’ll see one roll out there —surface and then roll; not very often, but sometimes in the morning.”

When someone does snag one, the other fishermen along the riverbank all pull in their lines to avoid snags, because it’s not so much hauling it in as guiding it towards shore until it comes close enough to be pulled in.

“You usually hook them in the back and pull them in sideways against the current,” Dennis said. “You never really reel them in, you let the current take them in.”

“They have a way better pull, a better fight than even those big ocean fish like swordfish,” Brenda added. “It’s a workout to cast those big rods 100 or 150 times. When you cast a regular rod after that, it feels like a toy. And when you snag a paddlefish, it’s like hauling in a Volkswagen,” she said.

Paddlefish are smooth skinned, and like sharks, are almost entirely boneless, their frames supported by cartilage. Also like sharks, they have a prominent dorsal fin.

Their eggs make excellent caviar.

But the strangest thing about the paddlefish is its flat, paddle-shaped rostrum, which measures approximately one-third its body length.

The rostrum is covered with tens of thousands of sensory receptors that help it locate zooplankton, and the odd paddle-like appendage is actually an extension of the cranium, not of the upper and lower jaws, or olfactory system, as with the long snouts of other fishes.

Not only is the paddlefish a strange creature, the rules for catching one are also strange.

No one can help you cast or bring the big fish in once you snag one, until it’s close enough to use a gaff hook, Brenda said. In North Dakota, essentially every other day the only paddlefishing allowed is catch-and-release, and no gaff hooks are allowed on those days.

 On the days you get to keep the paddlefish, you have to accept what you snag – no second-chances to try for a different fish.

Those rules lead to some epic battles. The Ahlfs watched an 80-pound boy snag and wrestle with a paddlefish that ended up weighing 83 pounds when the kid finally brought it in, by himself.

“It was dragging him – the kid dug his heels in,” Brenda said. “His parents were divorced and it was his first time fishing … His dad was excited and he was one happy kid.”

The Ahlfs started out fishing in Montana, but now fish mostly in North Dakota. But they avoid a popular, crowded area called the Confluence, where the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers come together near Williston.

“You have to get out really early in the morning to get a spot there,” Dennis said.

“It’s a good place to learn,” Brenda added. “It has a rocky bottom and you get a lot of snags – so you retie a lot of knots.”

They found a quieter spot, with a good group of regulars who camp there.

“We’ve gotten some good friends that we met up with out there,” Brenda said.

The Ahlfs have caught paddlefish from 30 pounds to over 60 pounds.

When cooked, paddlefish have the consistency of pork chops, Brenda said.

“It isn’t like you just take them home and fry them up,” she added. “But everybody likes them the way we smoke them.”

For Dennis, going after paddlefish is “a whole new way of fishing,” he said. “You figure, without bait, there’s no way you’re ever going to catch anything – but you do.”

“Then you catch one and your heart just pounds – hook a fish and you’re hooked,” Brenda said with a laugh.