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They Swam Beneath Dinosaurs


On this date in 1976, North Dakota began tightening restrictions on fishing for paddlefish. The fish was in danger of disappearing from the state. That year the limit on paddlefish was reduced to two. In 1981 the limit was one. In 1992 a fisherman could purchase two tags. In 1996, one tag. In 1996 they set a harvest limit at 1,500. The season runs from May first to May twenty-first. It can be closed if the limit is taken. 2001 was the first time the season was shortened. In 2003 the limit went down to 1,000.


The paddlefish is an ancient species of fish that was here when the dinosaurs roamed. Ancient fossils sixty million years old have been found in the Missouri River basin near the Fort Peck Reservoir. Paddlefish currently inhabit twenty-two states. They live in large, slow-flowing, freshwater rivers. They are common in the upper Missouri-Yellowstone area; you can also find them in the Missouri River between the Garrison Dam and Bismarck. The fish can live to be over sixty years old. They have smooth skin with no scales. The most noticeable feature is the paddle-shaped snout. They can be up to seven feet long and weigh over one hundred pounds.  The largest paddlefish caught in North Dakota was seventy-one inches long and 131 pounds. It was caught in 2016.


Mature paddlefish migrate upstream in the spring to spawn. In North Dakota they move out of Lake Sakakawea into the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. Some of them go all the way to the Milk River in Montana. After spawning they return to Lake Sakakawea.


Paddlefish are good to eat and, since they are so large, they provide a substantial amount of meat. Sport fishermen appreciate them because they are so challenging to catch. Snagging paddlefish requires heavy duty equipment. Typical gear includes a stiff, 6- to 7-foot rod with a saltwater reel and one-hundred-pound test braided line. Some anglers choose a 7 – to 9-foot rod designed for heavy surf. 


The paddlefish population declined in the Missouri River due to dams and illegal fishing. The numbers have increased through careful management. Today the paddlefish is known as an exciting and challenging trophy fish.


Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher



North Dakota Tourism. “Paddlefish Season.” https://www.ndtourism.com/articles/paddlefish-season  Accessed May 1 2020.

North Dakota Game and Fish. “Paddlefish.” https://gf.nd.gov/wildlife/id/paddlefish Accessed May 1, 2020.

US Fish and Wildlife Service. “American Paddlefish.” https://www.fws.gov/fisheries/freshwater-fish-of-america/paddlefish.html  Accessed 1 May 2020.

NoDak Outdoors. “Fishing Paddlefish.” https://www.nodakoutdoors.com/fishing-paddlefish.php  Accessed 1 May 2020.

Missouri Department of Conservation. “Paddlefish.” https://huntfish.mdc.mo.gov/fishing/species/paddlefish/paddlefish-tips-fishing  Accessed 1 May 2020.

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