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John McCoy: Paddlefish catches surprise anglers and DNR alike

Courtesy photo
It took close to half an hour before Ricky Downey was able to land the 56.5-inch, 40-pound paddlefish he snagged while fishing from the dock behind his Winfield home. Fortunately, the fish’s snout, or rostrum, provided a convenient handle. ¬

When someone catches a paddlefish in West Virginia, it’s worth noting.

When two anglers catch large paddlefish from the same general area just a month apart, it’s a minor miracle.

Odd as it might seem, that’s exactly what happened this summer. Both fish measured more than 56 inches in length and both weighed more than 40 pounds. Both were caught just a few miles apart, and both were caught accidentally by anglers fishing for catfish.

If you read this page regularly, you probably read about the most recent catch. A handyman from Winfield, Ricky Downey, needed to kill some time while he prepared to take his boat out on the Kanawha River, so he baited his hook with a live creek chub, cast it into the river and put the rod in a rod holder on the dock.

Not long afterward, Downey decided to check his bait. As he reeled in his line, he felt the weight of a fish. Then the fish took off, stripping line from his screeching reel.

It took Downey 30 minutes to land the fish, which measured 56 ½ inches from the tip of its snout, or rostrum, to the end of its forked tail. Downey estimated its weight at 40 pounds.

It hadn’t taken his bait; paddlefish feed on plankton, not on other fish. Its tail got snagged on Downey’s hook as it swam by the bait.

A month before, on June 19, Charleston resident Andrew Bennett went night-fishing for catfish in the Pocatalico River a couple miles up from its junction with the Kanawha.

“I was using two rods,” Bennett recalled. “One was a surf rod with heavy braided line. The other was a bass rod with 10-pound-test [monofilament] line. The hooks were baited with chicken livers.”

By the time 3 a.m. rolled around, Bennett and his fishing partner still hadn’t caught anything. Shortly after that, however, Bennett’s bass rod started twitching.

“I guess the paddlefish’s tail got the line tangled around it,” said the 19-year-old. “When I set the hook, it embedded in the tail.”

As is usually the case with snagged fish, the paddlefish took off like a torpedo. It made a long run downriver, swapped ends and ran back upstream, then turned tail and ran back downriver.

“It took a lot of line. On that small rod, I couldn’t get much leverage so I had to fight it using the reel’s drag,” Bennett said.

He fought the fish for 45 minutes before he landed it.

“I didn’t know what it was,” he recalled. “I’d never seen anything about paddlefish.”

He figured, correctly, that it might be a protected species. He measured it, took a couple of quick photos, and released the fish back into the river. It measured 58 inches in length and weighed 45 pounds.

Only after he looked it up did Bennett realize what he had caught.

Bret Preston, the Division of Natural Resources’ assistant chief in charge of fisheries, was a little surprised when he heard of the catch.

“How about that? I wouldn’t think the Pocatalico River would be a paddlefish’s preferred habitat,” he said.

Paddlefish have been stocked in the Kanawha and Ohio rivers, but never in any of those rivers’ tributaries. Preston said the Pocatalico fish likely swam upstream from the Kanawha.

“I’m glad people are reporting these catches,” he said. “Anyone who catches a paddlefish should call us and let us know where they caught it.”

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