World Record Paddlefish: Conspiracies, Genetics, and Advances in Snagging Technology

Guest Author: Jason Schooley, Senior Fisheries Biologist, Oklahoma Dept. of Wildlife Conservation

The largest American Paddlefish (Polyodon spathula) reported in the scientific literature is attributed to R. D. Vanderbeck, who took the fish by spear in Lake Okoboji, Iowa, in February 1916 (Nichols 1916). The fish’s length of 7’ 1” and girth of 45.5” were reported, however the putative weight of 198 lbs was not reported until 40 years later in a book titled Iowa Fish and Fishing by Harlan and Speaker (1956). This weight was later cited by Gengerke (1986) and accepted as fact thereafter. Later editions of Iowa Fish and Fishing (Harlan et al. 1987) had quietly omitted Vanderbeck’s fish as the largest, therefore the validity of this record is unknown. 

I’ve always doubted this fish tale, mostly because, as the saying goes, “you can’t fit 10 lbs of potatoes in a 5 lb sack.” In my experience as a Paddlefish biologist, super-sized Paddlefish in excess of 100 lbs seem to be nearly stretched to the limits of reason and biological plasticity… like a giant tadpole that might pop if they grazed a sharp object. Piling an additional 98 lbs of Paddlefish in there simply seems unfathomable. So I dug a bit deeper into the legend of the Ol 198’er and based on some new insights provided by my Paddlefish pals at Iowa Department of Natural Resources, this record seems even more confusing, if not dubious. 

Figure 1. Postcard featuring R. D. Vanderbeck’s large Paddlefish speared through the ice on Lake Okoboji, Iowa, in 1916. Note the weight is listed as 185 lbs. Image courtesy of Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Multiple sources of evidence cast doubt on this record. For starters, a contemporary photograph of unknown origin (and later used as a postcard) plainly states, in its caption, that Vanderbeck’s fish weighed 185 lbs (Figure 1). The date, length, and location listed in the caption all match the details in Nichols (1916). Further, the Spirit Lake Beacon newspaper issue from March 2, 1916 (Figure 2a) tells the story of Vanderbeck’s catch, listing its length as 6’ 9” and girth as 43.5” – a substantial deviation from the details relayed by Nichols (1916). In further disagreement with the literature on this fish but in agreement with the postcard, the newspaper reports the fish to have weighed 185 lbs. Another issue of the Spirit Lake Beacon from a week later March 9, 1916 (Figure 2b) recounted “A Still Bigger Fish Caught in West Okoboji.” This piece recapped Vanderbeck’s 185 lb Paddlefish catch and upped the ante by describing a 210 lb fish captured by Ben Wiese using the same method- spear. The specimen is described as 2” shorter than Vanderbeck’s, but with a larger girth at 47”. Wiese is reported to have heroically speared the fish through not only a hole in the ice, but through 15’ of water. With one shot. Perhaps the details are exaggerated. Why would Nichols publish a note in a scientific journal in August 1916 about a large Paddlefish speared in February, when a much larger fish was speared a mere two weeks later from the same lake? According to the Iowa Great Lakes Maritime Museum, the largest Paddlefish was 210 lbs and taken in 1919 from Lake Okoboji, not 1916. Perhaps the measurements of people of the Okoboji area can’t be trusted, as they also claim there is a 140’ Loch Ness-type monster named “Obojoki” living in their deep lake waters. A wise old Paddlefish researcher told me that the Okoboji lakes are teeming with Leptodora kindtii, a large, preferred plankton food of Paddlefish that promotes epic growth. So maybe they did get super-sized. It may be that the legend of the Ol 198’er is actually folklore as a result of the melding of the two fish stories which hit popular press within the same week. Perhaps coincidentally, the integer average of 185 and 210 is 198 lbs. Perhaps it’s a far-reaching Iowa conspiracy, but I digress. The true details of Vanderbeck’s (or Wiese’s?) massive Paddlefish catch may never be known a full century after the fact, but the contradictory details surely don’t support the notion that this is an official record for the species.

Figure 2. a) Excerpt from March 2, 1916 Spirit Lake Beacon newspaper (pg. 6) describing a 185 lb “spoon-bill sturgeon” speared by R. D. Vanderbeck. b) Excerpt from March 9, 1916 Spirit Lake Beacon newspaper (pg. 1) describing a 210 lb “sturgeon” speared by B. Weise. Images courtesy of Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

On June 28, 2020, James Lukehart of Edmond, Oklahoma, snagged an absolute unit 146 lb, 11 oz Paddlefish from Keystone Lake, a reservoir on the Arkansas River in Oklahoma (Figure 3). The fish had a girth of 45” and measured 55” from the anterior edge of the eye to the fork of the caudal fin, a standard measurement technique for the species due to the vulnerability of the rostrum to injury or truncation (Ruelle and Hudson 1977). The fish was weighed and measured by Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC) and certified as a new state record, exceeding the state record of 143 lbs set only a month prior on May 23, 2020, by Jeremiah Mefford, also in Keystone Lake (Figure 4). Lukehart’s fish was a bit short and stout, as giant Paddlefish go, which was seemingly testing the potato sack adage mentioned above. She was rightly “a toad.”

Figure 3. New hook and line world record Paddlefish snagged by James Lukehart certified at 146.7 lbs on June 28, 2020 in Keystone Lake, Oklahoma. Image courtesy of ODWC.
Figure 4. A 143 lb Paddlefish snagged by Jeremiah Mefford (pictured with son Brody) which briefly held the Oklahoma state record until Lukehart’s world record fish was snagged a month later. Both fish were from Keystone Lake. Image courtesy of ODWC.

Lukehart’s large Paddlefish exceeds the previous, widely-recognized hook and line world record of 144 lbs, taken by Clinton Boldridge (Figure 5) in an Atchison County watershed pond near the Missouri River, Kansas, in 2004 (news release). Unlike the Ol 198’er, Boldridge’s giant fish was verified and documented by Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. Strangely, Boldridge’s fish was caught on a dough ball suspended under a bobber. There’s no way to know whether the fish took the bait or just lumbered into it with its giant, gaping mouth while trying to filter feed, but the angler reported it was indeed hooked in the mouth. Regardless, it was caught on hook and line. This logically begs the question, and one I’ve been receiving a lot lately, “who certifies a world record Paddlefish?” Well, it’s complicated, but I think I can explain.

Figure 5. Previous hook and line world record Paddlefish landed by Clinton Boldridge in 2004. The Kansas angler held the world record title for 16 years and the fish was certified by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. Image courtesy of KDWPT.

Most angling world records are maintained by a sanctioning body. For example, the International Game Fish Association (https://igfa.org/) keeps big fish records for many freshwater and marine species. But what if a species is not a game fish? Paddlefish is a species with a complex identity (Figure 6). It is managed disparately by states within the species range where it might be classified as a sport fish in one state, commercial fish in another, non-game species in yet another, or species of concern in still others (Mestl et al. 2019). Therefore, the more appropriate question is, “of the states who allow recreational hook and line snagging for Paddlefish, which one has the largest state record?” In a sense, the state agencies are a collective sanctioning body. Given that, an Oklahoma angler now holds the hook and line world record for Paddlefish at 146.7 lbs.

Figure 6. The legal status of Paddlefish differs among states. Only some states allow sport fishing. The red star marks the location of Keystone Lake. Modified from Mestl et al. (2019).

Lukehart’s record-breaking catch follows a string of large Keystone Lake Paddlefish targeted by snag anglers in 2020. The first of these was a putative world record snagged by Justin Hamlin on February 14, 2020 (Figure 7). The day of capture was a mandatory catch and release day, per Oklahoma fishing statutes, therefore a certified weight could not be legally obtained. This fish story of “the record that got away” due to a government bureaucracy was a media darling, as it was featured on multiple national news outlets (e.g. Fox News, USA Today). It is unknown whether this media attention resulted in enhanced fishing pressure (which seems unlikely, at least at first, due to the brewing global COVID-19 pandemic), but three other large Keystone Lake Paddlefish would soon follow over the span of months- Mefford’s state record, a 138 lb fish caught by Erick Hernandez (Figure 8), and Lukehart’s world record (Table 1).

DateWeight (lbs)Details
4-1-2003121.2*Snagged by Shane McCleary. Harvested.
4-10-2011125.4*Snagged by Aaron Stone. Harvested.
4-29-2018132.5*Snagged by Larry Morphew. Released.
12-6-2018135.0Netted by ODWC. Released. (Figure 9)
2-14-2020157 (not certified)Snagged by Justin Hamlin. Released.
5-23-2020143.0*Snagged by Jeremiah Mefford. Released.
6-20-2020138.0Snagged by Erick Hernandez. Harvested.
6-28-2020146.7*Snagged by James Lukehart. Released.
Table 1. Summary of large Paddlefish observed in Keystone Lake, Oklahoma and certified by ODWC. Asterisks(*) indicate current or former state records.

The ecology and productivity of Keystone Lake likely provides an environment for growing large Paddlefish (Paukert and Fisher 2001), however there is a genetic component. Kaw Lake (the Arkansas River reservoir immediately upstream of Keystone Lake) was stocked with Paddlefish for restoration in the early 1990’s (Scarnecchia et al. 2013; Schwemm et al. 2019). Several thousand of these stocked fish were sourced from Missouri River broodstock, resulting in a lasting introgression of alleles into the already-diverse genetic makeup of the Keystone Lake stock. In a statewide Paddlefish genetics assessment, ODWC found Keystone Lake to have the highest genetic diversity of any Oklahoma reservoir sampled (Figure 10). In fact, the diversity was higher than the mainstem Arkansas River, which is open to genetic contribution from migrants originating hundreds or thousands of kilometers downstream (Schwemm et al. 2019). Perhaps it is reasonable that the Missouri River influence on the genetic makeup of Keystone Lake Paddlefish contributes to larger size, especially when paired with high productivity (more zooplankton to eat), lower energy demands (calm reservoir vs flowing river), and lower stock density (fewer mouths to feed). [Related sidenote: Boldridge’s fish was Missouri River genetics too. And it lived in a pond with likely low energy demands, high productivity, and little competition… all factors similar to Keystone Lake.]

Figure 10. Structure plot from Oklahoma Paddlefish genetics analysis. Higher genetic diversity is symbolized by more colors within a single stock. Missouri River genetic influences on Kaw Lake are generally indicated by green, some of which has been integrated into the makeup of Keystone Lake Paddlefish.

These recent captures of exceptionally large Paddlefish from Keystone Lake highlight the potential of the stock to grow specimens of large size, but it also demonstrates the rapid evolution in snagging technique and technology with the advent of the Garmin® Panoptix Live ScopeTM sonar (www.Garmin.com). Traditionally, Paddlefish snagging was spatially and temporally limited- a springtime season on river banks during upstream spawning migrations. For those unaware, snag anglers would stand on the bank of a swollen river and cast across with a surf rod rigged with a heavy lead sinker and a large treble hook. The angler sweeps the rod back and forth, while reeling up slack on the return stroke. If the line or hook goes over the body of a Paddlefish in his/her way upstream, the hook is set and the battle begins. It’s a tiring sport to snag for hours. However, in the last decade, with the assistance of higher quality, boat-mounted sonar equipment, snag anglers have found fish in more places, deeper waters, and earlier in winter (i.e. pre-spawn, reservoir areas in November – February). Sweating on the banks while sweeping a rod has given way to sitting on a boat with a cold beer and letting the outboard drag the hook through the water in areas pre-identified via sonar to hold Paddlefish. Creative use of downriggers on the line allowed snag anglers to target fish in deep water many months before the spring spawning run.

The advent of Live ScopeTM affords the ability of an angler pursuing Paddlefish to identify through high definition sonar and actively pursue a Paddlefish of choice (generally larger individuals). The high resolution of the technology and the unique profile of this large species result in a high success rate with less uncertainty while fishing blind in turbid waters. Whereas traditional bank snagging was all about timing and a strong back, and boat trolling with downriggers is about picking the right spots and depth, fishing with Live ScopeTM is about absolute precision. The Oklahoma Paddlefish guide industry has responded in an effort to keep up with the latest technology. Oklahoma anglers report success with presenting jigs to crappies on brush piles using Live ScopeTM. Snagging a Paddlefish target which is orders of magnitude larger than a crappie likely just takes a bit of practice. My age doesn’t quite qualify me as a curmudgeon, but I can understand if some purists would liken it to more of a video game than fishing. Of course, like any technique, many hours of repetition are required for mastery. Therefore, it’s primarily fishing guides utilizing Live ScopeTM at this time, but with a proven track record boasting multiple giant fish (including the ”one that got away”, a state record, a near record, and a new world record), you could imagine that demand may be high. This ability to target a moving fish by “sight” in a deep reservoir any day of the year presents additional management challenges such as warm water temperatures and possible enhanced catch and release mortality. However, this sword has a second edge, because ODWC utilized Live ScopeTM to verify the disposition and immediate survival of several of these giant fish pictured here. It also aided ODWC in making an unfortunate decision to harvest one of the fish based on low probability of survival. 

Figure 11. Garmin® Panoptix Live ScopeTM sonar technology allows Paddlefish anglers to identify, pursue, and target large fish with precision, as pictured here with Lukehart’s world record fish.

The future of Paddlefish snagging in Oklahoma is uncertain. New technologies bring new challenges for sustainable harvest management and complicate the human dimension. With multiple huge fish snagged in a short span of months, one would expect there might be an even bigger one out there sporting some of those Missouri River genetics. At least that’s the suspicion of every would-be record holder looking at their calendar right now and hoping to book a guided trip on Keystone Lake. Perhaps the real Ol 198’er is out there lurking in the depths of Keystone Lake, waiting for a snagger worthy of greatness to weigh her properly on a certified scale.

Literature Cited

Gengerke, T. W. 1986. Distribution and Abundance of Paddlefish in the United States. Pages 22–35 in J. G. Dillard, L. K. Graham, and T. R. Russell, editors. The Paddlefish: Status, Management, and Propagation. North Central Division, American Fisheries Society, Special Publication No. 7.

Harlan, J. R., and E. B. Speaker. 1969. Iowa Fish and Fishing, 4th edition. Iowa Conservation Commission, Des Moines, Iowa, USA. 377 pages.

Harlan, J. R., E. B. Speaker, and J. Mayhew. 1987. Iowa Fish and Fishing. Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Des Moines, Iowa, USA. 323 pages. 

Mestl, G., R. N. Hupfeld, D. L. Scarnecchia, J. Sorensen, and A. R. Geik. 2019. Paddlefish Recreational Fisheries: State Management of a Migratory Fish with a Complex Identity. Pages 239–265 in J. D. Schooley and D. L. Scarnecchia, editors. Paddlefish: Ecological, Aquacultural, and Regulatory Challenges of managing a Global Resource. American Fisheries Society, Symposium 88, Bethesda, Maryland.

Nichols, J. T. 1916. A Large Polyodon from Iowa. Copeia 34:65.

Paukert, C. P., and W. L. Fisher. 2001. Characteristics of Paddlefish in a Southwestern U.S. Reservoir, with Comparisons of Lentic and Lotic Populations. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 130(4):634–643.

Ruelle, R., and P. L. Hudson. 1977. Paddlefish (Polyodon spathula): Growth and Food of Young of the Year and a Suggested Technique for Measuring Length. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 106(6):609–613.

Scarnecchia, D. L., B. D. Gordon, J. D. Schooley, and A. A. Nealis. 2013. A Comprehensive Plan for the Management of Paddlefish in Oklahoma. Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, Oklahoma City.

Schwemm, M. R., A. M. Asher, E. J. Heist, and T. F. Turner. 2019. Genetic Management of North American Paddlefish: Case Studies and Recommendations. Pages 29–48 in J. D. Schooley and D. L. Scarnecchia, editors. Paddlefish: Ecological, Aquacultural, and Regulatory Challenges of Managing a Global Resource. American Fisheries Society, Symposium 88, Bethesda, Maryland.

About the Author

Jason D. Schooley is a Senior Fisheries Biologist at Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation where he has managed and researched Paddlefish since 2010. When he’s not wrangling Paddlefish or snag anglers, he enjoys motorcycle adventures, enduro racing, hiking, paddling, and overlanding with his fiancé and their dogs.

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