By James “Doc” Geiger
We are constantly hearing about waste and mismanagement of tax dollars in our country (i.e. the Bridge to Nowhere). On the other hand, there is the Paddlefish Research and Processing Center located in Ottawa County. This brand new facility not only pays for itself, but also generates about $2 million a year in profit that is funneled back into the general fund of the Department of Wildlife Conservation.
You may be asking yourself what the Paddlefish RPC does and how it can generate $2 million in profit. The answer is by the sale of paddlefish eggs, or caviar – with the generous cooperation of the thousands of anglers who snag the paddlefish, and then donate the fish to the center for the extraction of eggs to make the caviar, which has a current market value of $168/pound.
This begs the question, what is a paddlefish, and where in Oklahoma waters can they be found?
Paddlefish, or Spoonbill, are a prehistoric fish related to the sturgeon, and can be traced back to the Jurassic period. They resemble sharks in that they are boneless, their skeleton composed primarily of cartilage. Because they have no scales, some people refer to them as “spoonbill catfish,” but the two species are not related. The paddlefish derives its name from a long, paddle-shaped snout or bill, which is longer than the rest of the head. They can grow up to 60 inches in length and weigh well over 100 pounds, and scientists believe they may live over 50 years. The largest recorded paddlefish was caught in the Atchison Watershed in Kansas, weighing in at 144 pounds. Kentucky boasts an unofficial catch of 206 pounds from Lake Cumberland.
Paddlefish can get to this amazing size by filtering one-celled plankton from the water in which they live through specialized gill rakers, similar to a basking shark. Because paddlefish grow so large, they have become a very popular game fish to target. They can’t be “tricked” using conventional fishing tactics since they don’t eat other fish. The only way to “hook up” with a paddlefish is by actually snagging or foul-hooking the fish with a giant treble hook (barbless).
In Oklahoma, Paddlefish are found in the Arkansas River and its tributaries, the Grand River system and the Neosho River. Every spring, there is a spawning migration of paddlefish out of Grand Lake up the Spring and Neosho Rivers. They are seeking 60-degree water with just the right flow in which to spawn, and they will continue to migrate upstream until their spawning requirements are met. In some years, this may mean swimming upstream into faraway Kansas!
Due to the sheer numbers of fish migrating out of Grand Lake and the access to the fish for bank and boat fishermen, the Neosho River is traditionally one of the best rivers in the entire Midwest in which to fish for paddlefish. Anglers from the Dakotas, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Kansas will spend their vacations in March and April pursuing these beasts. This two-month influx of outdoorsmen is a boon for the economy of the Miami area.
Now that we’ve discussed the paddlefish and the fishery in which it thrives, how did the Paddlefish Research and Processing Center come into being? The RPC is actually the brainchild of two individuals, Keith Green and Brent Gordon, who recognized the potential of this natural resource and fully dedicated themselves to its preservation.
Green, currently the program coordinator for the RPC, comes to this job with a nearly 30-year career in law enforcement as a Game Warden in Craig County. He dealt with the exploitation of this fishery by poachers who would pillage the Neosho River by hauling out hundreds of female paddlefish to sell for their precious caviar.
Gordon, the current fisheries supervisor, brought to the RPC his considerable expertise as a research fish biologist. His primary concern was for the ultimate health of the paddlefish population; planning how the fishery could be managed to be self-sustaining, and figuring out the point at which the resource would be over-fished.
Their collaboration led to RPC#1, a more-or-less temporary facility located just outside of Twin Bridges State Park. This operation was launched in 2008 on a very meager budget and became an immediate success. Although severely cramped for space – they operated out of mobile homes – they were able to carry out their mission, and the center was off and running.
Twin Bridges remained a viable site for three more years, until they were able to secure the land and build a permanent center on its present location. The new RPC is reached by taking Hwy 10 about three miles east of the Miami exit off the Will Rogers Turnpike, then Hwy 137, two miles south.
To say that the new Paddlefish Research and Processing Center is state of the art would be an understatement. With four years of experience in their first location, Green and Gordon were able to design this new facility with attention to every seemingly minute detail to create the perfect facility.
When an angler delivers a paddlefish to the center, it is immediately assigned a barcode number. The fish can then be followed and identified along each step in the process of cleaning the fish and stripping the eggs for the caviar. The reward for the fisherman is that the center will return to him a cleaned fish with bagged fillets in less than 15 minutes, no mess, no fuss.
Features have been designed to ensure the RPC is as user-friendly as possible for the paddlefisherman. The RPC team will even go to the trouble of sending a boat out on the Neosho River to pick up your Paddlefish and transport it back to the center for your convenience. They will also supply all the ice you need to get back home with your fillets.
Visitors are welcome to the Paddlefish Research and Processing Center anytime. The center is open five days a week – it is closed on Mondays and Fridays, which are “catch-and-release” fishing days. Do yourself a favor and drop by to see some Oklahoma caviar!
Miss Martha’s Fish Fry
- ½ c. Complete Buttermilk Pancake Mix
- ½ c. Kellog’s Corn Flake Crumbs
- ½ t. garlic salt
- ½ t. Cavender’s Greek Seasoning
- ½ t. Lemon Pepper
- ½ t. Tony Chachere’s Original Seasoning
- 1 egg
- ¼ c. milk
In a bowl with low sides, mix together dry ingredients and adjust seasonings to taste. In a separate bowl, add milk to egg and whisk until blended.
To fry fish:
Wash and pat fish dry. Dip into egg wash, then into dry mixture. Shake off extra, and carefully place into hot oil, making sure not to crowd pan. Sprinkle a little “Tony’s” while cooking for an added bite. Cook until brown and ENJOY!
Recipe courtesy of Martha Geiger.