The American paddlefish, or spoonbill as they’re often called, is quite similar to a shark in their body structure, with the exception of their long paddlelike snout and the fact that they don’t have large, flesh-ripping teeth, as paddlefish are filter feeders. The American paddlefish is the last living representative of their kind here on earth and they are often referred to as “swimming fossils,” as they go back to the days of the dinosaurs. Paddlefish have long been prized for their eggs which are used for making caviar. As an unfortunate result, illegal poaching and overharvesting have caused a significant decline in their populations over the years. More recently, the infestation of invasive species such as silver and bighead Asian carp and zebra mussels has also contributed to their decline, as these creatures deplete a great deal of plankton from the water, which paddlefish rely on as their primary food source. As a result of all these factors, fishing for paddlefish is now highly regulated in many areas and stocking programs are currently in operation to boost their populations for the future. Paddlefish farming is also now in place throughout the world, especially in countries that consume a great deal of caviar, such as Russia, and captive breeding programs also now exists in many other countries as well, all of which help to ensure that these fish will be around for the future.
Paddlefish have a lifespan of about 30 years, can grow to up to seven feet long and be quite heavy, with the current world record weighing in at 160 pounds. They’re found in large river systems such as the Mississippi and Missouri rivers as well as big lakes and impoundments where again, stocking efforts have increased their population to fishable numbers in many states. The large paddle-like snout of these fish acts sort of like a metal detector which they slowly wave around while they swim through the water. Instead of detecting metal though, their snout is actually an electrosensory organ that detects the subtle electric impulses of the plankton they feed on.
Since paddlefish are filter feeders, much like the silver and bighead Asian carp, they typically are not caught on traditional rod and reel fishing tackle such as lures or prepared bait. The most common way to catch them is by snagging methods. I did a video recently on snagging methods for catching Asian carp, and the technique is pretty much the exact same for paddlefish. You can watch that video here. This was my first ever paddlefish, and to tell you truth I wasn’t even fishing for them when I caught this one, as I was targeting Asian carp. I always wanted to catch one, however, as I’ve been very curious about how they taste, so this was the perfect opportunity to find out. As a side note, even though this was a legal catch in an area of Kentucky with good populations of paddlefish, I certainly want to be respectful of this limited resource, so I don’t plan on harvesting anymore in the near future.
Cleaning and Cooking Paddlefish
Again, paddlefish have a body structure similar to sharks, in that they have a cartilage skeletal system. I didn’t get any video footage of processing this paddlefish, but basically, you can either fillet them like any other fish or, as is quite common, you can yank out the long cartilage spinal column and then cut the whole body section of the fish into steaks. Either way, it’s important to trim away the dark-colored, strong-tasting flesh before cooking them as a first step.
I’ve often heard that paddlefish taste like pork, shrimp, chicken, or a combination of the three, so I was very curious how it was going to turn out. I didn’t do anything too fancy in regard to cooking my paddlefish. I simply marinated it in some teriyaki sauce for a few hours and grilled it over low, indirect heat, and added some cherry wood chips for some extra flavor. I have to say, it was really good! It definitely had a different texture and was much more firm and meaty as compared to other fish I’ve eaten, and it did sort of taste like a combination of pork and chicken, but it was quite delicious and was certainly a rare treat. Check out the video below to see more…