The area of the Missouri River in the vicinity of the Fred Robinson Bridge will be buzzing with activity come Friday.
Paddlefish season from Fort Peck Reservoir dam to Fort Benton opens on the Missouri River Friday and runs through June 15. It’s a time anglers look forward to.
“It’s once a year and there is a quota, so they all want to be there at the beginning, at the opening,” said Becki Kotecki, who along with her husband, Bill, owns the Bohemian Corner Store. “And once the quota is filled, they can do catch-and-release.”
The annual harvest quota in this stretch of water is 500 paddlefish. All days during the season are harvest days and catch-and-release days. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks will close the harvest season within 24 hours if the quota may be exceeded. Catch-and-release fishing would continue for the rest of the season.
A paddlefish hotline (406-464-2169) is available for anglers to check on harvest status and river conditions. Information on the harvest quota will also be updated on the Region 6 Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/MontanaFWP.R6.
Kotecki said she expects “lots of fishermen” to fill the banks of the river but said there is room for everyone as “the Breaks are a pretty big area. They shouldn’t have too difficult a time if they are willing to find a good spot.”
Cody Nagel, a fish biologist out of the Havre FWP office, said it could be a quick harvest season.
“It will be flow dependent. The river triggers those fish to migrate,” he said. “That is what triggers them to move upstream or downstream. It will probably be very similar to these past few years we’ve seen. The fish are there right now. Our crews were down tagging last week and they are in the river.
“Last year was the quickest closure we’ve ever seen. It is hard to say if that will happen again or not. It will depend on how many anglers are down there fishing the opening weekend and if the fish are accessing the river where the anglers are.”
Steve Dalbey, FWP Region 6 fisheries manager, said the water will be lower than it has been.
“Snowpack is well below average in the Missouri River headwaters this year, so flows will be lower than in the past,” he said in a press release. “Fish may be a little harder to locate, as the normally high runoff that triggers spawning runs will be substantially lower than in previous years.”
Those seeking the prehistoric fish will need a pole and reel specifically designed to handle paddlefish, which average between 55-65 inches according to the Montana Fishing Regulations. The state record is a 77-inch, 142.5-pound beast caught in the Missouri River by Larry Branstetter in May of 1973. The telling physical characteristic of the paddlefish is its long, flat rostrum (nose), which resembles a paddle. Nagel said those in the southern Midwest refer to paddlefish as a “spoonbill.”
An angler will also need a large treble hook (size is limited to 8/0 and smaller) to snag the paddlefish and a weight to carry the cast and sink the hook. Fishing for paddlefish can be a repeated workout of cast, retrieve and jerk, cast, retrieve and jerk, cast, retrieve and jerk, in hope of snagging one.
A special paddlefish tag is also required and anglers are limited to one paddlefish per season. Anglers must choose only one area to seek paddlefish and can only fish in the area selected. From Fort Peck Dam to Fort Benton, a white tag is needed. (See the regulations for specific paddlefish rules).
Paddlefish must be snagged because they won’t bite traditional presentations such as lures, live bait or cut bait. Paddlefish mainly feed on tiny animals called zooplankton. A paddlefish filter feeds, “swimming with their mouth open with tiny filaments inside their gills that catch the zooplankton and that’s what they eat and how they gather their food,” Nagel said.
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According to FWP, camping is available at the James Kipp Recreation Area south of Malta. The public boat ramp there is operational.
But it’s not just paddlefish that makes this section of the Missouri River a destination spot.
Marc Kloker, information and education program manager for FWP’s Region 6, was out in the field working in the Fred Robinson Bridge area last week and said he noticed quite a few boat fishermen out targeting walleye, sauger, northern pike and catfish.
Dave Snyder, owner of Lewistown Sports, said the fishing had been “really, really good this spring and getting better,” for catfish, walleye, sauger and shovelnose sturgeon. Snyder said the river hasn’t been too muddy and has been lower than normal for the time of year. He said the best bait has ranged from live minnows to dead minnows or crawlers and most anglers have been bank fishing with a sinker and hook setup. A few have been using jet boats and pulling crankbaits and finding some walleye.
“One thing people say is ‘You don’t know what you will catch,’ ” Snyder said. “There are so many species of fish there.”
Kotecki said overall, “it’s always good fishing (at Fred Robinson). Really, it just depends on what kind of fish you get at different times of the year.”
And as an added plus for the throng of paddlefish seekers, the mosquitoes aren’t a problem at this point in the season.
The paddlefish season on the Missouri River from Fort Peck Dam to the North Dakota line runs May 15 through June 30 and a yellow tag is required. Harvest days are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and there are no catch-and-release days.
The paddlefish season on the Yellowstone River also is May 15 through June 30 and anglers need a yellow tag. From the Bighorn River to Intake Dam and downstream of Intake Fishing Access Site to the North Dakota line, there are no catch-and-release days and fishing is open Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday to harvest. At Intake FAS, the catch and release days are Sunday, Monday and Thursday and the other four days of the week are harvest dates. On the Missouri River from Fort Peck Dam to the North Dakota line and on the Yellowstone River, the fishery is managed under a harvest quota in conjunction with North Dakota. The quota is 1,000 fish.
According to a release sent out by FWP’s Billings office, no changes are planned for the paddlefish season as a result of the January oil spill in the Yellowstone River. The spill was the result of a 12-inch diameter Bridger Pipeline break beneath the Yellowstone River six miles upstream of Glendive, dumping 30,000 gallons of oil into the water.
FWP biologists concluded that paddlefish spend a majority of the winter in Lake Sakakawea on the Missouri River in North Dakota and do not stage at the upstream end of the lake. Paddlefish start their migration toward the Yellowstone in early May. As a result, the thought is the Yellowstone River paddlefish were not directly exposed to the contamination.
In North Dakota, paddlefish snagging is open Friday through May 31 on the Yellowstone River and the Missouri River west of U.S. Highway 85 bridge to the Montana border, excluding the portion from the pipeline crossing downstream to the upper end of the Lewis and Clark WMA, according to the North Dakota Game and Fish website.
According to a post on ScenicSports.com, with low river levels action should be good and there could be a “quick fill of the quota,” which is 1,000 paddlefish. Scenic Sports is located in Williston, N.D., and its website offers fishing report updates.
Also in Montana, a blue paddlefish tag can be purchased for the Fort Peck Dredge Cuts for a bow and arrow harvest season July 1 through Aug. 31.