Paddlefish season will return on May 15

Hunter Herbaugh
Thursday, March 4, 2021
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While it had to be cancelled last year due to COVID-19 restrictions, paddlefish season will be returning this spring, once again attracting anglers from all over. Though it had to take a year off, there won’t be any changes to this year’s season, according to Fish, Wildlife and Parks fish manager Mike Backes.

“We are planning on having a regular season,” he said.

The season is set to start on May 15 and end either when the harvest cap of 1,000 fish is nearly met or the end of June, whichever comes first. Though there was no season last year, Backes noted this does not mean there will be an increase to the harvest cap. He explained that doing that would require making a regulatory change, which he didn’t see as worth making just for one season, so the cap will remain the same as it has been.

“(The harvest cap) is part of annual fishing regulations and we share that population with North Dakota, so we coordinate with them. Through our coordination, we decided, well, there’s roughly 2,000 fish that weren’t harvested last year that are still out in the population but there’s no reason to change the fishing regulation in each state just to accommodate a one year change, so, yeah, it’s just a 1,000 fish harvest cap in both states,” Backes said.

He added that FWP will continue working with the local Chamber of Commerce to provide all the services they have been able to provide previously. According to Chamber president Denny Malone, that includes the return of the Chamber’s paddlefish caviar grant program, which is currently accepting applications. The grant is funded using proceeds from the sale of Yellowstone paddlefish caviar and can be used to support a number of projects throughout Eastern Montana. Once the season gets closer, Malone said the Chamber will begin looking for people to help with cutting and processing.

“We’re working with FWP right now to get through the reporting cycle and once we’re done with that we’ll be moving forward, looking for cutters and processors, so we still have to get into that,” he said.

Malone added that the Chamber will also be looking to reinstate the committee that oversees the caviar grant program. The program used to be overseen by a committee but was eventually dissolved and the task given to a single person.

The return of paddlefishing season also has local businesses feeling positive. According to Bob Buchholz, manager at Runnings, his store sells a lot of licenses during the season, meaning when it got called off last year it made the time of year just a little tougher than usual. With the season on track to return, he’s hopeful that will mean a return to normal for his business as well. Until then, he is hoping that the overall situation will keep improving so that there won’t be any more disruptions.

“Hopefully everything will improve until then,” he said.

Likewise, Ernie Huether, owner of Guns N Things, said he is also happy to see the season return. For the season, Huether stocks his store with weights made by himself and a handful of others, with the proceeds from the sales going to a local non-profit at the end of the season. In past years, the donations have gone towards the Boys’ and Girls’ Club but Huether said he is currently undecided which organizations the donations will go towards this year.

According to Huether, he has donated between roughly $975 to as much as around $2,000 each year so far.

He added that he has also never charged more than a dollar for each sinker, though the price will likely go up slightly this year as the cost of materials has increased, but noted that customers have come to his store from all sorts of places just because of his sinkers.

“We’ve got customers who come from out of state come here to buy their paddlefish sinkers because they know we’ve got better prices than anyone else around,” he said.

Backes also noted that a large portion of the harvested fish this year will likely consist of younger males, noting that in 2011, there was a substantial class of paddlefish born due to the water being higher than average. It takes approximately 10 years for male paddlefish to reach sexual maturity, meaning this is the year they will be going to spawn for the first time.

“That means 2021 will be their pinnacle year for recruitment into the spawning population, so we do expect a large number of those smaller males, because they’ll be young and ambitious and ready to roll, they’ll probably be in that 18 to 25 pound range. If the river conditions are right... we expect a high percent of the harvest to be those males,” he said.

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