July 15, 2007
What the heck is that??!?
That's probably the most commonly heard question when asking someone if they've ever seen a Paddlefish. And, it's also the most common question one asks when they see a Paddlefish!
Let me begin by answering a few commonly asked questions.
What is a Paddlefish?
One of the oldest fishes, Paddlefish fossils date back to 300 to 400 million years ago. The first dinosaurs didn't appear for 50 million years later! There are two types of Paddlefish. The ones we have here in North America and the ones that are found in China. Living half a planet apart, they have quite different characteristics. Their snout, often called a rostrum, is the biggest difference between them. The North American Paddlefish have a long paddle-shaped rostrum, where the Chinese paddlefish have cone-shaped snouts.
Where might I see a Paddlefish?
Most frequently in rivers that are tributaries of the Mississippi River, and in the Mississippi River, itself. There are a few quarries where Paddlefish have been successfully transplanted.
Paddlefish seem to like deep, slow moving waters, as opposed to rapid currents. Paddlefish are quick to travel, as they have been seen in locations as much as 2000 miles apart!
How big does a Paddlefish get? And, how long do they live?
Paddlefish can grow in excess of 5 feet in length and can easily weigh up to 80 pounds and more. It has been my observation that they grow quickly. The Paddlefish that I am familiar with were anywhere for 7 - 12 inches in length last September, and are well over 24 inches in length now. I'm looking forward to watching them grow to adulthood! I read somewhere that the record Paddlefish was 198 pounds!
It's not unheard of for Paddlefish to live 50 years and longer.
What do Paddlefish eat?
They live off of a diet of zooplankton. They open their mouths wide as they swim through the water, collecting zooplankton as everything else is filtered out through their gills arches. Their gills filter the water with "gill rakers." It's an awesome sight to see these creatures swim quickly through the water gathering food!
Are Paddlefish related to sharks?
Even though there are similarities between sharks and Paddlefish, they are not closely related, if at all. Both have a skeleton made up primarily of cartilage. They both have forked tails with one half of their tail being larger than the other.
I have the good fortune of living within an hours drive of a quarry that stocks Paddlefish. As I mentioned earlier, these fish were acclimated to the quarry last September. Much research had to be done before the fish were released, and divers had to be made aware of their fragile state.
Paddlefish are shy fish. They avoid people and tend to hang out in the quarry where most divers don't go. Everything I've read has indicated they are deepwater fish and prefer dark, cold, still water, but I have been seeing them in the shallower part of the water table. We've even seen them while snorkeling! I must admit, we were snorkeling over the deepest part of the quarry, so don't go looking in shallow water for them!
I have asked the owners of the quarry if I can donate a book with the intent of having other divers help to identify each fish. I have noticed that some have distinctive markings, or scars, or nicks in their fins, and some even have different colorations. At least one even has a stubby rostrum! I'm not sure if each one is as individualized as some of the big critters we identify by their markings, like giant manta rays, but if they are, we will all learn from this experience.
I also wonder if they have any sort of long or short term memory. I have definitely seen the same one on more than one occasion over the past few weeks, and this past weekend it stayed close enough to me that I could have reached out and touched it at any given moment for more than a few minutes! I have three sections of video totalling over five minutes at VERY close range! I'm told this is rare, but I suppose I've always been called Dr. Doolittle, Jr. for a reason. ;-)