Up A River: Visiting Fisherman Surprised By Prehistoric Fish On The Trinity River

Published on Saturday, 21 June 2014 22:14 - Written by Steve Knight Outdoor Writer

Despite the idea of the world being a global village, the North American continent is not the same as South America, the European continent or Africa.

Sure there may be a Starbucks or McDonalds on corners worldwide, but you can’t expect to find a warthog outside of a zoo in the U.S. or a South American tapir in the countryside of France.

That would explain why Sam Brown of Houston was a little confused when he caught a monster paddlefish while fishing for alligator gar on the Trinity River below the Lake Livingston dam Memorial Day weekend.

Brown, an Englishman, is in the United States working. He often spends his weekends fishing for gar from the banks of the Brazos or Trinity rivers to escape Houston. That weekend he caught something out of this world, or at least out of the world for someone from the UK.

“I was actually fishing for alligator gar when I caught it. I set up a rod with a small float on trying to catch the longnose gar I kept seeing surface while I was waiting for the alligator gar on my other rods,” Brown explained in an e-mail exchange last week.

Fishing with shrimp as bait, Brown had already landed a pair of alligator gar when he noticed the longnose gar surfacing.

Brown is a relative newcomer to Texas fishing. His first stay in the states lasted two years, and it took him a year to land an alligator gar in part because of his lack of experience and being given a lot of misinformation. A trip with Trinity guide Kirk Kirkland set him off in the right direction.

Brown has been back in the U.S. eight weeks on his second stay, and is more confident in his skills.

Still he wasn’t expecting to catch a paddlefish, and actually may not have Paddlefish seldom take a baited hook, but are often caught by snagging one. That is probably what happened to Brown’s bait when he noticed it no longer floating and attempted to reel it in.

“I first thought the fish was an alligator gar as it was obviously a big fish. After having it on for about 30 minutes I saw the tail and body of the fish and thought it was a blue catfish, after around an hour I finally got it close to the bank and was shocked to see the bill of the paddlefish. Luckily I was able to beach the fish in shallow water,” Brown recalled.

Truthfully, however, when he first saw it he didn’t know it was a paddlefish because to that point he had never heard of or seen a paddlefish.

“I mainly fish in the European rivers in France, Holland and Spain when I am back home for wels catfish and northern pike. It’s a whole different world fishing over here in Texas,” Brown said.

Fortunately, Brown only takes a picture and then as always released his catch because paddlefish are a protected species in Texas. However, since he did immediately release the fish he didn’t get any measurements, other than to estimate it weighed about 75 pounds.

Once common in most East Texas river systems, wild populations of paddlefish began to suffer in the 20th Century and disappeared completely between the 1950s and 1970s.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department attempted to restock paddlefish in Texas rivers in the 1990s. While some remnants from those stockings still exist the lack of necessary water flow, the use of fingerling fish and a low survival or retention rate in the areas stocked, the department was not able to create viable reproducing populations.

It is likely that Brown’s fish was the result of one of those stocking efforts.

“The fish should be 15-24 years old based on the stockings in Lake Livingston from 1990-1999, according to our stocking records,” said Mark Webb, TPWD Fisheries district biologist from Snook.

That would not be surprising. Information on the fish says they are capable of living at least 30 years and up to a maximum of 50.

Although often called spoonbill catfish by fishermen, paddlefish are not related to catfish at all. They are most closely related to sturgeon.

Believed to be the oldest surviving animal species in North America with fossil records indicating they are at least 300 million years old, the fish declined during the era or reservoir construction in Texas. Paddlefish prefer deep, slow moving water in large rivers or reservoirs.

While to date there has been no evidence the stockings were successful in that they have resulted in natural reproduction, the chance is still there because the fish are there. Paddlefish have very specific habitat needs for reproduction, some of which have found to exist in portions of East Texas rivers, and females may not spawn but once every four to seven years.

“Paddlefish have been occasionally caught by TPWD management during gill net surveys and by Heart of Hills Research staff during alligator gar surveys below Livingston Dam. ​We also see paddlefish every year during our striped bass brood stock collections below Livingston Dam. In addition we get occasional reports of angler catches of paddlefish from Lake Livingston, usually on trotlines or jug lines,” Webb said, noting that is proof enough the stockings were somewhat successful.

Both TPWD and their counterparts in Louisiana have also stocked paddlefish in the Sabine River and there are occasionally reports of catches by fishermen from Longview to below Toledo Bend Reservoir. Like the stockings on the Trinity River those efforts aren’t believed to have resulted in reproduction either.

Working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, TPWD are hopeful a paddlefish restoration project on Big Cypress Bayou above Caddo Lake is more successful than the department’s attempts in the 1990s. The blueprint for this project could be used for renewed attempts on other rivers in the future if USFWS will continue to partner for the most part by providing larger fish for stocking.


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