(This video was originally broadcast on Iowa Outdoors, Episode 802, May 9, 2018.)

Angling in Iowa is a tradition dating back centuries as our state's rivers and lakes are habitat to a wide variety of species. Iowa's border rivers, the Missouri and the Mississippi are major water systems teaming with a cornucopia of angling opportunities.

Out west, the Iowa DNR has reopened fishing season for a mysterious species known for its prehistoric look, the long-snouted paddlefish.

Along the western rim of Iowa, at the doorstep of the Loess Hills, rests the Missouri River. Its channeled and controlled path meandering far less than its brethren, the Mississippi to the east.

But underwater, the Missouri is still home to many surprises, including a fish with ancient origins. It's a long-billed river species many Iowans have never seen with their own eyes. 

Ryan Hupfeld, Natural Resources Biologist, Iowa DNR: It's just a really cool experience. It's a super unique fish. They have been around for millions and millions of years. It's just a rare opportunity that you don't get to see everywhere in the state. 

For Ryan Hupfeld and Jon Christensen, both part of the Iowa DNR Fishery staff, the Missouri River is both an ecosystem and their job site. 

Jon Christensen, Natural Resources Technician, Iowa DNR: The habitat and everything on the Missouri has changed a lot from what it was historically so it's a challenging resource definitely to work on compared to some of the other resources in the state. It's very fast moving water so definitely you've got to respect that when you're out there working on it or any of our users in Iowa that are using the river, there's a danger there that you need to be aware of. 

In late winter and early spring, DNR Fishery's biologists navigate the river's eddies and bends in search of habitat brimming with paddlefish. The distinctive fish are known for their elongated snouts, long gill rakers and bodies resembling a shark. Their most common habitat in Iowa is along our state's major border rivers, the Mississippi and the Missouri. 

Hupfeld: It's a really unique looking fish, kind of a prehistoric fish. They have this rostrum that sticks out on the front and they actually have what they call ampullae of Lorenzini which help them track plankton, which is what they eat.

Christensen: The modifications on the gills are what they use to strain mostly plankton and other small aquatic invertebrates into their back of their mouth and that is mostly primarily what they feed on is plankton. 

Hupfeld: These little spots all the way up on their rostrum, that's what I was talking about what's called ampullae of Lorenzini. It's kind of a sensory organ for them I guess. Sharks have them. And it kind of just helps them detect the plankton so it allows them to be more of an efficient feeder. 

Hupfeld and Christensen set out a series of gill nets for quickly capturing any fish that comes in contact with the 50-foot lines. For our production crew, it was a well-rounded tour of fish along the Missouri River. 

Hupfeld: So this is a longnose gar. Crazy teeth on them there. They're kind of a pain to get out of the net too. Here's a common carp, a non-native species. 

Christensen: This is one of the smallmouth buffalo. This is a native fish. There's another species called the bigmouth buffalo but the smallmouth buffalo has been more prevalent. Their mouth points down. 

Christensen: Gill netting gives us an opportunity to catch these fish and monitor their health and see how they're utilizing some of these habitats on the river. 

Hupfeld: This is kind of a new invader, it's the bighead carp, very similar to the silver carp, which is the ones you see on TV jumping all the time. They have real fine gill rakers, just like a paddlefish. The silver carp's gill rakers actually look like a sponge so they're able to filter different sizes of plankton. 

Asian carp, like these temporarily captured by the Iowa DNR gill nets, are a relatively new concern for fisheries' biologists. Their voracious appetites can change water habitat and squeeze out other fish populations. It's just one of the many reasons Hupfeld and Christensen are monitoring native species like paddlefish through extensive banding and electronic tagging efforts. 

Hupfeld: Another kind of key characteristic is their tail, they have a heterocercal tail. There's actually really no bones in this fish but it is pretty solid and a hard structure and actually inside of these it's almost kind of a little jelly type structure and I think that's part of their sensory system that they use. 

Paddlefish with their grayish-blue exterior and unique snout line, slowly mature into adulthood over a six to seven year period. The state record still rests from 1981 when a 107-pound paddlefish was caught in these very same Missouri River waters near Onawa. That's nearly triple the size of some paddlefish caught on this gill netting expedition. But shortly after that state record fish was caught in 1981, an open fishing season on Missouri River paddlefish was shelved for nearly 30 years, when it reopened in 2015. 

Hupfeld: Anglers do really enjoy going after these fish and also harvesting the fish to eat them. They're very good fish to eat. 

DNR Fishery staff have carefully monitored interest in the late winter and early spring paddlefish season over the past three years as anglers, utilizing a snagging method, have harvested roughly 500 specimen. 

The main channel of the Missouri River is too rapid for snagging efforts. But anglers often find success in side pools or deep overwintering holes. It's where DNR Fishery staff direct their efforts as well. 

Hupfeld: We also take length and weight to look at new year classes coming in. 

Hupfeld: Or changes in relative weight. With the onset of Asian carp we're concerned about their relative weights and condition factors. And then also on the tagging fish looking at movements, individual growth rates and then potentially down the road you could get a population estimate. 

Hupfeld: It's an important species to protect and make sure it's sustainable for future generations to enjoy as well. 

Cruising along the Missouri River's border with Nebraska, deep piles of leftover sand and debris are still visible from the historic floods of 2011. 

While the record flooding event was disastrous for crop land and infrastructure, paddlefish were rejuvenated by additional spawning grounds. 

It's one of the many reasons the Iowa DNR continues to monitor fish populations, behavior and habitat along the river system best known as our state's western border. 

REAP
Gilchrist Foundation