Have you ever caught a “what-the-heck-is-that?” fish?
Some strange species are elusive loners. You never know what’s on the end of the line until the fish appears on the surface. Others make spawning runs that are “save the date” angling events due to their numbers.
Catching oddball fish is a fun diversion from committing to angling pressure for more popular species like largemouth bass. If you are up for a challenge, then give these weird fish a try. Some might be unknowingly lurking beneath your boat.
What the heck is it? An old fish. Fossil records of paddlefish date back more than 300-million years—nearly 50 million years before dinosaurs first appeared. Commonly called spoonbill and distinguished by a greatly elongated paddlelike snout. Bluish-gray to blackish on back, grading to white on belly. Snout on small individuals is more 1/3 of the fish’s total length. Mouth is large, lacks teeth (in adults) and is far back beneath the head. Eyes small, just above the front edge of the mouth and directed down and forward instead of to the side. Gill cover has a fleshy, pointed flap. Tail is forked, the upper lobe longer than the lower. No scales, except for a patch on the tail.
Home sweet home: Paddlefish live mostly in open waters of big rivers, swimming continuously near the surface, and likely don’t have a specific home range. As waters rise in spring, paddlefish move upstream to gravel bars to spawn. Because they need lots of open, free-flowing rivers plus oxbows and backwaters for feeding and gravel bars for spawning, paddlefish numbers have declined with stream channelization, levee construction and drainage of bottomlands. American paddlefish are native to the Mississippi River basin with the current range extending into Missouri River tributaries. You can find them in 22 states—mostly in the Midwest—and those populations are protected under state laws. In some areas, you can catch but not keep them.
How to catch it: Snagging with heavyweight tackle. Hardcore snaggers gear up with 8-foot snagging rods and baitcasters spooled with 100-pound braid. Weights from 6 to 10 ounces are tied on the line about 2 feet above a 10/0 treble hook. After casting, jerking and reeling continuously you’ll need a break. Set up below hydroelectric dams and hang on for the fight of your life. You can also troll for spoonbill in the headwaters of impoundments and rivers. Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks is considered a snagger’s haven, because you can do both techniques.
What the heck is it? A rare and endangered species. Lake sturgeon can live to be 150 years old and become mature at 15–20 years of age. They don’t spawn every year—females only spawn once every 3–5 years. Some states, like New York, are stocking the fish in attempts to prevent total extinction. These fish have thrived for 150 million years and have been brought to the brink of extinction in just the last century. Distinguished by a long, streamlined, shark-like body; long bony snout; rows of sharp, bony, armored plates. The sucker-type mouth is located under the long bony snout. Lake sturgeon have short, rounded snouts compared to those of other sturgeon species. Also, the four barbels dangling from in front of the mouth on a lake sturgeon are smooth and not fringed or serrated. Young lake sturgeon are mottled light and dark brown. Adults are solid dark brown or slate-colored with a white belly.
Home sweet home: An inhabitant of rivers, preferring firm, silt-free bottoms of sand, gravel and rock. The decline of this endangered species is being fought with several approaches: Protection from fishing, reestablishing self-sustaining populations, habitat improvement and river management to provide more of the areas these fish need to survive, artificial propagation, research and population monitoring, management and education.
How to catch it: Gear up with an 8-foot casting rod and baitcaster spooled with 50-pound braid. Add a stout leader and tie on 1/0 hooks. Add weight according to current speed. And bring along a large net. You can’t keep sturgeon, so snap a couple of hero shots and gently release the sturgeon back into the water. In some areas, sturgeon are making a comeback and it’s well worth it to catch a fish of a lifetime that grows to more than 100 pounds.
What the heck is it? Dogfish. Grinnel. Mudfish. The unflattering names befit an ugly fish with a toothy mouth, snakelike body and wicked stare. Noted by a stout, nearly cylindrical body. The dorsal fin extends more than half the length of the back and has more than 45 rays. The tail fin is rounded, with the hind part of the backbone curving into the upper part of the fin. The head lacks scales. Each nostril has a barbel-like flap. The fins lack spines. Upper parts are mottled olive-green, shading to pale green on the belly. The dorsal and tail fins are dark green with darker bands or bars. Young fish have a black spot near the upper part of the tail base; this spot can persist in adults.
Home sweet home: Occurs in a variety of habitats but tends to avoid those with swift current or excessively turbid waters. Think swampy backwaters with plenty of cover like lily pad fields and heavy vegetation. In the Mississippi Lowlands, it is found in a variety of habitats ranging from swamps to ditches to pools of sluggish streams. Along the Mississippi River, it is more often found in backwaters and oxbows than in the main channel.
How to catch it: They aren’t pretty but can sure bend a rod. Get armed for battle with stout bass rods and spool up a baitcaster with 50-pound braid. Tie on a stout circle hook, add a bobber and bait up with a piece of cut shad or bluegill. Focus your efforts on the edges of heavily vegetated backwaters that are nearest the main river or a deep channel running through a swamp.
What the heck is it? The American eel has a slender, snakelike body with a small pointed head. Its back and sides are brown or green, and the belly is yellow or white. The dorsal, tail and anal fins form a single, continuous fin. The eel’s body appears to be smooth because its scales are so small. The rapid serpentine movement and the smooth, slime-covered skin make the eel almost impossible to hold when captured, giving rise to the “slippery as an eel” saying. Eels are most active at night.
Home sweet home: The range of the American eel is widespread—36 states mainly east of the Mississippi River—with the greatest populations along the East Coast, Gulf states and Mississippi River basin. Eels are bottom dwellers and hide in burrows, snags, masses of plants and other types of sheltered habitat.
How to catch it: Why would you intentionally fish for a snake? For one, they fight like mad. For another, they make great bait for more desirable game fish like striped bass and cobia. Gear up with a spinning rig spooled with 10-pound line, a No. 4 to No. 2 treble hook and a couple of split shots. Hold your nose and bait up with stinkbait. Focus in the deepest laydown, snag infested holes off riverbanks or coves. High, muddy water periods are best during daytime. Nighttime is even better because they come out to feed.