Adult paddlefish landed in Monongahela River

Pittsburgh — Former walleye pro Keith Eshbaugh got an unexpected bonus fishing the Three Rivers near downtown Pittsburgh in early March.

In addition to catfish and walleyes, Eshbaugh, of Claysville, inadvertently snagged a 6-pound, 34-inch paddlefish. It was a rare catch, since paddlefish disappeared from western Pennsylvania a century ago, and reintroduction efforts by state wildlife biologists begun in the 1990s have so far yielded few results.

The Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission abandoned its stocking program in 2011, but maintains hope that some early stockies have remained in local pools of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers, or have traveled in from neighboring states, and may even have begun to reproduce.

With funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the commission continues to survey the Three Rivers for paddlefish in all their life stages. The most encouraging development so far was the fine-net capture of a larval paddlefish in the lower Allegheny in 2012.

On rare occasions, anglers report catching adults.

Eshbaugh snagged this year’s paddlefish in the same spot where he’d hooked one three years ago, in a 32-foot-deep hole on the Monongahela where a variety of fish stage in winter before heading upriver to spawn, he said.

“We were marking all kinds of fish on our depth-finder. There were so many, we could feel them bumping off our lures,” said Eshbaugh, who was vertical-jigging a Rapala off the bottom.

The day was mild and sunny and water was 39 degrees. A stiff breeze had put a little chop on the river. Fish were biting, so he thought he had a catfish when he felt a tug on his line.

“I’d just missed a fish, so I gave my lure a couple of reels. As it was coming up, something hit it. Whatever it was, it fought really hard,” Eshbaugh recalled. “When I got it out of the water, I saw it was a paddlefish I’d snagged in the tail.”

When Eshbaugh netted the fish, the hook came out, so he could release the fish after a quick photo without any handling.

“They’re such a neat fish to see,” he said. “If you took away the paddle, it would look like a shark, the way the eyes and mouth are set, and the tail.”

Paddlefish are planktivores, who use their elongated rostrums (beaks) to sense prey and to navigate through water.

Eshbaugh reported his catch to Rick Lorson, the biologist who heads the paddlefish program for the Fish & Boat Commission.

Any evidence of paddlefish is of interest to Lorson and generates guarded hope the species will one day re-establish itself. So far, there has been little to go on, although it takes paddlefish up to a decade to become sexually viable and they won’t spawn in years when water is too low and too cold, Lorson said.

“Look how long we’ve been working on our program. It just takes time.”

Because paddlefish can achieve lengths of 5 feet or more, the size of Eshbaugh’s fish suggests it could have been from one of the final stockings in the Ohio River, Lorson said.

It also could have come from West Virginia, since the Monongahela flows northward into Pennsylvania from that state, and West Virginia has reported success with its paddlefish restoration efforts.

There’s a good chance, too, that it entered Pennsylvania from New York through the Kinzua Dam on the Allegheny River, Lorson said. New York uses the Allegheny Reservoir as a nursery for paddlefish, and reports good survival and some natural reproduction. New York continued stocking as recently as last year.

While paddlefish could establish resident populations in the pools between locks and dams in the Three Rivers closer to Pittsburgh, Lorson said, some of Pennsylvania’s most promising paddlefish habitat may be the upper Allegheny, in the tailrace of the Kinzua, because the water is free-flowing and paddlefish move great distances to spawn.

They face obvious challenges where there are impediments. Locks and dams played a key role – along with water pollution from steel and coke plants – in the demise of paddlefish a century ago.

This year, with another round of federal funding, Lorson’s team will focus its paddlefish surveys in the tailrace of the Kinzua.

“Productivity in the upper Allegheny is higher than what we have here [in southwestern Pennsylvania],” he said. “If paddlefish keep coming in from New York, there’s a higher percent chance of paddlefish establishing a resident population there because there are no locks and dams.”

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